How the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) is changing lives in India’s heartland

Can crop yield be increased by using less seed, water and no chemical fertilizers? Read on to find out what System Rice Intensification (SRI) is and how it is changing lives.


When Anil Verma’s PRAN (Preservation and Proliferation of Rural Resources and Nature) approached paddy growing women farmers in Gaya district of Bihar, asking them to try SRI (System of Root Intensification) in their fields, he was met with disdainful looks. It sounded too good to be true, especially to farmers who had been growing paddy for generations. One lady, Kunti Devi, stood up and agreed to try it (‘Out of pity for us’, Anil says). Kunti Devi was given a tiny plot of land by the Government of Bihar, but it was barely enough to grow what she needed. After trying SRI, the results from her field were amazing, with her paddy crop getting record yields. She had surplus cash and was finally able to send her children to school.

Anil Verma is an agronomist by training and has been working on SRI in Bihar since 2007. PRAN’s work in spreading SRI and SRI itself has had such impressive results that they have been invited to do the same in more districts and have been studied by Cornell and many Indian universities.

What is SRI, what does it entail?

System of Rice Intensification is a methodology aimed at increasing the yield of rice produced in farming. It was developed by refining a technique used by local rice growers in Madagascar in the early eighties, but spread around the world after 1993. Over time, the methodology spread to other crops as well and is now referred to as System of Root Intensification (SRI).

The basic principles of SRI include careful planting of a single seedling (rather than in clumps), avoiding trauma to the roots (transplanting quickly and shallowly), wider spacing of seedlings (to permit growth of roots and letting the plant gets more sunlight), use of a weeder to control weeds, keeping soil moist (rather than flooded) and the use of organic fertilizers in the form of farm yard manure or vermi-compost. It follows the minimalist ‘less is more’ ideology. This is particularly beneficial for marginal and small farmers who can get a good output using less seed, water, and fertilizers.

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Benefits of the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) methodology

First off, the yields of SRI crops are upto 20-50% higher than crops grown by conventional methods and the crop has a shorter maturity period. SRI agriculture also saves water, “A lot of farmers who work in very dry areas have taken up SRI.”

The methodology helps the plant fight various stresses – biotic stress (pests/diseases) and abiotic stress (extreme weather, drought, storm). Many studies have shown that there are fewer pest attacks – because plants are healthier (when they are planted apart, they get sufficient light, air and nutrients). When SRI rice is milled, there is less breakage of grain, since the grain is fuller and less chalky – assuring a better price for the farmers.

Because plants are stronger and more deeply rooted, SRI plants tolerate drought and erratic weather better than conventional plants. “SRI is also a climate resilience methodology,” says Anil Verma, “We deployed measuring instruments for GHG emissions last year. SRI plots emit around only 50 PPM of methane compared to 150-200 PPM in non-SRI plots.”

Talking about the benefits of SRI to poor farmers, Anil Verma says, “SRI is a knowledge intensive methodology – not input intensive. So it’s affordable to our farmers who are mostly small and marginal. It also stems deterioration of natural resources (as seen in Punjab and Haryana post the green revolution). Today we see an increase in the prevalence of diseases such as diabetes, blood pressure and cancer, and we think that’s normal. What we should really be focusing on are technologies that improve the health of the community. The SRI Revolution takes care of all these things. Farmers use locally prepared fertilizers, less chemical fertilizers. So we are healthy and food secure.”

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The Scale of PRAN’s work

PRAN’s core mission is to enhance the livelihoods and food security, particularly for women and marginal families. Their work on sustainable agriculture is inspired by the work of Subhash Palekar, a natural farming pioneer in India. They work directly in 2 districts of Bihar- Gaya and Nalanda with about 26,000 small and marginal farmers in Bihar, and are spreading the work across India where they have been invited by many state governments. Since the push by the Government of Bihar, about 2 million farmers have taken up SRI in Bihar alone.

How they reach farmers

PRAN has divided the entire project area into SRI clusters (30- 35 villages constitute 1 cluster) and have extension workers working there. For every 50 farmers or so, they have a Green Resource Person (GRP) and these GRPs meet every week where they review and plan things. The GRPs work with farmers, and also do training and data collection. Every 2-3 blocks is headed by an SMS (Subject Matter Specialist). All the SMSs in the entire project area (and Anil Verma) constitute one Technical Resource Team that meets every month.

Since SRI is a method, not the use of special seeds or inputs, promotion of SRI also requires well trained extension workers. Their model of scaling up is through working with locals – they train local cadre (mostly women farmers – rather like extension workers that provide training and handholding support to new farmers) who in turn train farmers.

Is there scientific consensus on SRI?

Some scientists say that there isn’t enough peer-reviewed research around SRI’s benefits. Dominic Glover from Wageningen University said in Feb 2013, “Rather than any magical theory, it is good husbandry, skill and attention which results in the super yields.”

However, there have been over 600 papers published on SRI and its proponents are now spread across 60 rice growing counties. More research has come forward in support of SRI from research institutes like the Rice Research Institute and several agricultural universities.

Anil Verma says, “We focus on creating the right environment so that the crop expresses its full potential, but on that- research is quite limited. SRI focuses on enhancing the microbial population within the soil, which is crucial to transferring minerals and nutrients to the plants. Farmers are gladly accepting it since they have seen results from it, and it often surpasses the yield potential given by the agricultural universities, particularly in paddy. SRI integrated with agronomic principles, is very scientific.”

 


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