Nearly one-third of the world’s population depends heavily on rice and rice products for food, with rice providing up to 70 percent of daily calories in some regions. Over the last thirty years, milled rice consumption has increased by 40 percent, and by 2030, the global demand for rice is expected to increase up to another 40 percent. To meet this demand, rice paddies cover more than 300 million acres around the world.
Traditional rice fields are flooded and planted, and the high water levels are maintained until the rice is ready to be harvested. This requires a lot of water: Up to one-third of the planet’s annual freshwater use goes towards irrigating and growing rice.
Photo by Oxfam GB Asia
In Asia, where more than 90 percent of the world’s rice is grown and eaten, approximately 84 percent of all freshwater use goes towards agriculture, primarily for irrigating rice. This can create serious water shortages.
In the context of global climate change and booming population growth, these water shortages bring up serious questions about global food security. “We need yields to grow to meet growing demand,” said Princeton professor Michael Oppenheimer, one of the authors of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 2014 report, “but already climate change is slowing those yields.”
But a new farming technique, called System of Rice Intensification (SRI), is generating hope, excitement and new possibilities for increased crop yields.
SRI was first developed in the 1980’s. It was developed by Father Henri de Laulanié, a trained agronomist and Jesuit priest, along with colleagues and farmers in Madagascar. With the innovative SRI method, farmers use less water and less synthetic herbicides and pesticides. Contrary to traditional rice farming which calls for standing water in the rice paddies, farmers alternate between keeping their fields wet and dry. Young rice seedlings are transplanted in single rows with more space between them than in traditional rice paddies. Seedlings are kept moist while the soil and its beneficial organisms are exposed to air and sunlight. This allows for more photosynthesis. Farmers add organic compost to improve the health and productivity of their crops, and use a rotary weeder to aerate the soil and control weeds – methods that are unheard of with traditional rice farming.
The results have been impressive. Farmers have reported rice harvests up to 10 to 22 tons per hectare, five to ten times higher than average harvests using traditional farming methods.
Cornell International Institute for Food, Agriculture and Development (CIIFAD), has been promoting SRI planting since the 1990’s. Since then, this method of increasing crop yield with less water has had a tremendous impact on the lives of over five million small farmers around the world, including in East Africa, India and Latin America. Endorsed by Oxfam and World Wildlife Fund, it’s currently being used on both large and small farms in 54 countries.
A number of non-governmental organizations and forward-thinking companies have been working with small farmers to preserve rice biodiversity, increase crop yields and help the farmers earn a decent living using SRI. One of these is Lotus Foods, a California-based heirloom rice trading company that supports small farmers in Asia who produce traditional rice varieties.
Lotus Food’s involvement with SRI was facilitated by the CIIFAD. During a chance walk-through of an upstate New York supermarket in 2005, CIIFAD’s Olivia Vent came across a Lotus Foods product display. After learning more about the company, CIIFAD identified Lotus Foods as a company that could “help some of the world’s most marginalized farmers preserve both plant and cultural biodiversity, achieve better prices, adopt environmentally sound agricultural practices and bring consumers a healthier food.”
Vent cold-called Ken Lee, Lotus Foods’ CEO, and explained their SRI program to him, inspiring Lotus Foods to start their More Crop Per Drop SRI program.
For Lee, learning about SRI was a lightbulb moment. “It was a crystallization of what we’d been trying to do with farmers, with biodiversity,” he said. Lee targeted three countries to begin the Lotus Foods SRI project: Madagascar, the birthplace of this innovation, Indonesia, and Cambodia.
The results they’ve achieved have been remarkable.
Conventional rice field production averages between two to four tons of rice per hectare. With Lotus Foods’ More Crop Per Drop SRI program, the average yield is around seven tons of rice per hectare. Some farmers in the program have reported achieving as high as 10 tons per hectare.
SRI-planted rice fields produce a healthy root system, abundant, diverse microorganisms, more rice stalks, bigger ears of grain and heavier grains and biomass that can be used as straw and animal fodder by poor households. By utilizing 23 percent fewer seeds than conventional rice fields, farmers are achieving, on average, a 47 percent increase in yield, 40 percent water savings, and a 60 percent increase in income!
The plants are also healthier. They’re better able to resist damage that can be caused by pests and disease, which dramatically reduces the need for toxic chemicals that can leach into wells and waterways and be absorbed back into the soil. Overall, said Lee, “[growing through SRI is] a less wasteful use of resources.”
According to Lee, it also improves the quality of life for farmers. Along with helping promote health, utilzing SRI helps farmers get out of food deficit.
“Imagine being a rice farmer and not having enough rice to eat,” said Lee.
Some of the farmers in the More Crop Per Drop program are dedicating fewer acres to rice because their yields are higher. “They get bigger yields without using chemicals and can now grow other vegetables to eat or to sell at market,” said Lee.
The SRI methodology also brings benefits to women, who provide the majority of rice field labor. Because SRI takes less effort and produces larger yields, women have more time to spend with their families and to do things other than work. Additionally, high yields are providing a welcome way out of poverty for formerly impoverished farmers around the globe.
SRI’s companion program System of Crop Intensification is being used successfully to grow wheat, sugarcane, finger millet and several other food crops. These innovative technologies, which together are helping farmers increase crop yields and reduce water use, offer an exciting possibility for improved global food security in the face of continuing climate change.