Norman Uphoff: Spreading Crop Intensification Around the World

The story of the discovery of SRI (System of Rice Intensification) begins in the Indian Ocean.

As you learned if you read that, the French Jesuit priest Father Henri de Laulanié was sent by his order to Madagascar in 1961 to do mission work. But he fig-ured out quickly that he needed first to deal with the local poverty and hunger, and that rice, the staple food on the island, was the key to doing that.

For twenty years he watched local farmers, studied their planting methods and their harvests, experimented on his own with various growing techniques, and slowly developed a number of unconventional ideas about rice culture that began proving themselves in larger and larger local harvests.

Norman Thomas Uphoff explains the importance of the Systems of Crop Intensification

By 1983 he was teaching Madagascar farmers to use his SRI system, and in 1990 created an organization, the Association Tefy Saina, to spread his ideas. ‘Tefy Saina’ is a Malagasy term meaning ‘to improve the mind’. But progress was slow. In 1990 Laulanié also gave a couple of seminars on his approach at the Uni-versity of Madagascar, but it was not taken seriously. He died in 1997.

Without the help of a thoughtful and determined American professor the potential of SRI in transforming small peasant agriculture would still be largely un-recognized.

Norman Thomas Uphoff, raised in Minnesota in a socialist family active in building the Democratic-Farmer-Labor party of Hubert Humphrey, graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1963 with a strong social conscience. In a climate where John F. Kennedy had recently founded the Peace Corps, Norman de-cided to devote himself to international development.

After a year as International Vice President of the National Student Association he got a PhD from Berkeley and in 1970 accepted a position at Cornell Univer-sity as professor of Government and Political Science (academic advancement in the U. S. came a lot faster forty years ago!) The next 20 years he spent in the school’s College of Arts and Sciences, working on rural development.

“I spent more time with agriculturalists than social scientists,” he recalls, “as that was where my interests were. That meant I worked a lot with people on the upper campus, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, instead of the College of Arts and Sciences, which is on the lower campus. When Cornell received a very generous anonymous gift of 15 million dollars for ten years to work on sustainable agricultural rural development, my agriculturalist friends said: ‘Why don’t you apply to be the director? You can get people working together across disciplines.’”

So Uphoff did, and was selected to run the Cornell International Institute for Food, Agriculture and Development (CIIFAD).

The third year into that job he had programs started in the Dominican Republic, Indonesia, Zimbabwe, and the Philippines. Then they were presented with an opportunity to go into a USAID-funded Madagascar project.

Madagascar has notoriously poor soils. The pH is a highly acid 3.8 to 5; the cation exchange capacity is very low on all soil horizons; there is iron toxicity, alu-minum toxicity, and the available phosphorus is less than 5 parts per million when ten is usually the minimum for agriculture. In many places the primary practice was to slash an area in the forest and burn it, then grow there for a few years until the nutrients in the ash were used up. Then the area was allowed to regrow while a new one was slashed and burned.

“I thought,” Uphoff says, “‘That’s an interesting challenge. How do you help farmers have an alternative to slash and burn?’ This was 1993. When I went to the villages there I remember telling my colleague: ‘We have to get the rice yields up. As long as they are only 2 metric tons per hectare the farmers are going to have to do slash and burn to supplement what they can grow on their paddies.’

“I said that,” Norman recalls, “to the project coordinator, a Malagasy, and he said: ‘Yeah, you are not going to be able to stop people when they have to feed themselves. But I know a small NGO (non-govermental organization) that does something called ‘System of Rice Intensification’. Would you like to talk to them?’ I said: ‘Of course!’”

This diagram of the branching of rice stalks demonstrates the natural development of any monocotyledon (a plant with one cotyledon or true seed-leaf, as opposed to dicotylehedons which have two) over time. The period between branchings is called a phyllochron and can be a few or many days, depending on conditions.

This diagram of the branching of rice stalks demonstrates the natural development of any monocotyledon (a plant with one cotyledon or true seed-leaf, as opposed to dicotylehedons which have two) over time. The period between branchings is called a phyllochron and can be a few or many days, depending on conditions.

