‘Revolutionary’ rice-growing method gets much more for less

A groundbreaking method of rice growing is gaining traction in India, thanks to its ability to produce larger amounts of crops and allow for independent farming

A new way of growing rice in India is producing record-breaking crops, reducing the need for chemical fertilisers and saving water.

Known as the System of Rice Intensification (SRI), the rethink on traditional ways of growing is raising the bar on crop yield, with one Indian farmer reported to have set a new world record using the SRI method.

The grower, from the northern state of Bihar, has harvested 22.4 tonnes of rice from just a single hectare of land and did so using only farmyard manure as a fertiliser, according to the Observer. That’s close to ten times the average yield per hectare achieved by India’s farmers.

Supporters say that the SRI method amounts to an agrarian revolution that could deliver a step-change in world food production, and in a low-tech way without the need for genetic modification.

The process, developed in Madagascar in the 1980s, focuses on giving plants care and attention: farmers use organic fertiliser and rice fields have to be weeded by hand; young rice plants are transplanted earlier and given more space; and plants mature in drier soil, rather than in standing water.

“SRI provides a new opportunity for raising food production that is increasingly facing challenges from population growth, competition for water and a changing climate”

SRI enthusiasts say studies have shown that rice plants grown in this way are stronger and have a more extensive root system than those grown traditionally, thus making them better able to survive in extreme weather.

The World Bank Institute (WBI) is an enthusiastic backer of SRI, noting that the method has been tried in 30 countries around the world and that in most cases it delivers benefits, namely that SRI-managed fields produce more rice and that it is often of a higher quality, which means that farmers get a better price per tonne. Another big selling point for SRI is that input costs are cut too, with rice crops needing less water and chemical fertilisers.

WBI cites the example of trials in Uttar Pradesh in India that produce around two tonnes more rice per hectare, but do it using 90% less seed and 50% less water. Although crops need more care from farm workers, overall production costs are lower.

WBI says “producing more from less is not a myth,” adding: “SRI provides a new window of opportunity for raising food production that is increasingly facing challenges from population growth, competition for water and a changing climate.”

Oxfam is also a fan. A spokesperson for the charity said: “With the gathering pace of climate change bringing more extreme drier weather in some areas, SRI is likely to become an even more valuable way of boosting production.”

But SRI faces challenges. According to Dr Erika Styger, director of programs for the SRI International Network and Resources Centre at Cornell University, efforts to sign more farmers up to the method are held back by a lack of spending on support to help growers on the ground, especially in remote communities in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Where money is available for farmer support, it is often focussed on approaches that use inputs such as chemical fertilisers and new seed varieties, but, Styger argues, with its low-input ethic, SRI is a direct threat to agro-business.

“SRI involves a paradigm shift: resource-limited farmers can improve the productivity of their agriculture with their own resources. Farmers can become more independent from outside resources,” she tells Positive News.