Smallholder farmers dramatically improve crop yields without expensive seeds and fertilizers
By Hellin Brink with photo by Elske Fliert
Photo description: A SRI farmer in the village of Dong Tru in Vietnam after the village was hit by a typhoon, holding up one SRI plant (left) and one conventionally grown plant (right) in front of the fields on which they were grown. Where the SRI field is significantly larger and still standing, the conventionally produced field is destroyed.
In 2012 Sumat Kumar, a smallholder farmer in the village of Darveshpura in Bihar, Northern India, caused a stir in global media and academic debate. Why? With one hectare of land and without the heavy conventional use of agrochemical inputs he managed to produce a whopping 22.4 tons of rice, breaking the world record and outperforming all of the largest GM companies and international research institutions. What’s more, additional farmers in the area reported significant increase in rice yields, and six months later two farmers in the village broke the world record for producing potatoes and the Indian record for producing wheat. How did they do it? The farmers themselves put the remarkable results down to the implementation of practices based on a method for production of rice called System of Rice Intensification or SRI.1
What is SRI?
SRI is a method for growing rice originally developed in the 1980’s by the Jesuit priest and agronomist Henri de Laulanie together with smallholder farmers in Madagascar,2 which since then has spread to farmers in a number of major rice producing countries such as India, China, Vietnam, Indonesia and Cambodia.3 Rather than a fixed set of steps that farmers across agro-climatic regions must follow, SRI is composed of a number of agroecological management practices and insights regarding soil, nutrients, plants and water, to be adapted by farmers according to local conditions.4
Adapting SRI as a method includes changing to a combination of the following key practices:
• Seedlings are transplanted at 8 to 12 days old, compared to the conventional seedling age of 3 to 4 weeks;
• Seedlings are transplanted on a shallow depth with roots pointing down, carefully and as fast as possible in order to avoid root damage;
• Plants are given wider spacing from 20 to 50 cm apart in a square pattern, with one plant per hill instead of clumps of 3 to 6, to provide space for roots to grow without competition for nutrients and water;
• Soil is kept moist, alternatively flooded and dried, but, unlike conventional practices, is not continuously flooded;
• Early and frequent weed control;
• Since organic matter not only feeds the plant but also the soil which in turn provides nutrient for the plant, as much organic matter as possible is added to the soil. Chemical fertilizers can be used but do not produce the best results.5
In essence, providing young plants with space in a nutrient rich living soil allows the seedling to grow undisturbed, developing bigger and deeper roots, stronger plants and larger yields.
Why is SRI relevant for resource poor farmers?
Many resource poor smallholder farmers in the global south has not benefitted from the conventional production methods developed through the intensification of agriculture known as the ‘Green Revolution’ (GR). Besides extensive evidence showing that GR technologies have caused widespread environmental damage with unintended side effects such as pollution and depleted soils,6 smallholder farmers have experienced problems with decreasing production levels, dependence on expensive inputs, debt and food insecurity.7 Instead, such input intensive production systems has favored land and cash rich farmers.8 As an alternative, SRI holds potential for all farmers, especially farmers with limited access to land and resources, for a number of reasons:
• Requires less water and seeds as fields are not kept flooded and seed rate is significantly lower compared to conventional methods; if conventional requires 100 kg of seeds per hectare, SRI requires approximately 7kg;9
• Does not require purchasing high yielding or improved rice varieties, good results can be achieved with most seeds. Farmers can use readily available local/traditional varieties suited to local conditions;
• Does not require agrochemicals, further reducing the need for external inputs;10
• Produces higher yields--scientific experiments11 and numerous farmer testimonies from several countries report that SRI repeatedly has proven to produce more tons of rice per hectare of land compared to conventional methods;12
• Greater pest and disease resistance;
• Crops better able to tolerate climatic variability such as droughts, temperature deviations and storms.13
In sum, because SRI results in healthier soil and plants, produces higher, more resilient yields and lowers production costs, farmer’s net profit, environmental benefits and economic security all improve. It is a proven “farmer-to-farmer” tool for food production and poverty alleviation.
A contested topic
Despite of, or rather due to, it’s remarkable results, there has been much disagreement among the scientific community regarding the merits of SRI. While proponents hold it as a revolution in rice production, providing a profitable, ecologically and economically sustainable, alternative to conventional GR methods,14 critics dispute the system and level of yields, putting the significant increases down to good agronomic practices also found in conventional production, or simple errors in measurement.15
At its core, the SRI debate appears to be characterized not solely by empirical observations, but by disagreements over appropriate scientific paradigms and disciplinary approaches.16 It is further noteworthy that many of the leading scholars raising critical voices against SRI are affiliated with large international organizations engaging in rice research. One example is the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), responsible for developing GR techniques for rice. IRRI actively pursues genetic engineering and advanced breeding of rice through various multimillion dollar investments such as the Golden Rice Project. Conversely, prominent SRI supporters are mainly located within the international development and applied science sector.17 Likely, vested industrial and financial interests behind GR research agendas is a major factor driving the desire to dismiss SRI.18
While there appears to be a lack of a full understanding of SRI and why it produces relatively higher yields, for now questions regarding the validity of results and methods might come down to what weighs the most--farmers’ experience and know-how or findings from laboratories and controlled scientific experiments. The criticism of SRI is characterized by an air of western and institutional arrogance. As stated by the local agronomist Anil Verma “if any scientist or a company came up with a technology that almost guaranteed a 50% increase in yields at no extra cost they would get a Nobel prize. But when young Biharian farmers do that they get nothing."19 Well, not exactly—they get criticized by Green Revolution science. When considering the potential of SRI, perhaps scientists should begin by acknowledging farmers’ practical knowledge and let the results speak for themselves.
