Higher yield, cheaper rice-growing method slowly taking root in Africa, says Norman Uphoff

Independent evaluations of a modern way to grow rice, proven to increase yields with less water and fertilizer, are slowly finding fertile ground in Africa, said a Cornell researcher who has been studying and spreading awareness of the method around the world for almost a decade.

Called the System of Rice Intensification (SRI), the method involves growing rice in such nontraditional ways as planting very young seedlings, spreading plants apart and keeping soil moist but not flooded. Norman Uphoff, Cornell professor emeritus of government and international agriculture, described to about 40 people the many grass-roots SRI experimentation efforts in Africa at a Sept. 18 seminar, sponsored by the Cornell Institute for African Development.

SRI is not a technology, Uphoff said, but a way to harness rice's biological potential for more robust root systems, fewer broken grains and natural pest resistance. He stressed that his work does not "promote" SRI, but rather spreads awareness of the empirical evidence of its efficacy, while supporting individual farmers worldwide to investigate and evaluate the method for themselves.

"It won't solve all the world's problems, but if we can't solve our food problems, everything else is going to be much harder," Uphoff said.

SRI was developed in the 1980s by a French Jesuit priest in Madagascar. Uphoff has worked in various capacities, including as director of the Cornell International Institute for Food, Agriculture and Development, to bring knowledge of SRI to developing nations.

Rice yields have been as much as 50 percent to 100 percent larger in SRI fields compared with traditional flooded paddies, according to Uphoff. In an evaluation in Indonesia over nine growing seasons, some 12,000 trial paddies on 9,400 hectares, SRI increased yield significantly with 40 percent less water, 50 percent less fertilizer and at 20 percent lower production cost, he said.

Uphoff noted that he wasn't sure why SRI trials have not caught on as quickly in Africa as in Asia -- where 90 percent of the world's rice is consumed. He surmised that the strong presence of nongovernmental organizations and social entrepreneurship in Asia might be factors.

Another reason, he speculated, is that farms in Africa function on a smaller scale, so organized outreach to disseminate information on SRI trials and evaluations is more difficult and relies more on personal networks among family farmers.

To date, SRI trials are taking place in 30 countries around the world. Among the African countries taking part are Burkina Faso, Mozambique, Sierra Leone and Nigeria.

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