Why rice intensification matters in Asia

Friday, 4 May 2012 00:08 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

BANGKOK (IRIN): The system of rice intensification (SRI) is gaining ground across Asia as more and more governments come to rely on it for food security.

“SRI was not invented by scientists, but its results speak for themselves,” Sudeep Karki, from the Norwegian University of Life Sciences and an SRI specialist in Nepal, told IRIN. “SRI is the counterpart in agricultural development of a viral idea in social media, imposing its way from the ground to the top.”

Less seed, less water, less pesticides and chemical fertilisers can bring significantly higher yields, according to the International Network and Resources Centre (SRI-Rice), based at Cornell University in the US. SRI methods are being successfully applied to other staple commodities like wheat and sugarcane, and teff in northeast Africa.  The idea of SRI was first put forward in the 1980s by a Jesuit priest in Madagascar, under the premise that “less is more”.

A farmer returns home after spraying chemical pesticides on a rice paddy field in La Tinh village, outside Hanoi on 2 May. Farmers in the delta have completed harvesting 1.7 million hectares (4.2 million acres) of the winter-spring crop, which has been Vietnam’s highest yielding, with grain used mostly for export. The next harvest is due to start in July. REUTERS

SRI started with farmers and NGOs, but now governments are promoting it in China, India, Indonesia, Cambodia and Vietnam, and the spread is accelerating, said Norman Uphoff, a Senior Advisor at SRI-Rice.

“The point for Asian farmers is the 20 to 80 percent higher on-farm net return, compared to scientists’ best management practices, thanks to less inputs and bigger harvests,” said Abha Mishra, a scientist at the Bangkok-based Asian Institute of Technology (AIT).

The expanding rice bowl

“In China, SRI will exceed 900,000 hectares in 2012, up from 700,000 in 2011 and 200,000 in 2007,” said Weijian Zhang, from the Institute of Crop Sciences at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences in the capital, Beijing.

SRI is becoming the main rice cultivation system in most of southern China, said Zhu Defeng, a principal scientist at the Hangzhou-based China National Rice Research Institute (CNRRI).

SRI usually achieves 8 to 11 tons per hectare in China, higher than the national average of 6.6 tons, or the world average of 4.4 tons per hectare, CNRRI reported.

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), China, India and Indonesia were the world’s leading producers of rice in 2010, and Asia produced and consumed around 90 percent of the world’s rice.

The Indonesian Ministry of Agriculture announced in 2011 that it would rely more on SRI to increase food security, with a target of 1.5 million hectares in 2015, up from 100,000 hectares in 2011.

In January 2012, the Indian Ministry of Rural Development increased support to SRI by targeting 10 million hectares of rice area for SRI management over the next five years, twice the area under SRI cultivation today.

The Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development in Vietnam, the world’s fifth largest producer of rice and the second largest exporter, reported in October 2011 that a million farmers were now using SRI - three times more than in 2009.

“SRI was introduced in Asia in 1999 and at first spread slowly, but with the ongoing acceleration the system could represent 10 percent of world rice production by 2015,” said Uphoff, who noted that international institutions and donors are increasingly supporting SRI.

Today, SRI is seen as vital to achieving the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and the spread of SRI in Cambodia was cited in 2010 as one of 15 Asian success stories in the MDGs endeavour.

The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) set up a webpage about the system in March 2012. “Our new technologies can benefit from the participatory and adaptive approach of SRI,” said Bas Bouman, the head of the Crop and Environmental Sciences Division of the Philippines-based IRRI. The World Bank has produced a multimedia toolkit entitled, “Achieving More with Less”.

Recent initiatives by other international bodies include a European Union-financed project in the Mekong River basin in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam (September 2011) and an Asian Development Bank-funded project in Laos (February 2012).


 Not everyone is convinced. Uphoff noted that some agricultural institutions and agribusiness firms have been slow to accept SRI because it shows that the two pillars of the Green Revolution [new varieties and external inputs] are not necessary to achieve increased yields.

FAO placed SRI high on its website about rice systems, but gave it only cursory mention in its 2011 publication about the new vision of agriculture.

It is impossible to evaluate SRI globally because many systems are labelled ‘SRI’ without conforming to all the “true principles” of SRI, said Bas Bouman, from IRRI.

SRI-Rice has reported many variations on the system: in Sri Lanka and Thailand, direct seeding replaced transplanting seedlings; in Cambodia and Nepal, home-made weeders cut weeding time by two-thirds; in Philippines and Myanmar, SRI was adapted to growing rain-fed, or non-irrigated, rice.

“Tractor, pesticides and synthetic fertilisers all belong to modern agriculture, but if a farmer uses only the tractor [like organic farmers do in developed countries], is it impossible to evaluate the impact of modern agriculture on his work?” asked Ngo Tien Dzung, the deputy director general of the Vietnamese Plant Protection Department, adding that SRI was not an “all or nothing approach”.

According to Dominic Glover, a scientist at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, which specialises in food science, concern over SRI reflects not only disagreements on scientific questions, but also different perspectives on the role of agricultural researchers.

SRI-Rice also reports results from China, India and Cambodia, which show that SRI can be labour-saving once it is mastered, contradicting a common belief that SRI is necessarily labour-intensive. But for many farmers and experts, the results speak much louder.

In March 2012, an Indian farmer using SRI techniques reported the highest recorded rice yield yet, with 22.4 tons per hectare. FAO noted that the Indian average yield in 2010 was 3.3 tons per hectare.

According to IRRI, rice is the staple food of more than half the world’s population, including 640 million undernourished people living in Asia.

For every one billion people added to the global population, an additional 100 million tons of rice needs to be produced every year. Moreover, projected demand for rice will outstrip supply in the near to medium term unless something is done to reverse current trends.

AIT’s Mishra pointed out that “Rice production should increase by 15 to 25 percent by 2025 to meet the demand of a growing Asian population