A new system of rice farming that is “good for poverty, good for the environment and costs less” is facing “antagonism, indifference and hostility” from the mainstream agricultural and scientific industry.
Farmers in Asia are experiencing 50-100% increase in yields from the new system that costs less and can better withstand the environmental challenges of the 21st century – such as declining water and land supply and increasing energy costs and climate change.
But despite the potential of SRI (System of Rice Intensification) to revolutionise the lives of poorer farmers, its spread is being held back by lack of support from the agricultural mainstream, said Norman Uphoff, former director of the Cornell International Institute for Food, Agriculture and Development.
“That SRI did not emanate from the formal science system may be one reason for the hostility with which it has viewed by some rice scientists.” said Uphoff, speaking at the inaugural STEPS Centre seminar. “Scepticism I can understand, but we’ve had antagonism, indifference and hostility.”
However Uphoff is undeterred: “For me the most important question is how we deal with hunger and poverty…I’ve heard myself described as evangelical (about SRI) and I plead guilty. There are possibilities here to feed the world that have not been realized.”
Uphoff is so convinced of the potential for SRI that he has left behind his roots as a pioneering political scientist to concentrate on investigating and promoting SRI as an alternative to current methods of farming that, relying heavily on agrochemicals and fossil fuel, are inadequate for the 21st century, believes Uphoff.
The benefits of agroecological alternatives, such as SRI, include: smaller-scale operations; energy saving and energy-efficiency; use of existing plant genome and biological processes; greater resistance to stress, such as drought, storms, pests and disease; use of organic material and methods; and emphasis on local production and consumption; and can operate without subsidisation and are accessible to poorer people, explains Uphoff.
Twenty-seven countries are now using SRI methods – which forsake the traditional flooding of rice fields and crowded planting in favour of younger and wider-spaced seedlings and no flooding. Bhutan and Iran are the latest countries to begin SRI farming and the 28th, Burkina Faso, is not far behind.
And although Chinese scientists and the China National Rice Research Institute and are satisfied SRI works, the International Rice Research Institute IRRI) has yet to take up SRI. “The IRRI is not receptive at all, it is not even looking at SRI,” said Uphoff. “I think we’re a real threat to their current scientific and funding strategy.”
“We are not going to replace modern agriculture, because there is a lot of vested interest in it,” said Uphoff. “But we have to shift the paradigm. We have to be empirical and explainable, because people’s lives are at stake.”