For more in depth information about SRI read Farming Matters.
1 John Vidal, “India's rice revolution,” The Guardian February 16 2012
2 N. Uphoff. (2008). The System of Rice Intensification (SRI) as a System of Agricultural Innovation. Available at: http://www.future- agricultures.org/farmerfirst/files/T1c_Uphoff.pdf
3 i) D. Glover, “Science, practice and the System of Rice Intensification in Indian agriculture” Food Policy 36 (2011): 749–755. ii) L. Proyuth, S. Jensen, L.B.B Thilde; D. Rutz & A. Neergaard, “The System of Rice Intensification: Adapted practices, reported outcomes and their relevance in Cambodia” Agricultural Systems 113 (2012): 16–27
4 S.K. Sinha & J. Talati, “Productivity impacts of the system of rice intensification (SRI): A case study in West Bengal, India” Agricultural water management 87 (2007): 55
5 “System of Rice Intensification” last accessed March 18, 2013. http://sri.ciifad.cornell.edu/aboutsri/FAQs1.html#
6 P. Panneerselvam, J.E. Hermansen & N. Halberg, ”Food Security of Small Holding Farmers: Comparing Organic and Conventional Systems in India.” Journal of Sustainable Agriculture 35.1 (2012): 48-68
7 V. Novotny, X. Wang, A.J. Englande, D. Bedoya, L. Promakasikorn & R. Tirado, ”Comparative assessment of pollution by the useof industrial agricultural fertilizers in four rapidly developing Asian countries.” Environment, Development and Sustainability 12 (2010): 491–509
8 Sinha and Talati, 2007
9 E. Chris, “What is SRI?” Fields: the farmers handbook, ed. E. Chris & J. Jespersen (2001) available at: http://sri.ciifad.cornell.edu/countries/nepal/extmats/nepsrigpengex.pdf
10 “System of Rice Intensification” http://sri.ciifad.cornell.edu/aboutsri/FAQs.html
11 Sinha and Talati, 2007
12 “System of Rice Intensification” http://sri.ciifad.cornell.edu/aboutsri/FAQs.html
13 Uphoff, 2008
14 i) R.E. Namara, P. Weligamage & R Barker, R, Prospects for Adopting System of Rice Intensification in Sri Lanka: A Socioeconomic Assessment. Research Report 75. (International Water Management Institute, Colombo, Sri Lanka, 2003). ii) R.C. Lazaro, “Water-saving High-yielding TQPM and SRI Trial Runs and Demonstrations in the Magballo–Balicotoc– Canlamay Integrated Irrigation Sub-project” (report to National Irrigation Administration, Quezon City, from the Southern Philippines Irrigation Support Project 2004) Available at: http://ciifad.cornell.edu/sri/countries/philippines/philvisayas.pdf. iii) J. Anthofer, “The potential of the system of rice intensification (SRI) for poverty reduction in Cambodia” (paper presented in Conference on International Agricultural Research for Development, Deutscher Tropentag, Berlin, October 5–7, 2004)
15 i) A. Dobermann, “A critical assessment of the system of rice intensification”, Agricultural Systems 79.3 (2004): 261–281. i) J.E. Sheehy, T.R. Sinclair & K.G. Cassman, “Curiosities, nonsense, non-science and SRI”, Field Crops Research 91 (2005) 355–356. ii)T.R. Sinclair and K.G. Cassman, “Agronomic UFOs?” Field Crops Research 88 (2004): 9–10. iii) M.A. Latif, M.Y. Ali, M.R. Islam, M.A Badshah & M.S Hasan, “Evaluation of management principles and performance of the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) in Bangladesh” Field Crops Research 114 (2009): 255–262
16 i) D. Glover, “The System of Rice Intensification: Time for an empirical turn”, Journal of Life Sciences 57 (2010): 217–224. ii) D. Glover, “Science, practice and the System of Rice Intensification in Indian agriculture” Food Policy 36 (2011): 749–75 iii) N. Uphoff “Comment to ‘The System of Rice Intensification: Time for an empirical turn”, Journal of Life Sciences 59 (2011): 53-60
17 i) Glover, Science, practice. ii) N. Uphoff Comment to ‘The System of Rice Intensification
18 i) N. Uphoff Comment to ‘The System of Rice Intensification. ii) D. Glover, “Reply to Comment to: ‘The System of Rice Intensification: Time for an empirical turn” Journal of Life Sciences 59 (2012): 61–62
19 John Vidal , India’s rice rev.