System of Rice Intensification: A viable solution to produce more rice, using less water

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By Janeen Madan

For a majority of the world’s smallscale farmers who live in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, rice is a major source of calories and the single largest source of income. But, the crop’s large environmental footprint creates numerous challenges.

SRI methods help strengthen food security, improve farmers’ adaptability to climate change and ensure environmental sustainability. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

Over 90 percent of the world’s rice is harvested from irrigated or rainfed lowland rice fields. In these systems, fields are kept covered with water throughout the growing season, putting a strain on scarce and costly resources. Furthermore, anaerobic microbes, found in soils that are deprived of oxygen due to continuous flooding, produce methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. And, chemical fertilizers and pesticides can cause soil and water pollution.

As the global demand for rice increases, finding ways to grow more rice while preventing environmental degradation and reducing reliance on water will be essential to helping ensure food security. Farmers in many parts of the world are taking the initiative to find innovative solutions to ease these challenges.

One such innovation is the System of Rice Intensification (SRI), which was developed during the 1980s by a French priest in Madagascar, Father Henri de Laulanie, who spent 20 years learning about rice-growing practices from local farmers.

A report entitled “More rice for people, more water for the planet,” published by Africare, Oxfam and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in August 2010, highlights the successes of SRI practices in Mali, Vietnam and India. SRI is a set of low-cost crop management techniques, which promote community-led agricultural growth, while reducing and even reversing the effects of climate change. Today, SRI is practiced in over 40 countries worldwide.

SRI differs from rainfed traditional/conventional rice systems in the following ways:

  • Timing: Younger seedlings are transplanted when they are only 8-12 days old, as opposed to 21-40 days old.
  • Spacing: Rather than 3-4 seedlings, only 1-2 seedlings are plated per hill to prevent resource competition.
  • Water Management: Instead of continuously flooding paddy fields, SRI methods use smaller quantities of water with alternate wetting and dying during the growing cycle.
  • Fertilization and pest control: SRI techniques promote the use of organic fertilizers and Integrated Pest Management practices.

Rather than a strict “recipe,” SRI methods present a “menu” of different practices that farmers can adapt to suit local conditions and cropping systems. In Mali, for example, Africare is working with local farmers to apply SRI methods to traditional varieties like African rice.

According to the report, SRI increases the productivity of resources used in rice cultivation by reducing requirements for water, synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. While SRI is largely driven by civil society efforts, it is also being embraced by local and international NGOs, and being endorsed by national food security programs in India, China, Cambodia, Vietnam and Indonesia.

In Tamil Nadu, a state in South India, farmers have applied SRI practices to over 600,000 hectares of land, where they now use 40 percent less water. In 2009, despite an erratic monsoon season, SRI techniques helped raise the average yield per hectare from 3.5 tons to 6 to 9 tons.

And in Vietnam, SRI methods are helping farmers to protect their crops against extreme weather. After a typhoon hit a village in Phu Tho province, farmers found that the strong winds severely lodged non-SRI crops, while crops using SRI practices were not blown over.

Such innovations can be a win-win-win opportunity: they help strengthen food security, improve farmers’ adaptability to climate change and ensure environmental sustainability.

To read more about innovations in rice cultivation see: Messages From One Rice Farmer to Another, Keeping the Rice from Going to the Birds, Encouraging Consumption of Local Rice by Improving Local Quality and Processing and Spreading the Wealth of Innovations.

Janeen Madan is a research intern with Nourishing the Planet.

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