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18th February 2018
There is a wonderful new example of organic rice growing in India and other countries that includes revolutionary planting practices that have led to record yields, far higher than conventional rice crops and using GMO varieties.
In the village of Darveshpura in north-east India in Nalanda district of India’s poorest state Bihar they have been growing rice using only farmyard manure, without any herbicides. Their usual yields were 4-5 tonnes per hectare, until they changed their management processes. They started to use a method of growing crops called System of 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.
Instead of planting three-week-old rice seedlings in clumps of three or four in waterlogged fields, as rice farmers around the world traditionally do, the Darveshpura farmers carefully nurture only half as many seeds, and then transplant the young plants into fields, one by one, when much younger. Additionally, they space them at 25cm intervals in a grid pattern, keeping the soil much drier than usual, as well as carefully weeding around the plants to allow air to their roots.
SRI works by stimulating the root systems of young plants, mostly by using organic manures and by increasing biological activity in the soil.
SRI concepts and practices have continued to evolve as they are being adapted to rain-fed, un-irrigated crops. The central principles of SRI according to Cornell University, New York are:
- Rice field soils should be kept moist rather than continuously saturated, minimizing anaerobic conditions, as this improves root growth and supports the growth and diversity of aerobic soil organisms.
- Rice plants should be planted singly and spaced optimally widely to permit more growth of roots and canopy and to keep all leaves photosynthetically active.
- Rice seedlings should be transplanted when young, less than 15 days old with just two leaves, quickly, shallow and carefully, to avoid trauma to roots and to minimize transplant shock.
The ‘Preservation and Proliferation of Rural Resources and Nature’ has encouraged the introduction of SRI methods to hundreds of villages in the past three years.
Using this method, the farmers at Darveshpura have been growing an astonishing 22.4 tonnes of rice on one hectare of land. SRI appears to offer a long-term, sustainable future for no extra cost.
Dr Surendra Chaurassa from Bihar’s agriculture ministry has said that “Farmers use less seeds, less water and less chemicals but they get more without having to invest more. This is revolutionary, I did not believe it to start with, but now I think it can potentially change the way everyone farms. I would want every state to promote it. If we get 30-40% increase in yields, that is more than enough to recommend it.”
SRI’s origins go back to the 1980s in Madagascar where Henri de Laulanie, a French Jesuit priest and agronomist, observed how villagers grew rice in the uplands. He developed the method but it was an American, professor Norman Uphoff, director of the International Institute for Food, Agriculture and Development at Cornell University, who was largely responsible for spreading the word about De Laulanie’s work. Uphoff says:
“It is a set of ideas, the absolute opposite to the first green revolution [of the 60s] which said that you had to change the genes and the soil nutrients to improve yields. That came at a tremendous ecological cost. “Agriculture in the 21st century must be practised differently. Land and water resources are becoming scarcer, of poorer quality, or less reliable. Climatic conditions are in many places more adverse. SRI offers millions of disadvantaged households far better opportunities. Nobody is benefiting from this except the farmers; there are no patents, royalties or licensing fees.”
Uphoff first accepted the potential of SRI in 1997 after he visited farmers in Madagascar who had been producing just two tonnes of rice per hectare on their poor soils — by using SRI, they were able to average eight tonnes per hectare for three consecutive seasons on the same soils and with the same varieties, without having to purchase inputs. The average yield increases from on-farm evaluations across eight countries were 47 per cent, according to Oxfam America.
Last month Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz visited Nalanda district and recognised the potential of this kind of organic farming. “It was amazing to see their success in organic farming,” said Stiglitz, who called for more research. “Agriculture scientists from across the world should visit and learn and be inspired by them.”
Using this same method one of the Indian farmers smashed the world record for growing potatoes six months later, and shortly after that another small farmer from a nearby Bihari village, broke the Indian record for growing wheat, using the same methods. These methods have led to reduced poverty and a reasonable income for the Indian farmers involved.
And all this – without chemical fertilisers and herbicides, or the use of GMO varieties – thus saving large amounts of money for the small farmers, and providing them with a decent income. The way they were growing their crops made their farming un-economic, often leading to them having to sell up and often committing suicide.