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

Multimedia

Audio
TEXT SIZE - +

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

Multimedia Relatives of South Korean Ferry Victims Fire at Authorities

46 people are confirmed dead, but some 250 remain trapped inside sunken ferry More

War Legacy Haunts Vietnam, US Relations

$84 million project aims to clean up soil contaminated by Agent Orange More

Wikipedia Proves Useful for Tracking Flu

Technique gave better results than Center for Disease Control (CDC) and Google’s Flu Trends More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
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.
Ukraine, Russia, United in Faith, Divided in Politicsi
X
Michael Eckels
April 19, 2014
There is a strong historical religious connection between Russia and Ukraine. But what role is religion playing in the current conflict? In the run-up to Easter, Michael Eckels in Moscow reports for VOA.
Video

Video Ukraine, Russia, United in Faith, Divided in Politics

There is a strong historical religious connection between Russia and Ukraine. But what role is religion playing in the current conflict? In the run-up to Easter, Michael Eckels in Moscow reports for VOA.
Video

Video Face of American Farmer is Changing

The average American farmer is now 58 years old, and farmers 65 and older are the fastest growing segment of the population. It’s a troubling trend signaling big changes ahead for American agriculture as aging farmers retire. Reporter Mike Osborne says a new report from the U.S. Census Bureau is suggesting what some of those changes might look like... and why they might not be so troubling.
Video

Video Donetsk Governor: Ukraine Military Assault 'Delicate But Necessary'

Around a dozen state buildings in eastern Ukraine remain in the hands of pro-Russian protesters who are demanding a referendum on self-rule. The governor of the whole Donetsk region is among those forced out by the protesters. He spoke to VOA's Henry Ridgwell from his temporary new office in Donetsk city.
Video

Video Drones May Soon Send Data From High Seas

Drones are usually associated with unmanned flying vehicles, but autonomous watercraft are also becoming useful tools for jobs ranging from scientific exploration to law enforcement to searching for a missing airliner in the Indian Ocean. VOA’s George Putic reports on sea-faring drones.
Video

Video New Earth-Size Planet Found

Not too big, not too small. Not too hot, not too cold. A newly discovered planet looks just right for life as we know it, according to an international group of astronomers. VOA’s Steve Baragona has more.
Video

Video Copts in Diaspora Worry About Future in Egypt

Around 10 percent of Egypt’s population belong to the Coptic faith, making them the largest Christian minority in the Middle East. But they have become targets of violence since the revolution three years ago. With elections scheduled for May and the struggle between the Egyptian military and Islamists continuing, many Copts abroad are deeply worried about the future of their ancient church. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky visited a Coptic church outside Washington DC.
Video

Video Critics Say Venezuelan Protests Test Limits of Military's Support

During the two months of deadly anti-government protests that have rocked the oil-rich nation of Venezuela, President Nicolas Maduro has accused the opposition of trying to initiate a coup. Though a small number of military officers have been arrested for allegedly plotting against the government, VOA’s Brian Padden reports the leadership of the armed forces continues to support the president, at least for now.
Video

Video More Millenials Unplug to Embrace Board Games

A big new trend in the U.S. toy industry has more consumers switching off their high-tech gadgets to play with classic toys, like board games. This is especially true among the so-called millenial generation - those born in the 1980's and 90's. Elizabeth Lee has more from an unusual café in Los Angeles, where the new trend is popular and business is booming.
Video

Video Google Buys Drone Company

In its latest purchase of high-tech companies, Google has acquired a manufacturer of solar-powered drones that can stay in the air almost indefinitely, relaying broadband Internet connection to remote areas. It is seen as yet another step in the U.S. based Web giant’s bid to bring Internet to the whole world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
AppleAndroid