Wednesday, June 18, 2008

S. R. I. -- Fact or Fiction?

S.R.I. -- System of Rice Intensification -- the brainchild of Cornell scientist Norman T. Uphoff, is a system for increasing rice yields per hectare by improving the quality of individual paddy plants rather than increasing the total number. Perhaps I am more ignorant than most, but the first I heard of SRI was recently in a Times of India news item that reported that Tamil Nadu, the state I live in and work, is planning to increase the area under SRI cultivation from 4.2 lakh hectares to 7.5 lakh hectares this agricultural season. (A lakh is a hundred thousand). It is claimed that the areas under SRI cultivation in Tamil Nadu had achieved the optimum yield of about 13 to 14 metric tonnes of paddy per hectare (compared to 2 - 5 tonnes for the normal variety). Soon thereafter I found an article in the New York Times profiling Dr. Uphoff. (I cannot find the link to the Times of India article - I read it in the hard copy version of the newspaper). The idea behind SRI is that during drought months, rice plants and particularly roots become much stronger so as to better withstand the drought. This turns out to be the key to healthier plants. By keeping the soil moist but not wet to allow better soil aeration and root growth, coupled with wider spacing letting plants absorb more sunlight, each plant sends forth more tillers (the side shoots that a plant gives out) and each tiller produces 200 to 500 grains instead of the usual 100 or so. Moreover, an added benefit is significant savings in water utilisation. Unfortunately, the issue of greater productivity per hectare is still mired in controversy. The world famous International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines has dismissed Dr Uphoff's claim as either overblown, or the result of poor book-keeping or just plain wishful thinking and difficult to replicate on a large scale. It has also been criticised for increasing drudgery for farmers, particularly poor women who work in the fields. However 28 countries among them Vietnam, Cambodia, India, China, Indonesia (mostly countries with rice intensive farming) have become some of the top SRI users, and there has been uniform praise from these countries for improved yields that have come from SRI varieties. More details can be accessed at the SRI website. Links to many Indian newspaper articles on SRI are also available here.


Rahul Siddharthan said...

I hadn't heard of SRI but found this article by George Monbiot interesting. He says small farms are more productive than large farms (something I seem to remember learning in school, without evidence) and the difference can be a factor of 20 (which I certainly don't recall hearing before).

Another point I've heard from many people is that rice is a relatively recent entrant to Tamil Nadu, and the traditional grains (millets like ragi, thinai, etc) are easier to grow, hardier and require far less water. Rice, with its enormous water requirements, is quite unsuited to the climate of this region...

AMOK said...

Never had heard of SRI or of the productivity of smaller farms. No doubt such statements are all true, depending on the measure used and the control set and the "scientist". Not being an expert rice farmer does not help in setting up the correct experiments, an ensemble of fields side by side, one conventional one SRI. Ever heard of Cold Fusion? Experimental confirmations around the world happened, echoing like the SRI confirmations.

It seems logical though, that with more care and love, more air and sunlight and less crowding, a more full plant would materialize.

Thank you for your food-focused blogging, Sire.

gaddeswarup said...

This is new to me and I wrote some friends in India enquiring about it. Rahul Banerjee says "sri is indeed the future revolution. in fact it can be tried with other crops like wheat also. only thing it involves more labour and so farmers are slow at going for it. however, things are slowly moving forward."
Dileep Reddi says "SRI has been around for quite some time now. The state government and some NGOs like WASSAN & Timbaktu have been promoting it. While the initial results are encouraging, the adoption of this new method seem to be abysmally low. Excessive weed seems to be one of the major problems. Lack of training is another issue.
May be its not that easy to change the mindset that has developed over centuries..."
Dr. Shambu Prasd's article is a good coverage of the work done in India up to 2006.

gaddeswarup said...

Sorry; I should have given some links. Rahul Banerjee is an IIT (Khrgapur?) graduate and has been working with Bhils since 80's. He has a blog:
Dileep Reddi is a journalist-writer from Hyderabad and writes for 'Veekshanam'.
Dr. C. Shambu Prasad is an agricultural scientist who works in Orissa and the link to his long (79 pages) article is:
If this does not work, go to the SRI web site
and look for his article in the articles section. This site has also links to various articles in 'The Hindu'.

Rahul Basu said...


Thanks for the links - will take
a look.

sunder and sonati said...

I cannot comment on SRI from personal experience, so perhaps I should keep mum. But having been expressly invited to comment...well who can resist that?

I have heard of people experimenting with it (It's also called the Madagascar Method) but did not know of the scale of the operation in TN.

Where we live, I don't know of anyone doing it; and the labour-intensiveness of the method in an already labour-intensive life may be one factor.

People around here do have native highland varieties of rice which are grown rainfed,(No standing water being pumped) with only organic manure and intercropped with Tuvar dal. These have only one crop a year. And these days many farmers (including us) have given it up because of the rat menace. Rats nibble the stalk, drop the grain and consume the rice and leave mounds of husk for you to be able to estimate how much of the crop is lost (up to 80% in some years..).

So SRI may perhaps also face the rat menace. This year, in fact, I have seen in many fields,"gaps in the green" where bandicoots have eaten from a rice paddy with standing water. Maybe they are evolving into good swimmers so as to be able to get at wetland rice as well!

In a small farm, farmers will decide on the crop, method, etc. based on the family and the amount of labour they can be sure of over a season. Here, they also have different seeds (for a crop) depending on whether the rains come early or late. Seeds for rice are not so farm specific, perhaps because rice is a new crop, but I know that ragi seed (for our land) can be borrowed (or bought) within a two km radius of our land. Seeds from further away (from a different village) they say will not do so well here!

Perhaps I am rambling too much away from the topic at hand: I think the point I am trying to make is that a small farm is a microecosystem with its own people, animals, crops, and perhaps one would not be exaggerating if one said it is a work of art.

gaddeswarup said...

I enquired some more with a hobby farmer in A.P. and also read another Shambu Prasad article in
The friend from A.P. says that it works in the very first year and better later (modulo weeds and pests) but it is labour intensive. He says that it is difficult to get enough agricultural labourers now. Apparently there is govt. guarantee scheme which is implemented at the same time when farmers need workers and many are going for the govt. work. As far as I can see from the reports, SRI has govt. backing in Tripura and seems to be working well there. There are also reports of combined planned trials of Uphoff's group and IRRI.
That is about all I can gather from a distance. I am planning to visit A.P. next January and will visit some of the places where it is practices. Apparently there are some professors in Acharya N.G. Ranga Agricultural University (ANGRAU)in Hyderabad who have been taking interest in SRI. Alapati satyanarayana is one of the names mentioned.