Development of the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) in Madagascar

Father Laulanié at his desk in his Antananarivo home

Father Laulanié at his desk in his Antananarivo home

The development of the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) 20 years ago in Madagascar by Fr. Henri de Laulanié, S.J. — based on 20 years before that of working with farmers to improve their rice production without dependence on external inputs — is a most unusual case. It is unusual partly because SRI is one of the most remarkable agricultural innovations of the last century, one only starting to be appreciated in this one. But it is also unusual because of the resistance, sometimes vehement, that it has encountered from the scientific community despite the evident benefits that it offered particularly for poor farmers and for the environment: doubling yields or even more without requiring the use of fertilizer or other chemical inputs, and using less water.

This case suggests a lesson for scientists as well as for extension personnel and farmers — for all to be open to new ideas, no matter what their source. Not every proposed change in agricultural practices warrants much attention; but if a possible innovation would have many benefits, it should be subjected to empirical rather than just logical tests, because our scientific knowledge is not (and never will be) perfect or complete. In the SRI case, a paradigm shift was involved, one that is not yet fully understood and certainly not universally accepted. Typical positivist approaches for testing and validating new knowledge were not applicable because larger issues were at stake, ones not amenable to either proof or disproof just by hypothesis testing.

The case is instructive also because it goes against the now popular view that farmer knowledge, being based on generations of trial-and-error and subsequent validation, is a superior source of information and insights about how to practice agriculture. SRI changes dramatically four practices that farmers growing irrigated rice have used for centuries, even millennia. Part of the resistance came from the innovation’s being so counter-intuitive: where smaller would become bigger, and less could produce more. This sounds like nonsense; but it is possible and true.

The Challenge

When Henri de Laulanié was assigned by the Jesuit order to move from France to Madagascar in 1961, the first thing he saw around him was the great poverty and hunger of most of the people, one of the poorest populations in the world. He saw also their deteriorating natural resource base, with drastic soil erosion and accelerating deforestation, these two processes being connected.

Laulanié concluded, apparently, that raising the yields of rice, the staple food providing more than half of the daily calories of Malagasy households, was the greatest contribution he could make to the well-being of the people around him. It was also essential if continuing destruction of the precious tropical rain forest ecosystems was to be halted.

Laulanié had done a degree in agriculture at the best university in France (now known as Paris- Grignon) before entering the seminary in 1941, so he knew basic agricultural science if not much about tropical rice. There were few scientific resources to draw on in immediately post-colonial Madagascar, in libraries or in research institutes, so he started working directly with farmers, carefully observing their practices, asking questions, trying things out on his own paddy plot.

Assembling the Innovation

Laulanié found a few farmers not transplanting rice seedlings in clumps of three, four, five or more, as farmers all around the world choose to do, instead planting individual seedlings. These farmers in the minority found that single seedlings produced as well or better than clumps of plants, and this way they could reduce their seed costs, a consideration for very poor farmers. So he tried this himself, and found it was a good practice.

Then, in another area he observed some farmers not keeping their paddy fields continuously flooded throughout the season, as is done around the world wherever farmers have access to enough water to do this. It is widely believed that rice plants fare best in saturated soil. But Laulanié found that they can grow even better if raised in soil that is kept moist but never continuously flooded. While rice plants can survive under flooded conditions, they do not thrive.

Having started to grow single seedlings in unflooded soil during their period of vegetative growth (i.e., up to flowering; after panicle initiation, he kept a thin layer of water, 1-2 cm, on the field), Laulanié next introduced a practice of his own. The government was promoting the use of a simple mechanical hand weeder known as the ‘rotating hoe’ (houe rotative). This churned up the soil with small toothed wheels, burying weeds in the soil to decompose. It also aerated the soil in the process, though nobody considered this benefit at the time.

Laulanié decided to try planting seedlings in a square pattern, rather than in the rows being promoted by rice specialists. This way he could use the weeding tool in two directions, i.e., perpendicularly. He tried this with 25×25 cm spacing just to see what would happen. To his pleasant surprise, widely spaced rice plants, growing singly in moist but not flooded soil, did better than others grown with the common practices.

At this point, the priest established a small school in Antsirabe to teach young farmers these new methods and to give them a basic education that prepared them for life rather than for further studies and white-collar employment. In 1983-84, a fortuitous accident occurred. Two weeks after planting the rice nursery, Laulanié had second thoughts and decided that they might need more seedlings for the field, so more were planted for what was likely to be a water-short season.

