Different from Traditional Rice Growing Methods
To appreciate the novelty of More Crop Per Drop or System of Rice Intensification (SRI) requires some understanding of how rice is grown. As anyone knows who has traveled in Asia and wondered at the miles of luminescent green paddies, irrigated rice is normally grown covered by water. Although rice is a very adaptable plant, it is not an aquatic plant and by the end of a growing cycle the roots of rice plants kept in flooded conditions have started to die from lack of oxygen. Flooding helps suppress weeds.
The SRI methodology was developed in the 1980s by Father Henri de Laulanié, trained agronomist and Jesuit priest, along with Malagasy colleagues and farmers. With Cornell University playing a key catalytic role, the methodology has spread from just a few hundred farmers in Madagascar to 10 million smallholder farm families in over 50 countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East.
Unflooded Rice Fields
Farmers following SRI principles do not keep their fields continuously flooded. Instead they alternate the wetting and drying of rice paddies. And instead of randomly transplanting clumps of rice seedlings, 4 weeks old or more, into flooded fields, they plant very young seedlings (8-15 days) singly and carefully in rows with wide spacing. Soil is then kept moist but not flooded.
This exposes the soil and the beneficial organisms living in it to the air and sun. Adding compost to the soil builds the health of the soil. Controlling weeds with a simple rotary weeder actively aerates the soil, delivering oxygen to the roots and soil organisms. Larger, healthier root systems and more abundant and diverse communities of soil organisms enable the plants to produce many more grain-bearing tillers (stalks), bigger panicles (ears of grain), heavier grains, and more biomass, which is a benefit to poor households who need the straw for animal fodder.
Higher Yields, Less Inputs
With SRI methods, average yields are 6 to 7 tons of rice per hectare (a hectare is about 2.5 acres), compared to usual yields of 2 to 4 tons/hectare with farmer practices. This matches or exceeds the yields of input-intensive cultivation using high-yielding varieties (HYVs), fertilizer and pesticides, all of which entail considerable economic and environmental cost. Some of our organic SRI farmers are achieving yields as high as 10 tons per hectare.
Each of the management practices used in SRI makes a positive difference in the yield, but the real potential of SRI is seen when the practices are used together. SRI is a work in progress. Farmers are encouraged to make their own improvements in SRI methods and to share experiences within the farming community. SRI concepts and methods have been successfully adapted to upland unirrigated rice, and they are now being applied to other crops like millet, wheat and sugar cane.
We learned about SRI in 2005 from the Cornell International Institute for Food, Agriculture and Development (CIIFAD), which has been promoting research, outreach and extension about SRI since the mid-1990s. They saw that many farmers using SRI methods were transitioning from not having enough rice to eat to rice surpluses. These surpluses are of high- quality, chemical-free traditional varieties, many with superior cooking and health properties. CIIFAD thought that developing in-country and foreign markets could be an opportunity to help some of the world's most marginalized farmers preserve both plant and cultural biodiversity, achieve better prices, adopt environmentally sound agricultural practices and bring consumers a healthier food. They identified Lotus Foods as a company that had the experience and values to be willing to accept the challenge of working with inexperienced farmer groups. Challenge is an understatement, but we felt it was essential to bring this message to consumers and allow you to be part of the solution.
Here is what organizations like Oxfam US say about SRI's benefits: "Perhaps the greatest attraction of SRI, particularly in poor countries like Cambodia, is that with just a bit of training and virtually no technology, farmers can earn big returns." OXFAMExchange Fall 2008 - A Root Revolution in Cambodia