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New rice cultivation method: helping poor farmers worldwide

A new innovation allows farmers to produce many times more rice and boost their profits (photo: Ramnath Bhat CC-BY-SA 2.0)
A new innovation allows farmers to produce many times more rice and boost their profits (photo: Ramnath Bhat CC-BY-SA 2.0)

Could a record breaking crop herald a change in rice farming that could benefit farmers around the world?

Using a method that has been largely shunned by researchers and businesses, a small-scale farmer has reportedly just harvested a record breaking amount of rice. Using the rice intensification method (SRI), Mr Sethumadhavan, who lives in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu, harvested over 24 tonnes of rice per hectare, a state and national record. It's not the first time this approach has paid off; just two years ago a farmer in Bihar, North India, produced a world record 22.4 tonnes of rice per hectare.

These yields, achieved through the SRI method, are far higher than would be expected otherwise. Using normal methods, the yield from the variety of rice that Mr Sethumadhavan was using would have been no more than 6 tonnes per hectare. The impact of this unexpected boost is apparent, since he earned 27% more than planned when he sold this crop at the market.

Leading the way

Jaisingh Gnanadurai, joint director of agriculture in Tamil Nadu, tells the Guardian that this record breaking harvest vindicates the state government's decision to promote the SRI method. Amongst other things, this approach involves enriching the soil through the use of organic fertilisers, planting less seeds, and changing water levels at key points in the growth cycle. Whilst this method is very labour intensive, it could offer a positive alternative to the traditional methods that are usually promoted.

These older approaches tend to focus on specialist seeds and using expensive chemical fertilisers, which makes them inaccessible to poorer small-scale farmers. It was with this in mind that small-scale farmers in Madagascar pioneered the SRI method nearly 30 years ago. It has now been adopted by over 10 million farmers in more than 20 countries around the world and demonstrates the impact small farmers can have on agricultural development.

The big picture

The SRI approach has so far received little attention from academics or big business. Some suggest that this is because they have a vested interest in developing new seeds and selling fertilisers , both of which would not fit the SRI method. In the past these groups have even been critical of the results of SRI, like in the Bihari case where they suggested that the results were faked and impossible to achieve.

More importantly, proponents of SRI also play down the importance of these bumper crops. As Norman Uphoff, professor of international agriculture at Cornell University in the US, tells the Guardian, “[It is] averages that feed hungry people and raise farmers out of poverty, not records.” With this in mind it is worth recognising that in Bihar, a state where farmers have embraced SRI, rice yields have risen by at least 40% when using the new method. For Mr Sethumadhavan it only remains to decide what to spend his extra earnings on.

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