News / Africa

Growing More Rice with Less Water, Fewer Chemicals

Techniques promise bigger yields but questions remain

Proponents of the System for Rice Intensification (SRI) say developing-world farmers who use the SRI method grow more rice with less water and fewer chemicals
Proponents of the System for Rice Intensification (SRI) say developing-world farmers who use the SRI method grow more rice with less water and fewer chemicals



What if there was a method that could help developing-world farmers grow more rice while using less water and fewer chemicals than their usual methods?

It could make a big difference at a time when the population is growing, farming costs are rising, and water is becoming scarcer.

Advocates say they have just such a method, called simply the System for Rice Intensification (SRI).

But some of the biggest names in rice research say if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. The techniques are spreading in developing world, however, with or without their support.

'Even I didn't believe it'

The environmental group the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) has brought Duddeda Sugunavva from her fields in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh to a recent lunchtime conference in Washington, DC. She gets excited when she describes her experience with SRI.

"Even I didn't believe it initially," she says. "The first time I did it, I didn't believe that it could be possible. Then I tried it, and then I believed it."

It may be hard to believe, but Sugunavva says she produces more grain while putting fewer plants in the field and spacing them farther apart than she normally would. She uses less water because her fields are flooded and drained, not constantly flooded like rice paddies usually are. She fertilizes with manure, and weeds and aerates the soil with a simple tool. That reduces the cost of, and pollution from, inputs like chemical fertilizers and herbicides.

Dramatic gains

Using these tricks and a few others, Sugunavva says she's been amazed by the results.

"This is not the first day I'm doing agriculture. I've been doing it for 20 years," she says. "In the conventional method, the maximum you get is 100, 120 [grains per plant]. With this, I'm getting 300 and change."

Sugunavva says she makes enough money now to pay off some debts and buy a water buffalo to bring in extra income.

And she is not alone. The conference highlighted a report that says in eight countries, farmers using SRI increased yields by nearly half, reduced water use by 40 percent and costs by 23 percent, and increased their incomes by two-thirds on average.

Biksham Gujja heads a joint project of WWF and the global agriculture research institute ICRISAT. He says the idea that farmers can get more with less goes against what experts have been saying for years.

"We told the farmers the last three, four decades, 'If you want a little bit more, by the way, you've got to give more. You've got to give more seeds, more water, more fertilizer,'" he says. "Giving more has become so much more, they got into a debt trap. And also, they've spoiled the entire environment and ecosystem."

Backing lacking

Gujja says SRI could be a simple, inexpensive way to help change that. But he says because there is no money to be made, the system is not getting the support it deserves.

"It is so simple that…no one wants to promote it. No one wants to invest in it," he says. "If it [was]…a genetic modification or some sort of high-tech solution, some sort of hybridization, probably the money would have flowed."

Advocates say SRI deserves more support from leading global institutions like the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI).

'Unproven claims'

But IRRI's research program manager, Achim Dobermann, says supporters paint an overly rosy picture of SRI.

"There are some, I think, fundamental questions we have about some of the unproven claims," he says.

Doberman says there are many studies that do not show SRI improving yields or incomes. When farmers do see improvements, he says it may be because they were not using the best practices to begin with -- practices that IRRI has been recommending for years.

Dobermann says SRI might work on small farms. But it takes a lot of labor. And farming is moving in the opposite direction, he says, toward larger, mechanized operations.  

"I look at SRI as not fundamentally wrong," he says, "but it's an evolutionary step backward in farming."

Philosophical differences

And that highlights a philosophical difference between SRI's backers and skeptics. SRI's champions tend to be supporters of small-scale organic agriculture, while detractors question whether organic farming can feed a growing world.

Back at the Washington conference, Oxfam President Raymond Offenheiser says the two camps need to reconcile their differences.

"We've got to stop seeing these questions in terms of being polarized," he says. "And we've got to be looking at [as], in a resource-constrained world, how do we come up with smart approaches without getting into highly contentious polemics over the appropriateness or viability or sustainability of either one?"

Offenheiser says hundreds of thousands of farmers worldwide are adopting SRI methods, and the World Bank and the US Agency for International Development are making some small investments in SRI projects. Meanwhile, research is continuing in order to answer some of the lingering questions about how effective SRI really is.

