Intensifying Rice: More Crop Per Drop, So Why Stop?

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Most of Asia’s rice paddies are smaller than an acre, and most people who tend to them use methods they learned as children. Thirty years ago, a Jesuit priest invented a way to increase rice yields over traditional methods while lowering the cost of production. Perhaps 5 million farmers now use the System of Rice Intensification (SRI), a change that has lifted thousands out of poverty and food insecurity. It all sounds great until you learn that there are about 162 million acres of rice fields on the planet. So, why isn’t SRI catching on faster?

This is the question that vexes the folks at Cornell University’s SRI International Network and Resources Center (SRI-Rice), one of several organizations devoted to spreading the use of SRI. One answer, they say, is that it’s hard to change cultural traditions. And making that change is even harder when it runs contrary to the strategic goals of international agribusiness.

“We’re swimming upstream against a 30-year tide that wants to privatize every aspect of agriculture,” says Dr. Norman Uphoff, a Cornell professor who has been promoting SRI since 2000. “SRI is free and open-source. It isn’t sold. So, we’re ignored or ridiculed by the corporations and their foundations, but nothing can change the fact that this works. Eventually they’ll come around.”

SRI’s skeptics have said claims of improved rice yields are not backed up by empirical research. One reason is that SRI is a grassroots movement: It was invented in a village in Madagascar and spread largely through word of mouth. But scientists affiliated with SRI-Rice have been collaborating for over a decade, and the results are accumulating.

Small rice farms in the lower Mekong River Basin (flowing through Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam) doubled their yields when they switched to SRI, according to a two-year study of 62 sites conducted by Abha Mishra of the Asian Institute of Technology near Bangkok, Thailand. Paddies that used some SRI techniques saw a 60 percent yield increase, she says. And because SRI uses fewer seedlings, less water and homemade organic fertilizer, the cost of labor and materials is lower.

SRI improves the lives of village women to whom farming is just one thing on a very long to-do list, says Mishra. It should also become more attractive to bigger farms as the cost of water, seeds and materials increases.

Getting the rice from small, diverse growers to urban consumers has been another obstacle. But that is also changing as socially responsible businesses step in to develop supply chains. Lotus Foods now sells four varieties of SRI rice under the slogan, “more crop per drop — water smart and women strong.”

Image credit: Flickr/Roberto Foccenda

Brad Edmondson

Brad Edmondson is an award-winning writer and presenter who explains social change and how it happens. www.bradedmondson.com.

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