How millions of farmers are advancing agriculture for themselves (OurWorld 2.0)

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by Jonathan Latham

The world record yield for paddy rice production is not held by an agricultural research station or by a large-scale farmer from the United States, but by a farmer in the state of Bihar in northern India. Sumant Kumar, who has a farm of just two hectares in Darveshpura village, holds a record yield of 22.4 tons per hectare, from a one-acre plot. This feat was achieved with what is known as the System of Rice Intensification (SRI). To put his achievement in perspective, the average paddy yield worldwide is about 4 tons per hectare. Even with the use of fertilizer, average yields are usually not more than 8 tons.

Sumant Kumar’s success was not a fluke. Four of his neighbors, using SRI methods for the first time, matched or exceeded the previous world record from China — 19 tons per hectare. Moreover, they used only modest amounts of inorganic fertilizer and did not need chemical crop protection.

Origins and principles of SRI

Deriving from empirical work started in the 1960s in Madagascar by a French priest — Fr. Henri de Laulanié, S.J. — the System of Rice Intensification has shown remarkable capacity to raise smallholders’ rice productivity under a wide variety of conditions around the world. From tropical rainforest regions of Indonesia, to mountainous regions in northeastern Afghanistan, to fertile river basins in India and Pakistan and to arid conditions of Timbuktu on the edge of the Sahara Desert in Mali, SRI methods have proved adaptable to a wide range of agroecological settings.

With SRI management, paddy yields are usually increased by 50–100 percent, but sometimes by more, even up to the super-yields of Sumant Kumar. Requirements for seed are greatly reduced (by 80–90 percent), as are those for irrigation water (by 25–50 percent). Little or no inorganic fertilizer is required if sufficient organic matter can be provided to the soil, and there is little (if any) need for agrochemical protection. SRI plants are also generally healthier and better able to resist such stresses as well as drought, extremes of temperature, flooding, and storm damage.


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