Science in Society Archive

Less is More for Nepali Rice

A low input rice system has more than doubled yield in Nepal. Rhea Gala

For the past three years a dozen farmers in Morang District near the Nepali-Indian border 300 miles south of the capital Kathmandu have been testing a new cultivation method for rice.  Using only a fraction of the normal amount of local mansuli variety rice seed and far less water than usual, their yield has more than doubled.  The method does not need the fields to be flooded, as is traditionally the case, and chemical fertilisers and pesticides are not required.

Success arises from the mode of cultivation where the seedlings are transplanted from the nursery beds when they are only two weeks old instead of six; and the field is drained instead of flooded. Seedlings are spaced farther apart and produce many more shoots than when planted conventionally, causing the harvest to more than double.  A normal paddy field needs 50 kilogrammes of seed per hectare, yet this method uses less than ten kilogrammes.

This is the latest success for this type of low input rice cultivation which is called the ‘System of Rice Intensification (SRI) and has already given marvellous yields in many countries.(see “Fantastic rice yields: Fact or fallacy?”, “Top Indian rice geneticist rebuts SRI critics”’, and “Does SRI work?” SiS27)

Farmers reaped bumper harvests

Farmer Dan Bahadur Rajbansi was transplanting his rice seedlings this year using the system of rice intensification as many others delayed while awaiting a late monsoon.  Ananta Ram Majhi, another of Morang district’s rice farmers, admits he was sceptical. “Initially, I thought to myself, if this is such a great idea why didn’t my ancestors think of it?  But I decided to take the chance and this is my third year using the new method.” Majhi, who used to harvest five tonnes per hectare and is now getting at least twice as much, has achieved this yield with only one-third of the seed he used before, and with less water.

Local agriculture officer Rajendra Uprety first read about the technique on the Internet and decided to try it. “Since 2002, we’ve achieved double and triple harvests on test plots. It's just amazing.” He said.

News of the bumper harvests have spread quickly from Morang where about 100 farmers are now using the new method. Uprety, who brings farmers from other districts on inspection visits, laughs, “Actually, it has been more difficult convincing the agronomists and officials than the farmers”.

Scientists remain sceptical

International scientists and agriculture research institutes have been hard to convince too.  Henri de Laulanié, a French Jesuit priest working in Madagascar, devised the new method back in 1983, but it was only after Norman Uphoff of the International Institute for Food, Agriculture and Development at Cornell University in the US started pushing the idea in 1997 that it was taken seriously.

Nevertheless SRI has been tried and tested by many thousands of farmers in about 20 countries, from Cuba to China.  Tens of thousands of farmers have adopted the method in the few years since researchers introduced it to Cambodia in 2001. And there, as in India, Laos, and Sri Lanka, farmers are reporting that SRI means bigger harvests and better incomes, for fewer seeds and less water.

But critics maintain that the scientific evidence for such claims is lacking because most field trial results have not been recorded in detail and published in peer-reviewed journals.  When researchers at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and colleagues tested SRI in field trials in China, they found no difference in yield between SRI and conventionally-grown rice.  Their study, published in Field Crops Research in March 2004, concluded that: "SRI has no major role in improving rice production generally".

IRRI prefers high input agriculture

But perhaps IRRI has no interest in low input farmer friendly agriculture.

IRRI is the world’s leading international rice research and training centre and describes itself as an “autonomous, nonprofit institution” that is “focused on improving the well-being of present and future generations of rice farmers and consumers, particularly those with low incomes.”  It is also part of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) an association of public and private donor agencies that funds 16 international research centres. 

Both IRRI and CGIAR have come under criticism for supporting a corporate agenda, for example by breeding high yielding rice varieties, that have caused the loss of over 100,000 local varieties, and that rely heavily on chemical inputs and frequent irrigation.  Indigenous varieties capable of giving a higher yield were deliberately excluded from these programmes.   

IRRI’s annual reports from 1963-1982 show grants from a whole array of US and European chemical corporations including Monsanto, Shell Chemical, Union Carbide Asia, Bayer Philippines, Eli Lily, OccidentalChemical, Ciba Geigy (later part of Novartis Seeds which is now part of Syngenta), Chevron Chemical, Upjohn, Hoechst, and Cyanamid Far East.

While farmer dependency on expensive external inputs has increased hugely, yields from Green Revolution cultivation are in wide decline or are stagnating. Since 1990, the focus at IRRI has been on developing GM rice, another technology aimed at making profit for agribusiness at the expense of people and the environment. 

At CGIAR’s Annual General Meeting in 2002 near the IRRI in the Philippines, farmers protested calling for both institutions to be dismantled. The protesters issued a statement saying  “We believe that a genuine, farmer-centred research institution should develop technologies that shall liberate farmers from dependence on any agro-chemical TNC, promote sustainable agriculture, conserve the environment, and protect the health of farmers.”

Trainers spread the word

For Rajendra Uprety in Nepal, the results of SRI speak for themselves. He points out that the technique’s success depends on skilful farming, good timing, and careful planting and drainage. Since planting on flooded paddy fields helped to control weeds, the drier SRI fields need weeding several times during the growing season. But the benefits far outweigh these obstacles, he says, adding that the main challenge is training.

He has turned local farmers, like Kishore Luitel, now total converts, into trainers. A few years ago, farmer Rajbansi thought Luitel had gone mad for adopting the new technique. But earlier this year, Luitel was in Rajbansi’s field teaching him how to plant his seedlings the new way, with the tiny two-week-old seedlings individually placed 20 centimetres apart in the sticky mud and not 10 centimetres apart in the slushy mud as was usual.

Luitel points to his own field where rice now grows in thick tufts with more than 80 shoots from one seed. “Using the old method, you plant three or four seedlings in one spot and you only get about ten shoots per seed,” he says.

For Uprety and Luitel, seeing is believing. They are convinced that no part of Nepal need be short of food anymore if SRI is promoted nationally. Every year, Nepal needs to produce more than 90 000 tonnes of rice seeds. The SRI advocates say the method would save 80 000 tonnes and harvests nationwide could be doubled.

Uprety sums it up: “Sometimes the best solutions are the simplest ones.”

The continuing spread of SRI and other appropriate farming technologies in Africa and Asia via the internet, and by word of mouth gives hope to many communities in the Third World.  However, improvements to local economies could have happened years ago if research institutes such as IRRI and the CGIAR had really had the well being of present and future generations of farmers at heart.

Article first published 06/10/05



Sources

  1. Dixit K.  Less is more: working miracles in Nepal's rice fields.  15 September 2005
    SciDev.Net: http://www.scidev.net/content/features/eng/less-is-more-working-miracles-in-nepals-rice-fields.cfm
  2. IRRI Profile.  http://www.gmwatch.org/profile1.asp?PrId=296&page=I
  3. Ho MW.  Fantastic rice yields: Fact or fallacy? Science in Society 23. Autumn 2004.

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