More with less: boosting yields with the System of Rice Intensification

Rice is a staple food for over three billion people worldwide. By 2050, it is predicted that there could be another billion rice eaters in Asia. For this reason, scientists are working to breed new varieties, which promise higher yields.
The traditional patent remedy in this area – greater output from higher inputs – was fundamentally questioned by a new method of cultivation developed in the early 1980s by French Jesuit priest and agronomist Henri de Laulanié. After many years of observation in field trials with small-scale rice farmers in Madagascar, he came up with the System of Rice Intensification (SRI); a system that requires less input but achieves greater output.

SRI breaks with all established rules of wet rice cultivation. Firstly, the seedlings are transplanted at the two-leaf stage (between 8 and 12 days old) instead of waiting for one month. Secondly, the single seedlings are planted with an increased spacing of around 25cm rather than planting them close together in bunches. With this method, seedlings do not compete for nutrients, space and sun, and develop stronger roots and more tillers. Thirdly, instead of continuously flooding fields to prevent weed growth, plants only receive the ideal amount of water and the soil is temporarily kept dry. This favours soil microbial development and reduces methane emissions. Since weed has to be controlled manually using a mechanical hand tool, the soil is well aerated, thereby improving plant growth. Finally, organic manure and compost is used for fertilisation. Thanks to SRI, farmers in Madagascar were able to increase their yields from an average of two tonnes of rice per hectare to eight tonnes, with only one tenth of the amount of seeds required.

Since 1997, Norman Uphoff and other scientists at Cornell University, New York, who had convinced themselves of the success of SRI in Madagascar, have been committed to spreading and documenting the method. With the support of NGOs and farmers’ organisations, farmers around the globe have adapted SRI principles to their climate zones and local conditions, and have often been rewarded with record yields. Switching to SRI requires a lot of courage, especially in areas where the survival of families depends on the rice harvest. The method requires a lot of work and knowledge, for example it is difficult for many small-scale farmers to irrigate the fields at the perfect moment. Nevertheless, 4 to 5 million farmers in over 50 countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America are now applying SRI. In China and India, authorities are already promoting the method.

“I think that SRI is something unprecedented, as very few previous innovations have shown such a huge productivity windfall. And just as surprising is the fact that we have been able to proceed on such an international scale with so little support and so much opposition”, says Uphoff. Opposition came primarily from the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines, one of the 15 CGIAR research centres. According to some scientists the method is too labour-intensive and the increase in yields is not sufficiently verified. Seed and agrochemical companies are also not supporters of a method, which lures away clients by reducing the need for seeds, fertiliser and pesticides.
But SRI is spreading rapidly: More than 300 scientific articles have been published on SRI and innovative farmers have extended the SRI principles to other crops such as maize, finger millet, mustard and eggplant, achieving stronger plants and higher yields: the System of Crop Intensification is here to stay.

SRI International Network and Resources Center

SRI Rice at Cornell University offers the most comprehensive collection of information on SRI

More Rice for People - More Water for the Planet

SRI publication by Africare, Oxfam and WWF

Save and Grow fact sheet

FAO Fact Sheet: A richer harvest from paddy fields

Donors

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