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 India's rice revolution

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Join date : 2012-05-29
Location : Manchester UK

PostSubject: India's rice revolution   Mon 18 Feb 2013, 15:45

India's rice revolution

In a village in India's poorest state, Bihar, farmers are growing world record amounts of rice – with no GM, and no herbicide. Is this one solution to world food shortages?

Sumant Kumar photographed in Darveshpura, Bihar, India. Photograph: Chiara Goia for Observer Food Monthly

Sumant Kumar was overjoyed when he harvested his rice last year.
There had been good rains in his village of Darveshpura in north-east India
and he knew he could improve on the four or five tonnes per hectare
that he usually managed. But every stalk he cut on his paddy field near
the bank of the Sakri river seemed to weigh heavier than usual, every
grain of rice was bigger and when his crop was weighed on the old
village scales, even Kumar was shocked.
This was not six or even
10 or 20 tonnes. Kumar, a shy young farmer in Nalanda district of
India's poorest state Bihar, had – using only farmyard manure and
without any herbicides – grown an astonishing 22.4 tonnes of rice on one
hectare of land. This was a world record and with rice the staple food of more than half the world's population of seven billion, big news.
It beat not just the 19.4 tonnes achieved by the "father of rice", the Chinese agricultural scientist Yuan Longping, but the World Bank-funded scientists at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, and anything achieved by the biggest European and American seed and GM companies.
And it was not just Sumant Kumar. Krishna, Nitish, Sanjay and Bijay,
his friends and rivals in Darveshpura, all recorded over 17 tonnes, and
many others in the villages around claimed to have more than doubled
their usual yields.
The villagers, at the mercy of erratic weather
and used to going without food in bad years, celebrated. But the Bihar
state agricultural universities didn't believe them at first, while
India's leading rice scientists muttered about freak results. The
Nalanda farmers were accused of cheating. Only when the state's head of agriculture, a rice farmer himself, came to the village with his own men and personally verified Sumant's crop, was the record confirmed.

A tool used to harvest rice. Photograph: Chiara Goia

The rhythm of Nalanda village life was shattered. Here bullocks still
pull ploughs as they have always done, their dung is still dried on the
walls of houses and used to cook food. Electricity has still not
reached most people. Sumant became a local hero, mentioned in the Indian
parliament and asked to attend conferences. The state's chief minister
came to Darveshpura to congratulate him, and the village was rewarded
with electric power, a bank and a new concrete bridge.
That might
have been the end of the story had Sumant's friend Nitish not smashed
the world record for growing potatoes six months later. Shortly after
Ravindra Kumar, a small farmer from a nearby Bihari village, broke the
Indian record for growing wheat. Darveshpura became known as India's
"miracle village", Nalanda became famous and teams of scientists,
development groups, farmers, civil servants and politicians all
descended to discover its secret.
When I meet the young farmers,
all in their early 30s, they still seem slightly dazed by their fame.
They've become unlikely heroes in a state where nearly half the families
live below the Indian poverty line and 93% of the 100 million
population depend on growing rice and potatoes. Nitish Kumar speaks
quietly of his success and says he is determined to improve on the
record. "In previous years, farming has not been very profitable," he
says. "Now I realise that it can be. My whole life has changed. I can
send my children to school and spend more on health. My income has
increased a lot."
What happened in Darveshpura has divided
scientists and is exciting governments and development experts. Tests on
the soil show it is particularly rich in silicon but the reason for the
"super yields" is entirely down to a method of growing crops called
System of Rice (or root) Intensification (SRI). It has dramatically
increased yields with wheat, potatoes, sugar cane, yams, tomatoes,
garlic, aubergine and many other crops and is being hailed as one of the
most significant developments of the past 50 years for the world's 500
million small-scale farmers and the two billion people who depend on