A good rain fell when the first set of seedlings was 30 days old. Because they were not sure whether any more good rain would follow, the teacher and his students decided to transplant all of the seedlings into their rice field, the tiny ones only 15 days old as well. They had few hopes or expectations for the spindly younger seedlings. Yet after a month, these began to surpass the older ones, and by the end of the season, their yield was much higher (Laulanié 1993).

Rather than pass this off as a fluke, the next year younger seedlings were planted again, and then even younger seedlings. By the end of the decade, it was clear to everyone at the school and to the farmers who visited it that using younger seedlings gave much better results, provided that they were planted singly and far apart, in a square pattern (even up to 50×50 cm when the soil quality had been built up by these practices) in soil both well aerated and moist during the plants’ growth period. They did not know that research had been published already showing that when rice plants are kept continuously flooded, up to 78% of their roots degenerate under the hypoxic conditions (Kar et al. 1974). The negative effect of continuous soil saturation on roots’ growth and functioning was being overlooked by both scientists and farmers alike.

SRI was developed initially with the use of chemical fertilizers, because everyone believed that this was necessary to increase yields, especially on Madagascar soils that were mostly ‘poor’ as evaluated by standard chemical tests. When the government removed its subsidies for fertilizer in the late 1980s, and poor farmers could no longer afford to use it, Laulanié and his students began working with compost. In most instances, this gave even better rice yields when used with the other practices.

Proceeding with the Innovation

In 1990, Laulanié and several of his close Malagasy friends established an NGO, Association Tefy Saina, to promote SRI and rural development generally. The NGO name, in Malagasy, means ‘to improve the mind,’ because they saw SRI as not just a means to improve rice production and meet food and income needs. It was thought that SRI’s spectacular results could open farmers’ minds to further innovation beyond rice cultivation because they came from changing practices that had been used for generations by farmers’ ancestors, greatly venerated in traditional culture and beliefs. For the priest and his friends, human development and spiritual growth were considered more important than agricultural improvement alone.

In part because SRI was not seen and treated in narrowly technical terms, it was scoffed at and rejected by Malagasy and international scientists who learned about it, though a few European NGOs gave Tefy Saina some small grants for training in the early 1990s. In 1994, CIIFAD, the Cornell International Institute for Food, Agriculture and Development, began working with Tefy Saina to introduce SRI to farmers in the peripheral zone around Ranomafana National Park. This was one of the last remaining large blocks of rain forest, under serious threat from the slash-and-burn cultivation of upland rice.

Farmers around Ranomafana were getting lowland rice yields of only 2 t/ha from their small areas having irrigation. To feed their families, they needed to practice upland cultivation. Raising lowland yields was thus seen as a requirement for saving the rain forest, as well as for reducing poverty. In 1994-95, only 38 farmers would try the new methods, which changed four things that had been done from time immemorial in Madagascar, and in most other rice-growing countries:

  • Instead of planting seedlings 30-60 days old, tiny seedlings less than 15 days old were planted.
  • Instead of planting 3-5 or more seedlings in clumps, single seedlings were planted.
  • Instead of close, dense planting, with seed rates of 50-100 kg/ha, plants were set out carefully and gently in a square pattern, 25x25cm or wider if the soil was very good; the seed rate was reduced by 80-90%, netting farmers as much as 100 kg of rice per hectare.
  • Instead of keeping rice paddies continuously flooded, only a minimum of water was applied daily to keep the soil moist, not always saturated; fields were allowed to dry out several times to the cracking point during the growing period, with much less total use of water.

Why hadn’t farmers tried these new practices before? All looked very risky, and even a little crazy. Why should tiny young plants perform better than larger ones? Why should fewer plants give more yield than more plants? Why should plants not be kept flooded if water was available? Water was thought to be like fertilizer, and rice was regarded would ever try all four of these practices together, and risk the scorn of his neighbors as well as the wrath of his ancestors, was infinitesimal.

The farmers around Ranomafana who used SRI in 1994-95 averaged over 8 t/ha, more than four times their previous yield, and some farmers reached 12 t/ha and one even got 14 t/ha. The next year and the following year, the average remained over 8 t/ ha, and a few farmers even reached 16 t/ha, beyond what scientists considered to be ‘the biological maximum’ for rice. But these calculations were based on rice plants that had degenerated and truncated root systems.

