As bizarre as it sounds, Prof. Norman Uphoff, government and international agriculture, argues that cutting the water supply in half and reducing the plant population by a factor of 10 actually increases rice harvest yields.
The counterintuitive advice is derived from System of Rice Intensification, which is “not a technology, but a set of ideas and insights” that seeks to maximize a crop’s potential through better management, according to Uphoff.
SRI focuses on making “a set of changes in the management of plants, soil, water and nutrients to get a more productive phenotype, a more productive plant from the existing genetic potential,” Uphoff explained.
SRI breaks from traditional ways of rice farming that “might seem counterintuitive” at first, according to Uphoff.
Uphoff gave an example of farmers who are asked to “cut the plant population by 80 to 90 percent,” to plant only one seed in a clump as opposed to 3 or 4, to use about half as much water and to limit the amount of chemical fertilizer they use in favor of organic fertilizer.
Father Henri de Laulanié, a French Jesuit living in Madagascar, created SRI in the 1980s and began working with the Cornell International Institute for Food, Agriculture and Development in 1993.
Uphoff, the director of CIIFAD from 1990 to 2005, has overseen efforts to research the potential benefits of SRI. CIIFAD itself has been instrumental in the promulgation of SRI techniques abroad. Many of the photos Uphoff presented had been sent to him by farmers with whom he or CIIFAD had worked with during their research.
Uphoff presented numerous case studies where SRI grown rice plants appeared significantly healthier and larger than traditionally grown rice plants in the same location. SRI plots tended to produce a much higher yield than traditional plots.
“The focus is on developing countries,” explained Uphoff. SRI has the potential to reduce the amount of water, money and labor that farmers in developing countries need to spend.
“At first, SRI takes more time and labor investment than traditional farming,” said Uphoff. This can be explained by the more frequent weeding that SRI grown crops require along with the more precise degree to which the crops have to be planted. But, as Uphoff stated, “over time eight percent less labor per hectare” was needed to maintain the crops.
Despite Uphoff’s efforts, acceptance of SRI in the international community has been slow. Uphoff said that the international community did not greet SRI “as curiously or as open-mindedly as I expected.”
As a result, SRI research efforts have not been funded through the more traditional academic avenues. Rather, SRI research has been funded by organizations like the Ohrstrom foundation, actor Jim Carrey’s Better U Foundation and various non-governmental organizations.
Uphoff described SRI as a “paradigm shift” and explained that there will always be resistance against new ideas. Moreover, he described SRI as “going against the tide of proprieterization of agricultural technology” in that SRI is information designed to be usable by anyone.
Despite the skepticism, many countries, including China, India and Indonesia have integrated SRI practices into their agricultural systems. While Uphoff described the interest in SRI as “limited,” he pointed to a “worldwide network of researchers and practitioners” known as SRI-Rice as evidence for SRI’s bright future.