A rice revolution that works on the principle of less is more

A rice revolution that works on the principle of less is more
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First Published: Wed, Jun 18 2008. 12 05 AM IST

Updated: Wed, Jun 18 2008. 12 05 AM IST
Ithaca, New York: Many professors dream of revolution. But Norman T. Uphoff, working in a leafy corner of the Cornell University campus, is leading an inconspicuous one centred on solving the global food crisis. The secret, he says, is a new way of growing rice.
Rejecting old customs as well as the modern reliance on genetic engineering, Uphoff, 67, an emeritus professor of government and international agriculture with a trim white beard and a tidy office, advocates a management revolt.
Harvests double, he says, if farmers plant early, give seedlings more room to grow and stop flooding fields. That cuts water and seed costs and promotes root and leaf growth.
The method, called the System of Rice Intensification, or SRI, emphasizes the quality of individual plants over the quantity. It applies a less-is-more ethic to rice cultivation.
In a decade, it has gone from obscure theory to global trend—and encountered fierce resistance from established rice scientists. Yet a million rice farmers have adopted the system, Uphoff says. The rural army, he predicts, will swell to 10 million farmers in the next few years, increasing rice harvests, filling empty bellies and saving untold lives.
“The world has lots and lots of problems,” Uphoff said recently while talking of rice intensification and his 38 years at Cornell. “But if we can’t solve the problems of people’s food needs, we can’t do anything. This, at least, is within our reach.”
That may sound audacious given the depths of the food crisis and the troubles facing rice. Roughly half the world eats the grain as a staple food even as yields have stagnated and prices have soared, nearly tripling in the past year. The price jolt has provoked riots, panicked hoarding and violent protests in poor countries.
But Uphoff has a striking record of accomplishment, as well as a gritty kind of farm-boy tenacity. He and his method have flourished despite the scepticism of his Cornell peers and the global rice establishment—especially the International Rice Research Institute, which helped start the green revolution of rising grain production and specializes in improving rice genetics.
His telephone rings. It is the World Bank Institute, the educational and training arm of the development bank. The institute is making a DVD to spread the word.
“That’s one of the irons in the fire,” he tells a visitor, looking pleased before plunging back into his tale. Uphoff’s improbable journey involves a Wisconsin dairy farm, a billionaire philanthropist, the jungles of Madagascar, a Jesuit priest, ranks of eager volunteers and, increasingly, the developing world. He lists top SRI users India, China, Indonesia, Cambodia and Vietnam, among 28 countries in three continents.
In the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu, Veerapandi S. Arumugam, agriculture minister, recently hailed the system as “revolutionizing” paddy farming while spreading to “a staggering” million acres. Chan Sarun, Cambodia’s agriculture minister, told hundreds of farmers at an agriculture fair in April that SRI’s speedy growth promises a harvest of “white gold”.
On Cornell’s agricultural campus, Uphoff runs a one-man show from an office rich in travel mementos. From Sri Lanka, woven rice stalks adorn a wall, the heads thick with rice grains. His computers link him to a global network of SRI activists and backers, like Oxfam, the British charity. Uphoff is SRI’s global advocate, and his website—http://ciifad.cornell.edu/sri/—serves as the main showcase for its principles and successes. “It couldn’t have happened without the Internet,” he says.
“The claims are grossly exaggerated,” said Achim Dobermann, head of research at the rice institute, which is based in the Philippines. Dobermann said fewer farmers use SRI than advertised because old practices often are counted as part of the trend and the method itself is often watered down.
“We don’t doubt that good yields can be achieved,” he said, but he called the methods too onerous for the real world.
By contrast, a former sceptic sees great potential. Vernon W. Ruttan, an agricultural economist at the University of Minnesota and a long-time member of the National Academy of Sciences, once worked for the rice institute and doubted the system’s prospects.
Ruttan now calls himself an enthusiastic fan, saying the method is already reshaping the world of rice cultivation. “I doubt it will be as great as the green revolution,” he said. “But in some areas it’s already having a substantial impact.”
Robert Chambers, a leading analyst on rural development, who works at the University of Sussex, England, called it a breakthrough.
“The extraordinary thing,” he said, “is that both farmers and scientists have missed this—farmers for thousands of years, and scientists until very recently and then some of them in a state of denial.”