Understanding the Innovation

How could such remarkable results be obtained? There is demonstrable synergy among these practices, when used together, especially when the rotating hoe is used to control weeds — and aerate the soil frequently during the growth period. This has been documented by replicated multi-factorial trials (N=288 and N=240) in contrasting agroecological situations: tropical climate, poor sandy soils at sea level vs. temperate climate, better clay and loam soils at high elevation. These trials showed that when compost is added to the soil, increasing soil organic matter and nourishing soil microorganisms beyond what the plants’ own (greater) exudation can support, large increases, even a tripling in yield, can result. On poorer loam soil, SRI practices gave 6.39 t/ha compared to 2.04 t/ha with standard practice (mature seedlings, close spacing, continuous flooding, NPK fertilizer). On better clay soils, yields went from 3.0 with standard methods to 10.35 t/ha with SRI (Randriamiharisoa and Uphoff 2002).

With SRI methods, one could see, after the first month, a much greater number of tillers, 30-50 per plant, with some plants producing even 80-100 tillers. If one pulled up SRI plants, one could see that they had much larger and deeper root systems. A pull test to measure the resistance that plant root systems give to uprooting found that it took 5-6 times more force (kg/plant) to do this for SRI plants. Having more roots can support more tiller growth and more grain filling, while plants having a larger canopy with more photosynthesis can support more root growth.

Scientifically, the most interesting phenotypic change was in the relationship between number of tillers/plant and number of grains/tiller (panicle). For SRI plants, this correlation was positive rather than negative, as is widely reported in the literature. With a larger root system, SRI plants can access both more soil nutrients, right through the ripening stage with less plant senescence, and a wider variety of nutrients, including micronutrients not provided by NPK fertilizer. SRI methods contribute to more grain production and also to a lower percentage of unfilled grains and to higher grain weight.

SRI achieves higher yields, sometime over 20 t/ha when soil conditions approach optimal. It does not follow the two strategies that produced the gains of the Green Revolution: (a) changed and increased genetic potential, and (b) use of external inputs — more fertilizer, more water, more agrochemicals. SRI was hard at first to understand because it took such a different path.

Instead, SRI changes common practices for plant, soil, water and nutrient management so as to: (a) increase plant root growth and functioning, and (b) enhance the abundance and diversity of soil biota, from microorganisms (bacteria and fungi) through micro and meso-fauna (nematodes and protozoa) to macro fauna (particularly earthworms).

Spread of the Innovation

This case study cannot go more into the mechanisms and processes, which are still only partially documented and understood, but they are increasingly validated by SRI use in a growing number of countries around the world (see Stoop et al. 2002, and Uphoff 2003). Good SRI results have now been reported from countries ranging from China, through Indonesia, Philippines, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Myanmar, to Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and India, to Madagascar, Benin, Gambia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, and now to Cuba and Peru.

Typical rice plant with 5 tillers

Typical rice plant with 5 tillers

The methods raise, concurrently, the productivity of land, labor, capital and water, without tradeoffs, something never seen before. SRI practices achieve different and more productive phenotypes from any genotype of rice by providing a better growing environment in which the plant can express its genetic potential. SRI is best understood as part of a growing movement in the agricultural sector toward what can be characterized as agroecological innovation. This strategy seeks to capitalize on synergies among species and organisms when these are provided with optimum growing conditions. Conventional agricultural practices, favoring monoculture, seek to maximize production of single species, one at a time, taking them out of the context of their natural environments, changing that environment by ploughing, fertilization, irrigation, etc.

What can be learned from this experience about participatory research and development?

  1. One should not assume that current farmer practices are always ideal or the best. They have been developed under certain conditions, constrained by knowledge and imagination as well as biophysical factors. Farmer knowledge is a good place to start, and should always be respected. But it should not be idealized. It was just a few ‘deviant’ farmers who contributed some of the novel ideas that made SRI possible.
  2. One should work closely with farmers in the development of any agricultural innovation. Fr. de Laulanié had a great and self-evident love for rural people, demonstrated throughout his 34 years living among them in Madagascar. He was devoted to helping them improve their productivity and welfare. He avidly learned from them. But he also formed his own opinions, always subjecting practices and ideas to empirical tests.
  3. Scientists should avoid becoming prisoners of their present knowledge, captives of prevailing paradigms. Paradigms are needed to make sense of the world and to be able to act upon it. But they are constructs made by human beings, not true in themselves. Anyone who seriously follows scientific principles knows that while theory is necessary to organize knowledge and to test it, the ultimate tests are always empirical, not logical. While quantum physics is the most powerful body of scientific theory in the world today, its strength lies not in its logic — it is quite illogical in many ways — but in its repeated verification by empirical results.
  4. There has been a lot of effort going into systematizing the processes of participatory research and development, e.g., through participatory action research and participatory rural appraisal (PRA). As recent reflections on PRA show, it is important not to let techniques and processes become rigidified and routinized because then the means become ends in themselves (Cornwall and Pratt 2003). Fr. de Laulanié worked with great originality and dedication. He had respect for science, having been trained in it, but particularly for farmers and for empirical truth. He improvised the whole process by which SRI was developed.

