Among the most inspiring presentations at the World Food Prize was a post-dinner event organized by Africare, Oxfam America and WWF (all three relatively new additions to the World Food Prize mix), featuring three farmers whose lives had been transformed by an approach to farming called Sustainable Rice Intensification.
Variations on Sustainable Rice Intensification, or SRI, have been practiced throughout Asia for a couple of decades. More recently, farmers across Africa have picked up the approach, and it’s now being used in 41 nations. Over one million households in Vietnam, Cambodia, India and Mali have adopted SRI methods since 2003 alone. As Nourishing the Planet documented earlier this year, SRI doesn’t depend on a particular crop variety or technology. Instead, it involves modifying the growing environment so that the rice plants can more fully express their full potential with a much more economical use of farm resources. For instance, instead of flooding the rice—as is typical throughout much of the world—the rice seedlings are planted in dry soils that are watered periodically. The plants are spaced more widely than typical rice seeding, to allow for regular soil aeration and weeding as the plants develop.
The result, which is at first both surprising and counterintuitive, is rice plants with bigger, more robust root systems, reduced susceptibility to disease and substantially higher yields. Based on studies across 8 countries, researchers found a 47 percent yield increase, 40 percent water savings, 23 percent reduction in costs per hectare, 68 percent increased income per hectare. In a nutshell, farmers have more rice to eat or sell, they use less water and other inputs (80-90 percent fewer seeds, less time for transplanting). As Norman Uphoff, a professor in Cornell’s Center for Internatoinal Affairs, and a chronicler of SRI’s use throughout the world, noted in closing remarks at the event, SRI is “an innovation that raises the productivity of land, labor, water, and capital at the same time.” (More stats can be found in the recent publication, More Rice for People, More Water for the Planet, as well as at Cornell’s online SRI resource center.)
In uplifting, and sometimes miraculous stories, all three farmers were transported from situations in which their families often subsisted on one meal a day, were burdened by debt (leading to at least one teenage suicide) and had little hope for the next generation, to situations of reduced debt, increased food supplies, and extra income to invest in school, health and even some basic luxuries. In India, Mrs. Duddeda Sugunavva, a farmer in Katkur village, Warangal District, Andra Pradesh, used income from her jump in rice production to purchase a milking cow which further augmented her bottom line. In Mali, Moussa Ag Demba (with two wives and six children) opened a savings account at the local bank, added meat, fish, macaroni and even the occasional soda to his family’s previously monotonous diet, and had, in short order, attained the reputation of a “big rich man.”
And the benefits spilled over to neighbors and the surrounding environment, part of the reason SRI has attracted the interest of groups like Oxfam and WWF. In Hanoi Province of Vietnam, Le Ngoc Thach, president of Dai Nghia Cooperative, after 30 farmers piloted SRI in 2006, 800 additional neighboring farmers had picked up the techniques by 2008, reporting dramatic reductions in pesticide and fertilizer use, fuller and more tasty rice grains, and increased fish and crab catches in nearby ponds. In Douékiré, Mali, the jump in production in Demba’s community allowed them to begin building a school and forced them to organize a marketing run to Timbuktu to sell surplus produce.