The system of rice intensification (SRI) is gaining ground across Asia as more and more governments come to rely on it for food security. “SRI was not invented by scientists, but its results speak for themselves,” Sudeep Karki, from the Norwegian University of Life Sciences and an SRI specialist in Nepal, told IRIN. “SRI is the counterpart in agricultural development of a viral idea in social media, imposing its way from the ground to the top.”
Less seed, less water, less pesticides and chemical fertilizers can bring significantly higher yields, according to the International Network and Resources Centre (SRI-Rice), based at Cornell University in the US. SRI methods are being successfully applied to other staple commodities like wheat and sugarcane, and teff in northeast Africa.
The idea of SRI was first put forward in the 1980s by a Jesuit priest in Madagascar, under the premise that “less is more” .
SRI started with farmers and NGOs, but now governments are promoting it in China, India, Indonesia, Cambodia and Vietnam, and the spread is accelerating, said Norman Uphoff, a senior advisor at SRI-Rice.
“The point for Asian farmers is the 20 to 80 percent higher on-farm net return, compared to scientists’ best management practices, thanks to less inputs and bigger harvests,” said Abha Mishra, a scientist at the Bangkok-based Asian Institute of Technology (AIT).
The expanding rice bowl
“In China, SRI will exceed 900,000 hectares in 2012, up from 700,000 in 2011 and 200,000 in 2007,” said Weijian Zhang, from the Institute of Crop Sciences at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences in the capital, Beijing.
SRI is becoming the main rice cultivation system in most of southern China, said Zhu Defeng, a principal scientist at the Hangzhou-based China National Rice Research Institute (CNRRI).
SRI usually achieves 8 to 11 tons per hectare in China, higher than the national average of 6.6 tons, or the world average of 4.4 tons per hectare, CNRRI reported.
According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), China, India and Indonesia were the world’s leading producers of rice in 2010, and Asia produced and consumed around 90 percent of the world’s rice.
The Indonesian Ministry of Agriculture announced in 2011 that it would rely more on SRI to increase food security, with a target of 1.5 million hectares in 2015, up from 100,000 hectares in 2011.
In January 2012, the Indian Ministry of Rural Development increased support to SRI by targeting 10 million hectares of rice area for SRI management over the next five years, twice the area under SRI cultivation today.
The Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development in Vietnam, the world’s fifth largest producer of rice and the second largest exporter, reported in October 2011 that a million farmers were now using SRI – three times more than in 2009.
“SRI was introduced in Asia in 1999 and at first spread slowly, but with the ongoing acceleration the system could represent 10 percent of world rice production by 2015,” said Uphoff, who noted that international institutions and donors are increasingly supporting SRI.
Today, SRI is seen as vital to achieving the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and the spread of SRI in Cambodia was cited in 2010 as one of 15 Asian success stories in the MDGs endeavour.
The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) set up a webpage about the system in March 2012. “Our new technologies can benefit from the participatory and adaptive approach of SRI,” said Bas Bouman, the head of the Crop and Environmental Sciences Division of the Philippines-based IRRI. The World Bank has produced a multimedia toolkit entitled, “Achieving More with Less”.
Recent initiatives by other international bodies include a European Union-financed project in the Mekong River basin in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam (September 2011) and an Asian Development Bank-funded project in Laos (February 2012).