That NGO was the Association Tefy Saina, Father Laulanié’s group. Father Laulanié was trying to change the mentality of the people. The traditional religion in Madagascar is to follow the ways of the ancestors — if you don’t follow those ways they will be angry and wreak vengeance on you. They might even punish your neighbors. That makes any kind of change difficult there. The landholdings are private and small, and they are rotated among the families. If you change how you plant crops it is obvious to everyone that you are breaking with the ways of the ancestors.

“I talked with Tefy Saina,” Uphoff continues, “and I said: ‘We really have to get these rice yields up or the forest is doomed! We need to have a more stable food production.’ I remember the president waving his hand and saying: ‘No problem. We can get five tons, ten tons, even fifteen tons per hectare without new varieties and without fertilizer, using less water.’

“I tried to mask my smile of disbelief,” Norman remembers. “But the NGO agreed to subcontract with us and we hired some young villagers and trained them as our agents. The first year Tefy Saina got 38 farmers to try these new methods. They got 8 ton yields instead of 2 tons. It made no sense to me – a four-fold increase!”

Tefy Saina used the government’s sampling protocols for measuring the yield, so Uphoff could hardly dispute the results. The farmers received the benefit of selling the increased yield, as well as paying 80% less for seed and not buying any fertilizer. The small amount of extra labor that their methods involved at first declined once the methods were learned. It seemed to Uphoff like a miracle!

But over time he has learned why the methods developed by Laulanié are so effective.
“In the 1920s and 1930s rice scientists in Japan had studied the tillering pattern of plants,” Norman explains. “They made a very interesting observation. There is a periodicity in the way plants put out their tillers and roots. It so happens that it corresponds precisely with the Fibonacci series in mathematics. (Fibonacci was an Italian mathematician who asked the question: If I have a male and a female rabbit and it takes one month for a rabbit to reach sexual maturity, and they produce a male and a female, what would be the pattern of growth? It is based on biological systems where there is a lag period. The Fibonacci series shows up in all sorts of natural systems! Each period is basically the sum of the previous two periods.)

“Anyway,” he continues, “if you have good growing conditions for a plant it puts out a main root and a main tiller in the first period – which can be anywhere from 4 days to 10 or 12 days, depending on growing conditions. The length of that period, which is the interval between similar growth stages of successive leaves on the same stem, is called a phyllochron. How long it is depends on the biological clock involved. The seven factors that drive that are:
• temperature — the plant speeds up if it is warm,
• crowding — the clock speeds up if there is lots of space,
• shading — sunlight speeds the plant up,
• friable or loose soils speeds up the clock and compaction slows it down,
• nutrients in the soil speed up the process, and air and water are inversely related –
• good oxygenation speeds things up as does good water, but
• too much water means not enough air and that slows things down.
These are mostly optimum ranges, not absolutes. But these are the factors.”

This chart shows the same basic information as the graphic above, explaining how tillers are put out according to the branching pattern of growth. The correspondence of the cumulative total of tillers at each phyllochron to a mathematical Fibonacci pattern is remarkable.

This chart shows the same basic information as the graphic above, explaining how tillers are put out according to the branching pattern of growth. The correspondence of the cumulative total of tillers at each phyllochron to a mathematical Fibonacci pattern is remarkable.

During the second and third periods, Norman explains, you get 0 tillers. Then after the fourth period you get one again. Then the number of tillers after the next phyllochron increases and the series goes as a Fibonacci series: 2, 3, 5, 8, etc. If you go through 12 cycles, in principle you will have 84 tillers.

This Japanese work applied to the entire grass family, which are monocotyledons, including rice. But it was published in Japanese in 1951, after the war. It was never published in English, so remained largely unknown. Some wheat people know it, as do forage scientists in Australia.

But this research basically explains why 15 days is so important for seedlings. Father Laulanié discovered that if you transplant at 15 days you will likely be in that second or third period where there is 0 production, rather than in the fourth, fifth, or sixth. The longer you wait the less growth potential there is left in the plant.

Laulanié also developed methods to explain how to transplant quickly and carefully. In Madagascar farmers typically would pull their transplants up roughly, cut off some of the roots with a machete, tie them in bundles and leave them in the sun for hours where the roots desiccate, then transport them and shove them into mud under water without oxygen in the soil. So they get a 2 ton yield. If you treat them carefully, taking them out with a trowel, keeping the soil attached to the roots, laying them in gently, they will do better.

