Transforming the way the world’s largest food crop is grown has become Cornell University professor Norman Uphoff’s lifework, but success means convincing others it’s better than industrial agriculture.
Before Uphoff came along, few outside the tiny island nation of Madagascar knew of the rice growing method that has become a lifeline to millions of poor rice farmers in over 50 countries.
While working to protect the rainforest in Madagascar’s Ranomafana National Park, Uphoff realized that farmers would slash and burn the forests if they did not have a way to improve the productivity of their rice fields and thus feed their families.
The usual approach would have been to source hybrid seeds and fertilizers, and a prescription of pesticide and herbicide management for the farmers. This is what the Green Revolution of the 1960s and 70s brought as a solution, and despite its failings, it is still the dominant approach.
It must have been serendipity then that took Uphoff to a Malagasy NGO founded by Jesuit priest and agronomist Father Henri de Laulanié.
The NGO was promoting the System of Rice Intensification (SRI), a farming method that did not need any expensive inputs, such as new seed varieties, fertilizers, or added irrigation. And it had an incredible track record of increasing yields—more than 50 percent on average—with 30–50 percent less water, and up to 90 percent fewer seeds.
Uphoff would eventually learn it, document it, and champion its spread around the world. Yet despite SRI’s success with farmers, Uphoff has been dismissed by researchers, would-be funders, and international institutions that claim these benefits cannot be verified by science.
Uphoff’s journey started in 1994, when workers at the Malagasy NGO told him they could quadruple farmers’ yields by changing how the soil is managed, how the fields are planted, and how the plants are cared for.
They would plant tiny, single rice seedlings on a grid pattern, instead of clumps of older seedlings in a haphazard pattern. They would fortify the soil with compost to provide nutrients and improve soil structure, and they would refrain from continuously flooding fields (which has been the norm for hundreds of years), instead alternating between wetting and drying to give the roots a chance to breath and assimilate nutrients.
All of this was completely unintuitive, Uphoff explained in a recent interview. Before treatment, Malagasy soils were some of worst, according to his tests.
He had told the NGO: “Let’s not talk about numbers too high. Nobody is going to believe that.”
It took three years of successful crop yields before the social scientist was convinced he had verified SRI’s miraculous results—”piece by piece by piece, we put the puzzle together,” he said—and he set off to tell others what he had learned.
Criticism and Downright Hostility
To Uphoff’s surprise, the scientific community reacted to SRI’s success with “a lack of enthusiasm and interest, or even downright hostility,” especially at the beginning. The incredible productivity gains were met with open skepticism.
Over the years, Uphoff has consulted for or met with organizations including the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) about SRI, and has been frustrated by the lack of inclusion and follow-up by those in positions to push SRI forward.
“They all tiptoe lightly because they all want to be scientific. Our views are considered heterodox,” said Uphoff.
Uphoff and his wife have donated about $1 million of their own money to support SRI at Cornell, and the 75-year-old has been wondering for some time what will happen when he can no longer do the work.
Hundreds of scientific papers have been published about SRI’s efficacy over the last two decades, but it has been difficult for advocates to attract donors and institutional support, such as from the United Nations System, USAID, or the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI).
IRRI is the largest global player in the advancement of rice research. Its $100 million budget is funded by diverse donors, including national governments, international organizations, universities, private sector interests, and philanthropic foundations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
The global rice research consortium’s mandate is far-reaching, and it has taken a two-fold approach to improving productivity: genetic improvement of rice seed varieties, and agroecological farming approaches.
Agroecology is an alternative approach to farming that focuses on how to improve soil health and best strengthen nature’s own defenses against pests and disease.
SRI is an agroecological approach, but IRRI does not support it.
Bas Bouman, IRRI’s director of the Global Rice Science Partnership (GRiSP), does not recommend SRI to farmers, because he says his organization has tested it against current best practices, and “it isn’t actually agronomically anything superior.”
Bouman also said he has observed that SRI means different things in different parts of the world. Since there is no set definition of the method, it is difficult to scientifically evaluate it, he said.
The Big Rice Slowdown
Rice is a staple for nearly half of the world’s people, according to IRRI, and demand for the nourishing carbohydrate is rising with population growth, particularly in the rice-producing regions of Asia and, to a lesser extent, Africa.