People work on a rice field in Bihar. Photograph: Chiara Goia

Instead of planting three-week-old rice seedlings in clumps of three
or four in waterlogged fields, as rice farmers around the world
traditionally do, the Darveshpura farmers carefully nurture only half as
many seeds, and then transplant the young plants into fields, one by
one, when much younger. Additionally, they space them at 25cm intervals
in a grid pattern, keep the soil much drier and carefully weed around
the plants to allow air to their roots. The premise that "less is more"
was taught by Rajiv Kumar, a young Bihar state government extension
worker who had been trained in turn by Anil Verma of a small Indian NGO
called Pran (Preservation and
Proliferation of Rural Resources and
Nature), which has introduced the SRI method to hundreds of villages in
the past three years.
While the "green revolution" that averted
Indian famine in the 1970s relied on improved crop varieties, expensive
pesticides and chemical fertilisers, SRI appears to offer a long-term,
sustainable future for no extra cost. With more than one in seven of the
global population going hungry and demand for rice expected to outstrip
supply within 20 years, it appears to offer real hope. Even a 30%
increase in the yields of the world's small farmers would go a long way
to alleviating poverty.
"Farmers use less seeds, less water and
less chemicals but they get more without having to invest more. This is
revolutionary," said Dr Surendra Chaurassa from Bihar's agriculture ministry.
"I did not believe it to start with, but now I think it can potentially
change the way everyone farms. I would want every state to promote it.
If we get 30-40% increase in yields, that is more than enough to
recommend it."
The results in Bihar have exceeded Chaurassa's
hopes. Sudama Mahto, an agriculture officer in Nalanda, says a small
investment in training a few hundred people to teach SRI methods has
resulted in a 45% increase in the region's yields. Veerapandi Arumugam,
the former agriculture minister of Tamil Nadu state, hailed the system
as "revolutionising" farming.
SRI's origins go back to the 1980s in Madagascar
where Henri de Laulanie, a French Jesuit priest and agronomist,
observed how villagers grew rice in the uplands. He developed the method
but it was an American, professor Norman Uphoff, director of the International Institute for Food, Agriculture and Development at Cornell University, who was largely responsible for spreading the word about De Laulanie's work.
Given $15m by an anonymous billionaire to research sustainable development,
Uphoff went to Madagascar in 1983 and saw the success of SRI for
himself: farmers whose previous yields averaged two tonnes per hectare
were harvesting eight tonnes. In 1997 he started to actively promote SRI
in Asia, where more than 600 million people are malnourished.
is a set of ideas, the absolute opposite to the first green revolution
[of the 60s] which said that you had to change the genes and the soil
nutrients to improve yields. That came at a tremendous ecological cost,"
says Uphoff. "Agriculture in the 21st century must be practised
differently. Land and water resources are becoming scarcer, of poorer
quality, or less reliable. Climatic conditions are in many places more
adverse. SRI offers millions of disadvantaged households far better
opportunities. Nobody is benefiting from this except the farmers; there
are no patents, royalties or licensing fees."

Rice seeds. Photograph: Chiara Goia

For 40 years now, says Uphoff, science has been obsessed with
improving seeds and using artificial fertilisers: "It's been genes,
genes, genes. There has never been talk of managing crops. Corporations
say 'we will breed you a better plant' and breeders work hard to get
5-10% increase in yields. We have tried to make agriculture an
industrial enterprise and have forgotten its biological roots."
everyone agrees. Some scientists complain there is not enough
peer-reviewed evidence around SRI and that it is impossible to get such
returns. "SRI is a set of management practices and nothing else, many of
which have been known for a long time and are best recommended
practice," says Achim Dobermann, deputy director for research at the
International Rice Research Institute. "Scientifically speaking I don't
believe there is any miracle. When people independently have evaluated
SRI principles then the result has usually been quite different from
what has been reported on farm evaluations conducted by NGOs and others
who are promoting it. Most scientists have had difficulty replicating
the observations."
Dominic Glover, a British researcher working
with Wageningen University in the Netherlands, has spent years analysing
the introduction of GM crops in developing countries. He is now
following how SRI is being adopted in India and believes there has been a
"turf war".
"There are experts in their fields defending their
knowledge," he says. "But in many areas, growers have tried SRI methods
and abandoned them. People are unwilling to investigate this. SRI is
good for small farmers who rely on their own families for labour, but
not necessarily for larger operations. Rather than any magical theory,
it is good husbandry, skill and attention which results in the super
yields. Clearly in certain circumstances, it is an efficient resource
for farmers. But it is labour intensive and nobody has come up with the
technology to transplant single seedlings yet."
But some larger
farmers in Bihar say it is not labour intensive and can actually reduce
time spent in fields. "When a farmer does SRI the first time, yes it is
more labour intensive," says Santosh Kumar, who grows 15 hectares of
rice and vegetables in Nalanda. "Then it gets easier and new innovations
are taking place now."
In its early days, SRI was dismissed or
vilified by donors and scientists but in the past few years it has
gained credibility. Uphoff estimates there are now 4-5 million farmers
using SRI worldwide, with governments in China, India, Indonesia,
Cambodia, Sri Lanka and Vietnam promoting it.
Sumant, Nitish and
as many as 100,000 other SRI farmers in Bihar are now preparing their
next rice crop. It's back-breaking work transplanting the young rice
shoots from the nursery beds to the paddy fields but buoyed by
recognition and results, their confidence and optimism in the future is
sky high.
Last month Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz visited
Nalanda district and recognised the potential of this kind of organic
farming, telling the villagers they were "better than scientists". "It
was amazing to see their success in organic farming," said Stiglitz, who
called for more research. "Agriculture scientists from across the world
should visit and learn and be inspired by them."

A man winnows rice in Satgharwa village.
Photograph: Chiara Goia

Bihar, from being India's poorest state, is now at the centre of what
is being called a "new green grassroots revolution" with farming
villages, research groups and NGOs all beginning to experiment with
different crops using SRI. The state will invest $50m in SRI next year
but western governments and foundations are holding back, preferring to
invest in hi-tech research. The agronomist Anil Verma does not
understand why: "The farmers know SRI works, but help is needed to train
them. We know it works differently in different soils but the
principles are solid," he says. "The biggest problem we have is that
people want to do it but we do not have enough trainers.
"If any
scientist or a company came up with a technology that almost guaranteed a
50% increase in yields at no extra cost they would get a Nobel prize.
But when young Biharian farmers do that they get nothing. I only want to
see the poor farmers have enough to eat."

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