Norman believes that a part of the secret of SRI has to do with the enormous biological life in the soil, given its focus on soil nutrition and aeration, but he has no measurements of that yet.

“In one village in Bihar,” he says, “where I believe there is incredible life in the soil, although I can’t prove that, five farmers got yields of 19, 20, 20, 21 and 22 tons per hectare. They were using hybrid seed and a small amount of fertilizer. But when they used the same seed in the same soil without these principles they got 7 tons.”

SRI is really counter-intuitive. Farmers are very scared to see a single seedling. A tiny little plant, only one, looks so vulnerable. What if something happens to it?

Norman cited one farmer in Madagascar who planted his rice 50 centimeters apart.

“We recommend 35,” he said. “But he had access to a lot of waste and was putting on something like 5 tons of compost per eighth of an acre. He got a 21 ton yield, ten times the national average. Some plants had 140 tillers on them. His average was 70 tillers.”

“If you have fertile soil,” Uphoff continues, “the roots will grow really large and need much more space. If you lack nutrients, you will do better with a denser planting and each plant will explore for nutrients as best it can. But if it is good soil a huge root system will develop and that is far more efficient. A lot of mi-crobial activity and exchange takes place. There are no good studies on this microbial aspect, yet.”

A curious aspect of SRI is that the plants seem tougher than non SRI ones.

“Why,” asks Uphoff. “is rice grown according to these principles stronger? There are lots of ideas, but we have not had much cooperation from American re-searchers in studying these questions. They say SRI can’t work in the first place and don’t give us the time of day. But one idea is that if you have unfertile soil, the plant will contain more silicon. So the tillers and leaves are much tougher. I first learned this when a farmer in Sri Lanka told me he couldn’t go into SRI fields with short pants on. He likes fertilized fields because the rice feels soft. But the SRI rice cuts his legs.

“An official of an Indian extension service in Andra Pradesh,” Norman continues, “was visiting an SRI field in Sri Lanka. It was green and thriving when other surrounding rice fields were brown from drought. It wasn’t until he picked a leaf from the SRI rice that he realized what was going on. He ran it through his fingers and the leaf cut his finger! He said: ‘In all my years raising rice I have never cut myself on it. That is what got me to realize this is really different!’ We have also been in fields where the insects were eating non-SRI rice and leaving the SRI rice alone. That could be because the leaves are tougher as well. No one has done proper studies on this.”

When weeding SRI rice, farmers go between the rows. They don’t get all the weeds, but do get most of them. Each weeding can add one-half to 2 tons of yield. It costs to provide this labor, but the returns are tremendously higher. Yield goes up enough that it more than compensates for the extra labor costs.

The number of different weeders developed for SRI are almost as various as the locations where rice is grown.

Rice is one of the few crops that will grow under flooded conditions. Maize and wheat hate standing water, but rice is a plant which can adapt to flooding and the farmer could get a crop under those conditions. Also, if growing rice under upland conditions, without flooding, rice will have to compete with weeds. So being short of labor a farmer may decide to grow it under flooded conditions and not spend so much time on weeds. This is the main reason for flooding rice now — to control weeds.

“But most ecosystems,” Uphoff asserts, ”just don’t have the water to continue with this practice. We have to start growing rice in less water. Fortunately we can show with SRI that if you do the other practices you can not only use less water, but actually increase yield.

weed more weeders-Nepal“In northern Myanmar, the southern Philippines, and parts of India,” he continues, “rice is produced as a wholly rain-fed crop. That is where they have ade-quate rainfall and there are no irrigation facilities. In the Indian case they introduced two ingenious principles. Farmers normally wait for the rains, but the monsoon is very unreliable in India. There is a six-week variance in terms of when it comes. So the idea is to get farmers to plant their seeds in two or more nurseries, staggered weeks apart. They use more seed, but then they have some seedlings that are young when the monsoons come.”

In that situation farmers might be tempted to hold onto their water, Norman says, but that suffocates the root and causes die back. They have to agree not to hold onto the water too long, although that is hard for farmers in water-scarce regions. Where water is a limiting factor, using less water lets more people use it.

