Producing more with less through rice intensification method: Is it a revolution or an illusion?

Published on Thursday, 28 February 2013

Published by Takashi Matsuo on Thursday, 28 February 2013

An Indonesian field extension worker compares rice yields using the system of rice intensification. Photo credit: Shuichi Sato
An Indonesian field extension worker compares rice yields using the system of rice intensification. Photo credit: Shuichi Sato

I recently received two e-mails that piqued my interest anew about the expanding system of rice intensification (SRI) in India. One is a newspaper article about the “new green grassroots revolution” in Bihar, India’s poorest state, and the other is a set of charts showing the impacts of an ADB-financed irrigation project in Chhattisgarh. 

SRI is a farming practice developed 30 years ago in Madagascar by French Jesuit priest Henri de Laulanié. SRI has been adopted in over 40 countries, mainly in Asia, and is spreading quickly in Cambodia, India, and Indonesia. It consists of a combination of practices for managing plants, soil, water, and nutrients, which is expected to bring higher yields with less seeds and external inputs such as fertilizer and water. 

I wasn’t aware of SRI until late 2011 when my Japanese friends who run the Japan SRI Association published a book about it. I contacted them, and they referred me to Prof. Norman Uphoff and his Cornell fellows who are leading advocates. Our e-mail conversations quickly spread, and I learned more from research papers, case study reports, and media articles. My ADB colleagues were not far behind. ADB supported SRI under the Northern Community-Managed Irrigation Sector Project in Laos in the late 2000s. The World Bank also issued a multimedia toolkit on this new way of rice cultivation.

What especially interested me are the debates over the effectiveness of SRI. Is it a revolution or an illusion? There seems to be general reluctance among crop scientists to accept SRI as a new rice cultivation method. While proponents claim that SRI will revolutionize the method of rice production and potentially resolve the global food crisis, others see it as a fad. 

Opponents claim that the reports on SRI effects are generally anecdotal in nature or limited to experimental and demonstration activities. The criticisms center on: the statistical methods for comparing yield differences; the scientific basis of yield increase; the applicability to broader areas; and acceptability by farmers due to heavy labor requirements for weeding and harvesting. 

In my view, two factors may also be affecting the sentiment of crop scientists—the somewhat loose definition of SRI (there exist many different versions of SRI in different environments and even for different crops), and the fact that SRI was invented by a Christian priest and advocated by a political science professor. 

I believe that such debates are healthy and useful for constructing the scientific basis of a new technology and for the development of pragmatic farming methods. Meantime, we shouldn’t ignore the fact that SRI is spreading more widely, and that the speed of its use varies by country. 

In South Asia, SRI is expanding very fast in India, especially in Bihar, Orissa, and Tamil Nadu, with the support of the government. In contrast, its expansion is much slower in Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. There have been some experimental trials in these countries, but they are not yet widely supported and replicated. In Bangladesh, alternate wetting and drying irrigation, which is seen as a water management method under SRI, has been promoted but not other aspects of SRI. 

I believe that ADB should support more SRI experimental trials and facilitate knowledge sharing, especially between “advanced” countries such as India and “lagged” countries such as Nepal. South Asia hosts two-thirds of the world’s starving populations—what has it got to lose? Low agriculture productivity remains a key problem all across Asia that should be overcome with new green solutions to address food security and rural poverty issues.