By Bunmi Ajilore.
Nalanda district, an agricultural village in Bihar, India’s poorest state, was until recent times
a placid, quiet village with no electricity and a place where farmers still favour animal power
for ploughing and their (the animals) dung for cooking. Before now, it was probably only
known to produce buyers, extension agents and development workers.
All that has changed now, and at the heart of this change is a string of “miracle harvests”
that have broken world yield records, generated a lot of debate, and have brought many
development groups, other farmers, politicians, scientists and researchers – including the
Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz – to their doorstep not only to investigate and
verify their claims but to learn from them.
Sumant Kumar – the lead record breaker – and his friends/co-farmers are rice farmers used to
(and content with) a yield of 4-5 tonnes per hectare on their fields (paddies) until their recent
harvest. With heavier stalks and bigger grains, Sumant’s paddy yielded not ten or 15 or even
20 but 22.4 tonnes on one hectare of land using only farmyard manure and no herbicide; a
record yield that surpassed the 19.4 tonnes of the much-acclaimed “father of rice”, Chinese
agricultural scientist Yuan Longpin, and better that of the International Rice Research
Institute scientists and the big GM seed companies as reported by the Guardian UK.
And the pivot on which this success rests, is a somewhat controversial and widely debated
system of farming called the System of Root (or Rice) Intensification (SRI). The SRI, a
system pioneered by Henri de Laulanie, a French Jesuit father and agronomist, in Madagascar
in the early 1980s and made popular by Prof Norman Uphoff of Cornell University in the
1990s is a production method centred on increasing the yield of irrigated rice production
(now used for rain-fed too) without relying on purchased inputs or with minimum inputs.
It involves the individual (one per hill) transplanting of rice seedlings of 8-12 days old to
the field in a grid pattern of 25cm×25cm to reduce competition and provide more room for
root and tiller growth, and an application of a minimum quantity of water thereby leaving the
field moist but well drained. Organic amendment e.g. compost or farmyard manure is used to
augment the soil nutrient. This contrasts the traditional methods of transplanting 3-4 plants
together and keeping the paddy continuously flooded. Although, this means that more energy
is expended on weed control.
This is a method whose proponents believe “increases yield, saves water, reduces production
costs and increases income”. Additional advantage is that of healthier soils. The arch-
proponent, Prof Uphoff, in a paper states that SRI “can raise irrigated rice yields to
about double the present world average without relying on external inputs, also offering
environmental and equity benefits”. This is a message that has not only been well accepted
by farmers (and extension workers especially in Bihar India) but has also resonated well
with the advocates of sustainable intensification, agroecology, conservation agriculture
and environmental groups concerned about the impact of agriculture and its inputs (mainly
chemical) on the environment; and the spill-over effect has been observed in its (SRI)
adoption for other crops like wheat, millet, sugarcane, even vegetables.
Rice, being a staple food that constitutes a major part of the diet of the people of many
African countries, is widely grown in Africa. Still, except in some few African countries with
self-sufficient production, demand generally outstrips supply, thus lots of tonnes are being
imported yearly to fill the gap. Some of the reasons often cited by researchers for this are low
yield compared to world average, rudimentary forms of production and high cost of inputs.
Compared to the world average of 4 tonnes per hectare, Africa has an average yield of a
little over 2 tonnes per hectare. Also, many of the farmers follow the traditional management
practices used the world over but often lack the necessary inputs and equipment to achieve
the average world yield per hectare. For instance, according to the FAO 2011 production
statistics, Nigeria produced an average of 4.5 million tonnes of rice having the third highest
overall production in Africa behind only Egypt and Madagascar in that order; whereas in
2009 alone it consumed 4.8 million tonnes and the consumption is rising.
Thus, SRI, apart from its much touted ability to give significantly increased yield, is suitable
for resource poor African farmers because of its reduced cost of production. Its use of
minimum water, non-use of other external inputs, especially fertilizer and other chemical
inputs, and the improvement of soil health through the use of organic amendments make
it economically rewarding, environmentally sound and sustainable. Already, SRI is being
used by farmers in Mali, Madagascar, and to a lesser extent in Nigeria (trials) and other
African countries. In one report, a Lagos farmer who adopted it saw his yield increase from
an average of 0.8-1.0 tonne/ha to 3.8 tonne/ha, an increase of about 400 percent.
However, this method is not without its critics and not everyone agrees with the vaunted
results and its processes. While some suggest that the success is unique to soil conditions,
especially the Madagascan soil, others believe that the claims of higher yields are due to
unscientific evaluations and the definition of the SRI itself is a really vague target, thus
difficult to evaluate. Some believe it is a laborious method and the labour used in individual
planting and weed control will limit its use to small scale farmers and make it unsuitable for
big paddies. Still, others’ main grouse is that of the paucity of details on the methodology
used in trials, and the dearth of peer-reviewed publications on its successes.
Though, it must be said in its defence that, there is an expanding collection of easily accessed
scientific publications on SRI, with well over 250 articles available, and one quality that
makes a new method easily adoptable – or adopted by farmers – is its flexibility, a strong
point of the SRI which could be responsible for the “unscientific evaluations and vague
definitions” criticisms. Also, as reported by the Guardian UK, farmers with up to 15 hectares
of land in Bihar have used the method with success and claimed that the labour is only
more intensive for first-timers. Lastly, the yields of those farmers in Bihar and elsewhere
have shown that the successes of SRI are not localised and not so dependent on unique soil
conditions but on the novel management practices it espouses.
Bunmi Ajilore is an eco-toxicologist/environmental biologist with a background in agriculture. He is currently a doctoral scholar with a passion for the environment and agriculture, especially the complex interaction between the two. He likes writing, exchanging ideas and debating issues with friends in his spare time. He can be reached on Twitter at @bunmyajilore and by e-mail at email@example.com.