The resistance of SRI crops to adverse climates is another strength of the system. Normally, rice is very cold-sensitive and ten degrees C is considered the lower threshold for rice. But SRI plantings have survived storm damage and cold spells, and Uphoff has seen rice crops that go 5 days below 10˚ centigrade and still give a 4 ton yield!

“In Manchuria,” he says, “they have independently developed a system called the “Three S System”. They start their seedlings in plastic greenhouses while there is still snow on the ground. They transplant single seedlings at 45 days, which are fairly good size. But it is cold enough that small ones wouldn’t survive. They use wide spacing, less water, more organic matter. They developed it entirely independently in the nineties. What they get in 45 days is probably more like what you would get in Africa in 25 days. But there is a huge difference in the plant size of mature 3-S rice.

“Rice will grow in many places,” Norman continues. “Two of our best cases are Afghanistan, up in the mountains in the north, and again in Timbuktu, on the edge of the Sahara desert. In both places we get 9 to 10 tons, despite the adverse climate.”

A weeder demonstrated in Cuba has two turning axles to disrupt weeds and aerate the soil. A ‘shoe’ in front enables the weeder to stay on top of the soil and not disrupt the rice roots.

A weeder demonstrated in Cuba has two turning axles to disrupt weeds and aerate the soil. A ‘shoe’ in front enables the weeder to stay on top of the soil and not disrupt the rice roots.

There is even some evidence of greenhouse gas emissions being reduced with SRI. If you don’t flood the fields you don’t get methane, which is produced under anaerobic conditions and is 5 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. But if you have aerobic soil you can have more nitrous oxide, which is 22 times more potent than methane. Uphoff says it turns out, however, that if you are using inorganic sources of fertility with a lot of nitrogen, you get a lot of nitrous oxide. But if you do SRI and are using only organic sources, there is no excess or free nitrogen and you don’t see the increases. So you get a net im-provement in global warming potential — one study found a 78% net reduction in global warming with SRI methods.

SRI methods are being adopted throughout Asia and increasingly in Africa. It is slower in Latin America, but one Cornell alumna has brought the methods to Cuba and is using them with a sugar cooperative there.

“But their scientists have been very hesitant,” Uphoff remarks. “I’ve visited four times and given talks. But SRI doesn’t look sexy! The Communists gen-erally love mechanized, agrichemical things. They have a love affair with technology. So they haven’t been very quick on this. But the sugar cane version of SRI has taken hold and they are getting interest from the government for that. Cane is a grass, too, like rice. Same principles – wide spacing, young seedlings. It is called SSI!”

Peasant farmers aren’t stopping at the rice family, either. Mustard has been grown with SRI methods very successfully. The final plants are huge and the number of pods and size of the grains are way up from conventionally grown mustard.

Tef, the cereal grain of Ethiopia, is another success. Normally tef yields one ton per hectare, but using STI principles farmers are getting 7 tons.
“There is an Ethiopian agronomist who grew up raising teff on his father’s farm,” says Uphoff. “Somehow he got a fellowship and spent 10 months with Norman Borlaug in 1970. He went on to get his PhD at Nebraska. He was the first scientist to hybridize tef. In 2008 I was invited to Ethiopia by some In-dian colleagues now in Ethiopia wanting to bring SRI in. So I spent 2 hours with this agronomist and his staff. He understood what I was saying. I said why don’t you try it with tef? We knew millet would work. The next June I got an Email from him saying he was going to be in the states and wanted to report his results to me. He said his normal controls were all doing 1 ton per hectare, but his tef intensification plantings were doing 3 to 5 tons. Then he said when he used some micronutrients – manganese, magnesium, sulfur, copper and zinc, he was getting 8, 9 or 10 tons! He said: ‘I’ve never seen plants like that before!’

“So I got some money from Oxfam America for him to go and do really proper trials,” Norman continues. “He got brought into a project which the Gates Foundation is funding to develop tef and rice with these methods. So our big breakthrough may come not in rice but in tef. I say breakthrough because the Gates Foundation is funding it and they will want to take credit for it, but my friend the agronomist is calling it the System of Tef Intensification!”

Despite the number of people who have adopted SRI techniques for rice or other plants, the methodology is poorly known. Uphoff estimates there may be 5 million farmers currently using these methods, and he is adding new people to his network every week. But recognition by Western agencies has been sparse indeed.