The method, he added, “has a big contribution to make to world food supplies. Its time has come.”
Uphoff grew up on a Wisconsin farm milking cows and doing chores. In 1966, he graduated from Princeton with a master’s degree in public affairs and in 1970 from the University of California, Berkeley, with a doctorate in political science.
At Cornell, he threw himself into rural development, irrigation management and credit programmes for small farmers in the developing world.
In 1990, a secret philanthropist (eventually revealed to be Charles F. Feeney, a Cornell alumnus who made billions in duty-free shops) gave the university $15 million (Rs64.35 crore today) to start a programme on world hunger. Uphoff was the institute’s director for 15 years.
The directorship took him in late 1993 to Madagascar. Slash-and-burn rice farming was destroying the rainforest, and Uphoff sought alternatives. He heard that a French Jesuit priest, Father Henri de Laulanie, had developed a high-yield rice cultivation method that he called SRI. Uphoff was sceptical. Rice farmers there typically harvested 2 tonnes per ha. The group claimed 5-15 tonnes.
“I remember thinking, ‘Do they think they can scam me?’” Uphoff recalled. “I told them, ‘Don’t talk 10-15 tonnes. No one at Cornell will believe it. Let’s shoot for 3 or 4.’” Uphoff oversaw field trials for three years, and the farmers averaged 8 tonnes per ha. Impressed, he featured SRI on the cover of his institute’s annual reports for 1996 and 1997.
Uphoff never met the priest, who died in 1995. But the success prompted him to scrutinize the method and its origins. One clear advantage was root vigour.
The priest, during a drought, had noticed that rice plants and, especially roots, seemed much stronger. That led to the goal of keeping fields damp but not flooded, which improved soil aeration and root growth.
Also, wide spacing let each plant soak up more sunlight and send out more tillers—the shoots that branch to the side. Plants would send out upwards of 100 tillers. And each tiller, instead of bearing the usual 100 or so grains, would puff up with 200 to 500 grains.
One drawback was that the halt to flooding let invaders take root, calling for more weeding. A simple solution was a rotating, hand-pushed hoe, which also aided soil aeration and crop production.
But that meant more labour, at least at first. It seemed that as farmers gained skill, and yields rose, the overall system became labour saving compared with usual methods. Uphoff knew the no-frills approach went against the culture of modern agribusiness but decided it was too good to ignore. In 1998, he began promoting it beyond Madagascar, travelling the world, “sticking my neck out”, as he put it.
Slowly, it caught on, but visibility brought critics. They dismissed the claims as based on wishful thinking and poor record keeping, and did field trials that showed results similar to conventional methods.
In 2006, three of Uphoff’s colleagues at Cornell wrote a scathing analysis based on global data. “We find no evidence,” they wrote, “that SRI fundamentally changes the physiological yield potential of rice.” While less categorical, Dobermann called the methods a step backward socially because they increased drudgery in rice farming, especially among poor women.
In his Cornell office, Uphoff said his critics were biased and knew little of SRI’s actual workings. The method saves labour for most farmers, including women, he said. As for the sceptics’ field trials, he said, they were marred by problems such as using soils dead from decades of harsh chemicals and monocropping, which is the growing of the same crop on the same land year after year. “The critics have tried to say it’s all zealotry and religious belief,” Uphoff sighed. “But it’s science.”
A recent report from the Timbuktu region of Mali, on the edge of the Sahara Desert, said farmers had raised rice yields 34%, despite initial problems with SRI guideline observance.
In Laos, an agriculture official recently said SRI had doubled the size of rice crops in three provinces and would spread to the whole country because it provided greater yields with fewer resources.
“Once we get over the mental barriers,” Uphoff said, “it can go very, very quickly because there's nothing to buy.” The opponents have agreed to conduct a global field trial that may end the dispute, he said. The participants include the rice institute, Cornell and Wageningen University, a Dutch institution with a stellar reputation in agriculture.
The trials may start in 2009 and run through 2011, Uphoff said. “This should satisfy any scientific questions,” he added. “But my sense is that SRI is moving so well and so fast that this will be irrelevant.” ©2008/The New York Times
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First Published: Wed, Jun 18 2008. 12 05 AM IST
More Topics: Cornell University | Rice | Uphoff | SRI | Gold |