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SRI: A Profitable Path to Independence from Pesticides and GMO Rice Seeds

| Wednesday March 25th, 2009 | 4 Comments

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Rice. It’s a staple crop for much of the world. And it uses a lot of water and pesticides to grow it. Not good in a world where water is likely to become an increasingly scarce resource. One supposed solution are proprietary high yield breeds, but that requires repeated purchase from the same company, say, Monsanto. Lotus Foods has another idea.
SRI, or System of Rice Intensification takes a different route than the typical method of rice cultivation – Instead of transplanting 3-6 week old seedlings, planting them close together, and flooding the field with water, they use much younger seedlings, less then 2 weeks old, and plant them farther apart. They need not remain submerged, only requiring periodic irrigation and then left to dry out. Organic fertilizers can replace the typical chemical ones, and there’s no need for pesticides.
In results that are sure to irk the Monsantos of the world, this method can increase yields by 50-100%, decrease water use by 25-50%, requiring 80-90% less seed, with less work to cultivate. Numbers that are sure to be attractive to just about any farmer.


According to Lotus Foods,

Nearly a third of the world’s population depends upon rice for their subsistence and livelihoods, and rice production has to increase by 30-40% percent over the next 25 years. With diminishing land and water, SRI represents a significant innovation to meet these needs.

SRI was created by Cornell University, which introduced Lotus Foods to it in 2005. It was a natural fit for a company which specifically sought out small farmers around the globe growing traditional, heirloom, lesser known rice varieties, grown sustainably and paid fair trade prices for it.
Of particular interest is this paragraph on the SRI website:

SRI does not require the purchase of new seeds or the use of new high-yielding varieties. Although the highest yields with SRI have been obtained from improved varieties, most traditional or local varieties of rice respond well to SRI practices and command a higher market price. And while chemical fertilizer and agrochemicals can be applied with SRI, their use is not required as organic materials (compost, manure or any decomposed vegetation) can give good or even better results at low cost. Farmers report that when SRI methods are used correctly, rice plants are better able to resist damage from pests and diseases, reducing or eliminating need for agrochemical protection.

As Lotus Foods puts it, SRI:

…is an ecologically sound method of rice production that helps resource-limited farmers in Asia, Africa and Latin America to improve their yields, health, livelihoods and environment while producing better quality and more nutritious rice.

Lotus Foods is currently the main producer of SRI grown rice for sale in the US. Here’s hoping the idea catches on broadly, a benefit to the farmers that grow it, the soil it’s grown in, and the people eating it. Even better, the SRI method is being ported to other crops like millet, wheat and sugar cane.

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Readers: What sustainable agricultural innovations are you seeing that we should know about?
Paul Smith is a sustainable business innovator, the founder of GreenSmith Consulting, and has an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio School of Management in San Francisco. He creates interest in, conversations around, and business for green (and greening) companies, via social media. Who he has and wants to work with includes consumer, media, clean tech, NGOs, social ventures, and museums.


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  1. March 25, 2009 at 12:28 pm PDT | Sarah Lozanova writes:

    Sometimes the greatest innovations are overlooked when they don’t make big companies rich. I hope this catches on. It is certainly good for the triple bottom line for many.

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  2. March 25, 2009 at 15:24 pm PDT | Paul Smith writes:

    Agreed. It’s the parallel to pharmaceutical companies seeking to make patentable and profitable what plants and other natural sources can do, but are not patentable.

    Reply Or REGISTER HERE if you are new.

  3. March 29, 2009 at 12:11 pm PDT | Norman Uphoff writes:

    We appreciate the attention given to SRI in this blog report, but we would like to correct immediately the crediting of SRI to being ‘invented’ by Cornell University researchers.
    SRI methods were assembled/synthesized by Fr. Henri de Laulanie in the 1980s after about two decades of observation, experimentation and work with farmers in Madagascar. I learned about SRI in 1993 from the NGO Association Tefy Saina while I was director of the Cornell International Institute for Food, Agriculture and Development (CIIFAD), which Fr. de Laulaunie and a number of his Malagasy friends and associates set up in 1990.
    CIIFAD began working with Tefy Saina leaders and staff in 1994 to introduce SRI methods to farmers cultivating in the peripheral zone around Ranomafana National Park under a USAID-funded project, but we did not believe/accept the methods for three years, needing to see whether something that sounded ‘too good to be true’ was indeed valid. After the farmers who used these methods averaged 8 tons/hectare for three years, on soils where previously they averaged 2 tons, CIIFAD began trying to get the methods evaluated in other countries. It took two years to get such trials going, in China and Indonesia, but after these evaluations confirmed the merits of SRI practices, CIIFAD began trying to spread knowledge of the new methodology, in cooperation with Association Tefy Saina.
    The SRI website that CIIFAD maintains for the worldwide network of SRI colleagues (http://ciifad.cornell.edu/sri/) is in association with Tefy Saina. Cornell faculty want credit to be given where it belongs, in this case with some remarkable persons in Madagascar.
    Sadly, Fr. de Laulanie passed away in 1995 after devoting 34 years of his life (almost half of his lifetime) to improving the situation and prospects of rural people in his adopted country, Madagascar. His Tefy Saina colleagues in that country continue to bring his innovation to others and to work with CIIFAD and others in making SRI available around the world.
    The past president and secretary of Tefy Saina in 2006 were brought to Rwanda by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) to train farmers in that country under an IFAD project. In 2008, over 2,000 farmers were practicing SRI and their yields averaged 6-7 tons/hectare where before they got only 4 tons.
    The validity of SRI practices has now been seen in 36 countries, Ghana being the most recent to join ‘the SRI club.’ Countries as diverse as Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Bhutan are making good use of the methods as can be seen from the SRI website (address given above).
    Norman Uphoff
    Program Leader, Sustainable Rice Systems
    CIIFAD, Cornell University

    Reply Or REGISTER HERE if you are new.

  4. March 30, 2009 at 12:42 pm PDT | Paul Smith writes:

    Ah, thanks very much for that thorough correction/background on where it came from, and what’s going on. My mistaken, apologies. That is very encouraging to hear it so thoroughly shown to work so well.

    Reply Or REGISTER HERE if you are new.

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