Sumant Kumar was overjoyed when he harvested his rice last year. There had been good rains in his village of Darveshpura in north-east India and he knew he could improve on the four or five tonnes per hectare that he usually managed. But every stalk he cut on his paddy field near the bank of the Sakri river seemed to weigh heavier than usual, every grain of rice was bigger and when his crop was weighed on the old village scales, even Kumar was shocked.More below the Orange Omnilepticon
This was not six or even 10 or 20 tonnes. Kumar, a shy young farmer in Nalanda district of India's poorest state Bihar, had – using only farmyard manure and without any herbicides – grown an astonishing 22.4 tonnes of rice on one hectare of land. This was a world record and with rice the staple food of more than half the world's population of seven billion, big news.
Vidal's article in The Guardian does a good job of spelling out why this is worthy of interest.
What happened in Darveshpura has divided scientists and is exciting governments and development experts. Tests on the soil show it is particularly rich in silicon but the reason for the "super yields" is entirely down to a method of growing crops called System of Rice (or root) Intensification (SRI). It has dramatically increased yields with wheat, potatoes, sugar cane, yams, tomatoes, garlic, aubergine and many other crops and is being hailed as one of the most significant developments of the past 50 years for the world's 500 million small-scale farmers and the two billion people who depend on them.The things that make this of potentially global importance is that SRI does not rely on genetically modified plants, intensive chemical fertilizer use, pesticides or intensive mechanical cultivation to increase yields. From a climate change perspective alone, that's important because the last three items in that list all consume energy and produce green house gasses. It's a sustainable approach that grows more with less, including less water. Vidal links to the original observations that were followed up by researchers at Cornell. Wikipedia has a summary of SRI.
SRI is being used around the world in over 45 countries. (pdf) There has been some controversy about how effective it is; Vidal suggests "turf wars" are a factor as SRI can be seen as a challenge to the energy and chemical intensive techniques of the Green Revolution and the philosophical approach behind it. There have been challenges to how well documented the reports of SRI gains really are, but there appears to be a growing body of evidence supporting it.
There is also the fact that an approach rooted in changes to basic agricultural methods that appear to foster improved plant growth is not one likely to be favored by giant agribusiness corporations with no easy way to profit from it. That too may account for some of the resistance to SRI. Whether it can be adapted to the industrial farming methods prevalent in the United States is an interesting question.
At the Cornell SRI website, here are the basic principles at work:
SRI methodology is based on four main principles that interact with each other:The caveat appended to SRI as noted above is that it is not a "one size fits all" method, but one that has to be adjusted for the crops involved and the local conditions. Nonetheless, it's an approach that has the benefit of not requiring anything except instruction in how to carry it out, time to become proficient at using it, and willingness to make changes away from customary practices. The farmers in the Guardian article are working at subsistence levels or little better; it's making a huge difference for them.
• Early, quick and healthy plant establishment
• Reduced plant density
• Improved soil conditions through enrichment with organic matter
• Reduced and controlled water application
Based on these principles, farmers can adapt recommended SRI practices to respond to their agroecological and socioeconomic conditions. Adaptations are often undertaken to accommodate changing weather patterns, soil conditions, labor availability, water control, access to organic inputs, and the decision whether to practice fully organic agriculture or not. The most common SRI practices for irrigated rice production are summarized in the following section.
In addition to irrigated rice, the SRI principles have been applied to rainfed rice and to other crops, such as wheat, sugarcane, teff, finger millet, pulses, showing increased productivity over current conventional planting practices. When SRI principles are applied to other crops, we refer to it as the System of Crop Intensification or SCI (see SCI section of the website for details).
In the United States, application to the growing number of farms taking an organic, sustainable approach to farming, especially those tapping into the locovore movement might see some real gains from this. Those cultivating their own gardens or working in community plots might want to see how they can make use of SRI - SCI techniques as well. The Cornell website has a number of resources. They have contact information here.
Spring is coming to the Northern Hemisphere. Time to be thinking about planting.