“We have been shunned,” he says, “by much of the western scientific establishment. Their scientists would be obsolete if we are right! Suppose I went to them and said: ‘I have an innovation, which I will give you free, which raises yields, uses less water, less chemicals, lowers costs, brings higher profits, is quicker maturing, has higher milling recovery (SRI has a better milling recovery than paddy rice because there is less shattering and you get more edible grains and less chaff or unfilled husks– instead of 8% or 10% unfilled grains, we have 2% in SRI.) Also, the grains themselves are often heavier. They are larger and denser. Do you think they would be happy to find such an answer, or angry that they didn’t find it?”

Norman works mostly with the farmers and the local country’s agricultural establishment. As such, he can do a lot with a little bit of money. SRI doesn’t need expensive fertilizer or new breeds of crops. In some sense it is a threat to the donors because it can do what they want to do without all their money. In addition, Norman came into this work from the wrong background.

“I am a political scientist,” explains Uphoff, “not an agronomist, at least by formal training. That makes a huge difference in how well scientists in the ag-ricultural college will listen to me. They have actually said: ‘It’s not fair what you are doing. You haven’t paid your dues!’

“I edited a book on Biological Approaches to Sustainable Soil Systems,” he continues, “published by CRC Press, 102 contributors, from 28 countries, for-ward by a respected agronomist, 10 co-editors who are scientists, 3 of whom are directors of international ag research centers and two are World Food Prize lauriats. It is incredible. This has not had one review in the agronomy literature or journals. But I don’t want to sound too grim – in India, China, Indonesia, Thailand, we have strong supporters at the national level.”

The two leading rice scientists in the world have looked at SRI, tried it and endorsed it, he says. They are Indian and Chinese, respectively – both World Food Prize winners. They have both independently published SRI results, but it does not seem to register with the USDA or western researchers.

One academic at UC Davis in California actually told Norman that the opposition argument to SRI being used here has been: ‘If our farmers used these methods they would use less water and then they would lose their water rights.’ “That shows you how irrational our system is,” Uphoff observed. “Cali-fornia desperately needs that water for other purposes, but the farmers continue to use it.”

The actor Jim Carrey has set up his own foundation and is supporting SRI. He heard about it from a friend and decided that was a way to do something really significant. He studied Norman’s website and then met him in Hollywood to get answers to his questions about it. He is now supporting SRI work with a generous 3-year grant.

“Carrey went to Haiti already,” Uphoff observes, “and I’d like to get him to Bihar, India. But apparently the security costs when a major star goes some-where like that are staggering! Celebrity has its downsides!”

One question many observers ask about SRI is: ‘Why are farmers just discovering this stuff? Why did they not learn it many years ago?’

Uphoff answers: “These ideas are not new! They are just somewhat unexpected. And timing is important in spreading knowledge. Principles similar to those of SRI were discovered by farmers in Tamil Nadu, India, more than a century ago. They were written up in 1906 and 1907 in the Tamil language in their agricultural journals. In 1928 the British foreign department of agriculture had a manual printed for this single seedling approach. No one knows what happened to it. It just got lost. The Japanese work on tillering was published in 1951. But it was in Japanese, right after the war.

“There are probably 15 or 20 elements,” he continues, “that all go together synergistically to make this work. Better roots give you better canopy, better canopy gives you better roots. There is a positive feedback between canopy and roots and ideally you work on all these things at once! Even Father Laula-nié started with fertilizer because everyone used it, but when the government took the subsidies off of it in the late 1980s he found that if you do all the other practices, compost will work fine. In fact it comes out ahead of fertilizer.”

Uphoff feels the really crucial aspects of SRI are the importance of root growth to the ability of the plant to fulfill it’s genetic potential, and the develop-ment of microbes and other organisms in creating a healthy soil food web. If these aspects of the planting are satisfactory, the individual plants will have a different architecture — leaves will not be shaded by neighboring plants and they will all be photosynthetically active. The tillers will also be more hori-zontal and the leaves more erect. One study calculated a 15% increase in system leaf area index and light interception with the same varieties and same soil, just changing to a SRI management.