If Father de Laulanié had been guided (and constrained) by a lot of preconceptions, it is unlikely that he could have discovered anything as unique and powerful as SRI, breaking with ages-old practices to ‘liberate’ genetic potentials that have existed in rice plants for millennia. We must never let form triumph over substance and over vision and imagination.

For more information on SRI, see the SRI home page — or communicate with Tefy Saina () or the author ().


Cornwall, A. and G. Pratt. 2003. Pathways to Participation: Reflections on Participatory Rural Appraisal. London: Intermediate Technology Development Group Publishing.

Kar, S., S., Varade, T. Subramanyam, and B. P. Ghildyal. 1974. Nature and growth pattern of rice root system under submerged and unsaturated conditions. Il Riso (Italy) 23, 173-179.

Laulanié, H. de. 1983. Le système de riziculture intensive malgache. Tropicultura (Brussels) 11, 110- 114.

Randriamiharisoa, R. and N. Uphoff. 2002. Factorial trials evaluating the separate and combined effects of SRI practices. In: The System of Rice Intensification: Proceedings of an international conference, Sanya, China, April 1-4, 2002. Ithaca, NY: Cornell International Institute for Food, Agriculture and Development.

Stoop, W., N. Uphoff, and A. Kassam. 2002. A review of agricultural research issues raised by the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) from Madagascar: Opportunities for improving farming systems for resource-poor farmers. Agricultural Systems 71, 249-274.

Uphoff, N. 2003. Higher yields with fewer external inputs? The System of Rice Intensification and potential contributions to agricultural sustainability. International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability, 1, 38-50.

So What’s all this About Crop Intensification?

Two millet roots. The one on the left was grown using crop intensification methods, the one on the right was conventionally grown. Crop intensification achieves its startling results by giving each plant the elements it needs to reach it’s innate growth potential.

Two millet roots. The one on the left was grown using crop intensification methods, the one on the right was conventionally grown. Crop intensification achieves its startling results by giving each plant the elements it needs to reach it’s innate growth potential.

We are excited about this issue of The Natural Farmer. The principles which have been developed around rice production on small African and Asian farms over the last generation are truly revolutionary. Called SRI (for ‘System of Rice Intensification’), these methods are often counter-intuitive and fly in the face of conventional farming practices and agricultural theory. Yet they are delivering stunning results – very significant yield increases, higher plant health and quality, all with lower input costs.

“So,” you muse, “that is great. It is wonderful that you are excited about a new system for rice production in the Third World! But I’m a farmer in the northeast US with limited time. Why should I read about this?”

Why? Because these principles can be, and have been, applied successfully to other crops. In many cases these crops are the very ones we grow: potatoes, carrots, beans, eggplants. And once you wrap your brain around these principles, and think about why they work for raising plants, you will never farm the same way again.

That is strong language. But give this issue a chance to prove it to you. We devote several articles to the development and spread of SRI. The story is fascinating in and of itself. But we also look at other crops than rice that Third World farmers are raising this way – wheat, millet, tef, lentils, mustard, eggplants, tomatoes. It seems to be working for all of them. We explore why.

And then we spend a little time with an inquisitive and leading-edge Maine farmer who has been experimenting with such techniques for several years. We learn about his discovery of these methods and then how he has applied them, with remarkable success, to beans, wheat, carrots and potatoes. He calls it SCI for the “System of Crop Intensification”.

So take a couple of hours off this winter. Grab this paper and settle down for a nice read. Open up your mind to some interesting history and ideas, and then muse about how you might be able to adapt these thoughts to make next year happier and healthier on your farm or garden!

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!