Soil biodiversity creates a rice production revolution

Rice

Hardly known in the west a revolution is taking place across the rice-producing world – and the secret lies in enabling soil biodiversity to thrive. The method, known as the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) has dramatically improved yields and is significantly improving the lives particularly of  the rural poor. At the same time the techniques are now also being emulated in larger mechanical agricultural systems to increase productivity, reduce fertilizer inputs and gain significant environmental improvements.

The method has actually been emerging for 20 years following the work of a French Jesuit Father, Henri de Lauline in Madagascar where he experimented with rice growing conditions. Many scientists were skeptical and in a featured article in the Observer/Guardian, reporter John Vidal talks to rice specialist Norman Uphoff from Cornell University. After becoming convinced of Lauline’s methods, Uphoff has been credited with helping spread the SRI technique around the world where it is now being adopted in parts of more than 40 countries including Mali, India, Pakistan, Vietnam and Indonesia.

By simply using the technique rural farmers have been increasing their yields by fifty percent and in some cases four-fold – and achieving this massive improvement with no new varieties or expensive fertilizers. Instead of growing large numbers of seeds closely packed Lauline developed an emphasis on planting single seedlings well separated in a grid. This gives each plant room to receive more light and space for roots to grow and make best use of the soil. He reduced water logging, only keeping the paddies moist but the soil still well aerated and not flooded with stranding water. He used organic fertilizer made from composted local material to feed the seed rather than use intensive and expensive industrial fertilizers.

Single seedlings planted on a wide grid

Single seedlings planted on a wide grid

But the big secret of the technique, the reason for its success, is only now being fully realised. The combination of spacing, aeration and organic nutrients is massively mobilising the activity of soil micro-biodiversity. It is down to the actions of millions of bacteria, fungi and soil micro-biota, and their interactions with the rice root systems which the technique is liberating. This active soil micro ecosystem is much more able to digest and redeploy the organic material to provide the nutrients for the spectacular yield increases.

In the Observer interview Uphoff explained that SRI 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… 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… For 40 years 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.”

In addition to the massive increasing in yield that have now been so effectively demonstrated SRI has other major advantages. By reducing water usage for rice production precious water supplies can be free for other uses. With the reduction in fertilizer use water systems are better protected from nitrate and phosphate pollution. Because water is not left standing in the paddi field the water and soil does not stagnate and the anaerobic release of methane and other green-house gases is much reduced – which is a major benefit because rice production is a significant source of greenhouse gases. So this is a pretty spectacular return for making space for soil micro-biodiversity.

A YouTube or Google search will reveal a plethora of videos, websites and info leaflets in numerous languages spreading the news to farmers around the globe. However this story has a long way to go, applying the lessons to other crops such as millet is also demonstrating improved yields, including crops familiar to the northern hemisphere such as wheat. The potential for reducing the amount of grain wasted in sowing, for the improvements in food yields and for the significant environmental and biodiversity benefits may well continue to revolutionise agriculture as the methods move towards more mainstream acceptance.

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