IRRI estimates that an increase of 63 million tons (13 percent) over the current total production of 480 million tons of milled rice will be needed by 2030 to meet growing demand.
However, there is a serious obstacle to meeting this projection. Rice yield growth—which had been steady at 1.74 percent from 1961 to 2010—has now slowed, and in some areas it has even declined.
It has also been observed that higher amounts of chemical inputs are now needed to obtain the same yields, according to Ricepedia, an online publication by the IRRI-affiliated GRiSP.
“There is also concern that pest and disease resistance to modern pesticides now slows yield growth, and that breeders have largely exploited the yield potential of major Green Revolution crops,” states Ricepedia’s website.
Global research scientists and policymakers also understand that we need to reduce land use, water use, and the environmental footprint of rice growing if we are going to meet the food security challenges of the 21st century.
“The real threat from our ability to feed populations is not low productivity; the real issue is how to do this without destroying the natural resource base that we depend on,” said Olivier De Schutter, former U.N. special rapporteur on the right to food, who supports agroecological solutions like SRI.
Excessive chemical use over the last 50 years of industrial agriculture has polluted waterways and killed beneficial insects. Poor irrigation practices have led to dangerous levels of acidic salt buildup in some areas.
Rice production in particular accounts for 24 to 30 percent of the world’s total freshwater use, and the anaerobic conditions in flooded rice fields are a major contributor of methane greenhouse gases.
Going forward, if we fail to take into account the environmental and sustainability impact of farming, experts predict that food shortages and subsequent price increases could not only lead to hunger, but to destabilized global economies, igniting civil unrest and new wars.
Bring People Along
Fortunately, SRI is so effective, and the impetus to make food security work is so strong, that the system has prevailed over all sorts of objections during its spread to village after village around the globe.
It is mainly farmers on the ground, local researchers, and local and state governments that have provided the support. In rare cases, SRI has had a powerful backer.
Simeon Ehui, manager of the World Bank Agriculture Global Practice, has supported institutional funding for a 13-country West Africa project to teach and promote SRI. The project is one of just two institutionally supported SRI projects.
Ehui’s support shows he is willing to see past criticisms like Bouman’s, if the methods can help farmers and the environment. And he said his client countries do want help with such approaches.
“While the effectiveness of SRI is hotly debated, we are taking a pragmatic approach, and will support the scaling-up of technologies that are proven on the ground and help meet poverty-reduction targets,” Ehui said in an email.
Erika Styger is the associate director of Cornell’s SRI-Rice, a center devoted to advancing the use of SRI, and is the Cornell coordinator of the West Africa project.
In an interview, Styger describes the types of challenges she has faced gaining acceptance on the ground for SRI in West Africa.
One day, she visited the man in charge of rice in Liberia to see how his SRI trials were going. He told her that initially the researchers did not want to run the trials because SRI was controversial and some other donor was helping them.
Fortunately, the man still allowed field technicians to run the trials. When Styger met them at the test paddies tucked away in a corner of the fields, the technicians were “proud and happy with the results” and told her, “No matter what anybody says, we will go ahead.”
Styger said there are many financial incentives involved with industrial agriculture that SRI does not offer, but “once you have the proof in the field, and you bring along the people who make the decisions, it will happen.”
Resisting the Easy Fix
U.N. Special Rapporteur De Schutter said agroecological approaches are often misunderstood, dismissed, and considered to be not up to the challenge of feeding the world.
He said the second Green Revolution some people talk about, which is based on genetic modification and engineered seeds, paired with chemical fertilizers and enhanced irrigation, would be an “easy fix,” pushed by the fear that agroecology could not produce enough food.
De Schutter explains that the industrial system assigns value only to the commodity crop and ignores everything else. Using this logic, agroecology tends to be viewed as ineffective or difficult to measure.
It is by deliberate design that agroecology involves a diverse systems approach and creative thinking.
Each item—crop, organic matter, microbe, or animal—that is produced adds value to the system. An item can be edible, or it can be used to further the productivity and health of the system. With SRI, for example, rice stalks can be recycled as compost to improve soil quality.