You May Like

Germany Celebrates 25 Years of Unity

October 3 is a public holiday, marking the day in 1990 when East Germany and West Germany reunited More

Analysts: Russia's Syria Strikes Shake Regional Powers

If Moscow bolsters Assad, Saudi Arabia, other Gulf countries may feel obliged to step in More

Video Innovative Nano-Tech Water Filter Prevents Disease

It can absorb contaminants like copper, bacteria, viruses and pesticides, says Askwar Hilonga, who has been successfully trying out his product in Arusha More

This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Russia’s Syria Involvement Raising Concerns in Europei
Luis Ramirez
October 02, 2015 4:45 PM
European nations are joining the United States in demanding that Russia stop targeting opposition groups other than the Islamic State militants as Russian warplanes continue to conduct raids in Syria. The demand came in a statement from Britain, France, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States Friday. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.

Video Russia’s Syria Involvement Raising Concerns in Europe

European nations are joining the United States in demanding that Russia stop targeting opposition groups other than the Islamic State militants as Russian warplanes continue to conduct raids in Syria. The demand came in a statement from Britain, France, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States Friday. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.

Video First Self-Driving Truck Debuts on European Highways

The first automated semi-trailer truck started its maiden voyage Friday, Oct. 2, on a European highway. The Daimler truck called 'Actros' is the first potentially mass-produced truck whose driver will be required only to monitor the situation, similar to the role of an airline captain while the plane is in autopilot mode. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video Nano-tech Filter Cleans Dirty Water

Access to clean water is a problem for hundreds of millions of people around the world. Now, a scientist and chemical engineer in Tanzania (in East Africa) is working to change that by creating an innovative water filter that makes dirty water safe. VOA’s Deborah Block has the story.

Video Demand Rising for Organic Produce in Cambodia

In Cambodia, where rice has long been the main cash crop, farmers are being encouraged to turn to vegetables to satisfy the growing demand for locally produced organic farm products. Daniel de Carteret has more from Phnom Penh.

Video Migrant Influx Costs Europe, But Economy Could Benefit

The influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants is testing Europe’s ability to respond – especially in the poorer Balkan states. But some analysts argue that Europe will benefit by welcoming the huge numbers of young people – many of them well educated and willing to work. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.

Video Botanists Grow Furniture, with Pruning Shears

For something a bit out of the ordinary to furnish your home, why not consider wooden chairs, crafted by nature, with a little help from some British botanists with an eye for design. VOA’s Jessica Berman reports.

Video New Fabric Helps Fight Dust-Related Allergies

Many people around the world suffer from dust-related allergies, caused mainly by tiny mites that live in bed linen. Polish scientists report they have successfully tested a fabric that is impenetrable to the microscopic creatures. VOA’s George Putic has more.

Video Burkina Faso's Economy Deeply Affected by Political Turmoil

Political turmoil in Burkina Faso over the past year has taken a toll on the economy. The transitional government is reporting nearly $70 million in losses in the ten days that followed a short-lived coup by members of the presidential guard earlier this month. The crisis shut businesses and workers went on strike. With elections on the horizon, Emilie Iob reports on what a return to political stability can do for the country's economic recovery.

Video Fleeing Violence, Some Syrians Find Refuge in Irbil

As Syrians continue to flee their country’s unrest to seek new lives in safer places, VOA Persian Service reporter Shepol Abbassi visited Irbil, where a number Syrians have taken refuge. During the religious holidy of Eid al-Adha, the city largely shut down, as temperatures soared. Amy Katz narrates his report.

Video Nigeria’s Wecyclers Work for Reusable Future in Lagos

The streets and lagoons of Africa's largest city - Lagos, Nigeria - are often clogged with trash, almost none of which gets recycled. One company is trying to change that. Chris Stein reports for VOA from Lagos.

Video Sketch Artist Helps Catch Criminals, Gives a Face to Deceased

Police often face the problem of trying to find a crime suspect based on general descriptions that could fit hundreds of people in the vicinity of the crime. In these cases, an artist can use information from witnesses to sketch a likeness that police can show the public via newspapers and television. But, as VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Houston, such sketches can also help bring back faces of the dead.

Video Thailand Set to Build China-like Internet Firewall

Thai authorities are planning to tighten control over the Internet, creating a single international access point so they can better monitor content. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Bangkok on what is being called Thailand’s own "Great Firewall."

Video Croatian Town’s War History Evokes Empathy for Migrants

As thousands of Afghanistan, Iraqi and Syrian migrants pass through Croatia, locals are reminded of their own experiences with war and refugees in the 1990s. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from the town of Vukovar, where wartime scars still are visible today.

Video Long Drought Affecting California’s Sequoias

California is suffering under a historic four-year drought and scientists say even the state's famed sequoia trees are feeling the pain. The National Park Service has started detailed research to see how it can help the oldest living things on earth survive. VOA’s George Putic reports.

VOA Blogs