As far as western farmers go, the Soil Association in England has invited Norman to talk about SRI at their annual meeting this year. They are particu-larly interested in the process of farmer-led innovation.

“And we have a few farmers in the US who are doing SRI this year,” Norman says, “so I think it will take hold here, too. They aren’t large scale, but we don’t want large scale yet.”

Sidebar: A Case Study from the Sundarban Delta, West Bengal — Paresh Das’s Field

(editor: According to Uphoff, one West Bengali farmer’s experience with SRI was particularly dramatic. Paresh Das tells it in his own words (italics), interspersed with Norman’s comments :

Last summer I started a mysterious rice cultivation practice on my land. Initially this prompted my neighbors to call me mad. Admittedly, when I first heard of the details of the SRI technology, I was pretty skeptical. However, my own analysis suggested that it may be practically possible. So I decided to put SRI in place on 10 decimals of land.

However, when I discussed the matter with my wife, she refused and reacted very strongly. She said that planting a single seedling with such wide spacing can never produce any yield, and she objected that gambling with staple food supply is not acceptable for poor families like us. I was literally cornered within my own family and at odds with the village itself. The challenges and comments from the people around me, however, made me angry and eager to jump into the practice.

Paresh had to encounter a lot of objection from his family and the neighbors when he planted a nursery using only 400 grams of saltwater-tested seeds [this method of seed selection ensures that only dense, well-developed seeds are used]. The nursery bed was 20 ft by 4 ft. With the nursery growing nice and green, comments from other people were still tolerable. But the peer environment became worse when he transplanted single seedlings at intervals of 1 ft (30 cm) apart. The women engaged for the transplanting were very skeptical. They were not prepared to transplant single seedlings of such a young age. It took a lot of convincing and supervision to get this done, according to Paresh.

Those 12 days after I had I transplanted the single seedlings were the worst part of my life. In the initial couple of weeks, at least 10 times I thought of replanting the field with the conventional method. My wife who has shared with me all the pains of poverty all throughout our lives even stopped talking to me. For the first time in my life, I was afraid of a drop-off in the customers to my tea shop.

My wife never visited the plot until 15 days after the SRI transplantation (15 DAT). However, during those 15 days I used to visit my plot every night, when nobody could see me nurturing the plants. To my great surprise, after 15 days the plants started behaving differently. Distinctly I could observe that the vigor of the SRI plot was better than with the conventional practice beside it. I saw this and started thanking God for the blessings. But I did not dare to share this feeling with my wife. Still, I started believing that this rice crop can really grow.

One day — I think it was 20 DAT — I requested my wife to provide the irrigation to the SRI plot. I told her, ‘I am not well today. Can you do me this favor?’ She responded there was no point in putting further money and labor into that plot. But finally she agreed and left for the SRI field. Almost immediately, at most after some 15-20 minutes, she came back very excited and shouting in joy. ‘Have you seen the field? It has got miraculous growth. It is astonishing. How can there be more than 10 tillers from a single seedling?’ I could not control my tears at that point of time.

The game started since then. Every day I paid a visit to my field and could see more and more tillers. Gradually I discovered people were commenting favorably on the SRI plot, and they were paying more number of visits to my plot than me. As the crop was growing, many a times I felt like applying urea and NPK to enhance its growth, but there wasa  very strong recommendation from Goutam (NGO man) not to apply anything apart from 20 kgs of mustard oil cake and 6 bags of cow dung.

I feel proud whenever unknown faces come up to me and ask: ‘Paresh, how could you do this?’   I never thought Paresh would become a known name in the area, even as a farmer.

At the end of the season, the plot ended up having on average 40 tillers per plant, as compared to the 10 tillers with conventional practice. It became a topic of discussion in the village. What is miraculous in the new technique? What produced the 240 kgs of rice instead of 115 kgs that people are used to getting through the conventional system? How could Paresh get doubled yield using such a minimum of nutrients, instead of the conventional 20 kg of NPK (10:26:26) and an added dose of 10 kg of urea which farmers generally use for this same size of plot?

These stories are real. I’ve seen situations where it was the wife who supported SRI and the husband laughed at it. For an agronomist, perhaps these yields are too far off the plausibility screens and they won’t accept these as valid information. Since I’m a social scientist, though, I’ll take these stories as data!