In a report, IRRI acknowledges that measuring the results of its own agroecological approaches is a challenge.
It states that measuring a system is “far more complicated than estimating impacts of improved germplasm [new seeds].”
The work of the nonprofit Community Economic Development Assistance Corporation (CEDAC) in the major rice-producing country of Cambodia gives an idea of what SRI can achieve. CEDAC has been working with local farms to leverage the benefits of SRI rice so they can expand into multipurpose farms that incorporate multiple agroecological practices.
CEDAC’s goal was to give farmers multiple food and revenue options.
Farmers who have succeeded in diversifying have tripled their incomes, according to CEDAC’s analysis.
Since SRI rice fields are so much more productive, the farmers are able to reduce the land area dedicated to them.
The rest of the area was then used to build ponds and irrigation canals that could be filled with fish, frogs, ducks, and eels. There was also space for diverse vegetable crops, such as squash, long beans, bitter gourd, eggplant, tomato, and lemongrass, and for animals, such as chickens, pigs, goats, and so on. A ring of trees was planted around the perimeter to provide shade, protection, firewood, and fruit.
Building a farm takes a $300 equivalent investment, which can be recovered by the farmer within 2 to 3 years, according to CEDAC’s data. It is a lot of work to set up, but once it’s done, the farmer is set for year-round production.
A New Paradigm?
The World Bank views SRI and other agroecological practices as climate-smart agriculture (CMA), and it is encouraging “widespread adoption of CMA” to achieve a “triple win of higher productivity, increased resistance to climate change, and lower greenhouse gas emissions,” according to Ehui.
Referring to CMA as a new paradigm, Ehui said the international community could help by promoting this vision.
Scaling agroecology will require a lot more support, but the return on investments is attractive.
Uphoff estimates the increased productivity from SRI is benefiting farmers to the tune of $1 billion a year, with just a fraction of that invested by SRI-Rice.
Another benefit is that farmers are being empowered to experiment in their fields with traditional crops and seeds, and find more productive uses for the plants and animals in their region. SRI also provides for a better way to save seeds, which is still a challenge for many farmers who rely on it.
Styger illustrates the true power of SRI with a story about visiting villages in West Africa to introduce it.
“What are you bringing us?” the farmers regularly ask.
“I bring you nothing. I bring you knowledge,” Styger says.
In total, over 60,000 West African farmers agreed to apply their new knowledge, and the result was an average yield increase of over 65 percent for the project, according to the World Bank.
Sky’s the Limit
Both Styger and Uphoff agree that SRI’s productivity gains can be a stepping stone to further experimentation and success for farmers.
The Cornell researchers have already seen and documented how farmers and researchers in different countries have started experimenting with SRI principles on other crops—such as wheat, barley, millet, teff, and sugarcane—and it is working just as well as if not better than rice, in some cases.
It has also been proven to work on large farms.
Uphoff tells the story of landowner Asif Sharif in the Punjab region of Pakistan.
Punjab was an area of focus for the Green Revolution in rice and wheat; its fertile lands have been farmed intensively for decades using industrial farming methods.
By the time Sharif purchased his 450 acres of land, the soils were dead and unproductive, and he was forced to make his business importing farming equipment instead, Uphoff said.
When Sharif learned about SRI, he decided to give it a try on a 20-acre test plot, while adding new innovations such as raised beds and precision applications of compost and fertilizers.
He yielded 13 tons per acre—quadruple the area average—and he did so with 70 percent less water.
Encouraged by the results, Sharif designed new machines and fully mechanized his operations.
Since then, he has helped other farmers adopt his innovations.
It is because of farmers like Sharif, and countless others who have the heart to share with their neighbors something that works, that Cornell’s SRI advocates know nothing can stop SRI’s continual spread.
Styger, speaking of SRI use in the African context, said, “If you let the Africans be the owners, and let the people who practice it take the ownership, then nobody can stop it.”
CORRECTIONS: A previous version of this article misspelled the name of the former U.N. special rapporteur on the right to food. His name is Olivier De Schutter. Epoch Times regrets the error.
A previous version of this article said that Asif Sharif was the son of a farmer who inherited land. Sharif actually purchased his land. Epoch Times regrets the error.