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The “less is more” philosophy of rice production

A family prepares a rice field for planting in the Madagascan capital of Antananarivo
A family prepares a rice field for planting in the Madagascan capital of Antananarivo (Jan 2012) (Guy Oliver/IRIN)

Ernest Rakotoarivony, 45, was teased by some members of the Talata community, a small town 30km north of Madagascar’s capital Antananarivo, after breaking with traditional rice cultivation methods and employing a technique taught to him by a Jesuit priest.

A decade ago the Dutch priest, Ed Mulderink, promised him that adopting the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) would substantially increase his rice yield, but warned it would also be more labour intensive.

“When you replant the rice, you have very small plants, and they need to be planted individually in rows [with SRI]. The others [traditional rice farmers] just take bunches of plants, beat the roots against their feet to get the soil off, and replant them. It takes them one hour to replant their field, while it takes me two days. People don’t want to use that much time,” Rakotoarivony told IRIN.

Other farmers were skeptical of the “less is more” approach to rice production. “They think that the more plants they put in the field, the more rice they’ll have. But the opposite is true. Even if they just used some parts of the method, like controlling the water, or not beating the plant roots, it would help,” he said.

“There were people who laughed at me, until they saw the harvest,” said Rakotoarivony, who was approached by the priest when he was earning his living as a bread vendor. “The priest asked me to work with him, using SRI. So we worked on my family land together, and we managed to double the yield, just as he had promised.”

During the lean season Rakotoarivony produces vegetables and now has enough cash to buy seed and fertilizer every three years. Although some of his family have adopted SRI, relatively few others in the area have, despite the best efforts of the priest preaching the benefits of the practice.

Rice is the staple for Madagascar’s 20 million people, and the average annual consumption is about 102kg per person; about 75 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.

Production has declined from 4.7 million tons in 2010 to 4.3 million in 2011 and prices have doubled in two years to about US$1 per kilogram. In the 1970s Madagascar was a rice exporter but has since become a rice importer, a consequence of outdated farming methods and poor infrastructure, but farmers still produce 80 percent of the country’s national rice requirement.

Development of SRI

The SRI method was developed in the 1980s by the French Jesuit priest Henri de Laulanié, who challenged accepted norms of rice production. Traditional farmers flood their rice fields and plant bunches of mature rice plants, while SRI farmers transplant young seedlings with greater spacing on soil that is moist but not flooded. Proponents of SRI claim this system uses 25-50 percent less water, requires 80-90 percent fewer seeds, and can sometimes double or even triple the yields.

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SRI has been promoted locally by NGO Tefy Saina (Change you Mentality, established by De Laulanié) and internationally, through the Cornell International Institute for Food, Agriculture and Development (CIIFAD).

“The method has really taken off in Asia and is now practised in more than 30 countries. However, it has not been adopted on a wide scale in Africa or in Madagascar itself,” Winifred Fitzgerald, adviser to the Better U Foundation, told IRIN.

The Better U Foundation, funded by the Canadian actor Jim Carrey, has assisted in SRI’s implementation and dissemination at grassroots, institutional and policy levels.

However, there remains conjecture as to whether SRI methods are outpacing traditional methods. A 2005 report by Cornell University entitled Does the System of Rice Intensification Outperform Conventional Best Management? A Synopsis of the Empirical Record, says: “Aside from one set of experiments in Madagascar where SRI more than doubled rice productivity with respect to Best Management Practices, we found no evidence of a systematic or even occasional yield advantage of this magnitude elsewhere.”

In Asian countries, these researchers found, there could even be a negative impact when the system is used, the report said.

“This is a method that was discovered in the field, not in a laboratory. Some want to promote other systems. But I think that there is no competition. Some places are better for SRI than others,” said Better U adviser Rames Abhukara.

A recent progress report of the Better U Foundation cites the results of an evaluation with its partner, Catholic Relief Service (CRS) - an international faith-based NGO working in the Vakinankaratra highland region of Madagascar. In a sample of 120 households out of 600 beneficiary families, the average yields with SRI were 3.28 tons per hectare, compared to 2.87 tons per hectare prior to the project’s implementation. The regional average of rice production is two tons per hectare.

The study showed that families’ food stocks lasted on average 54 days longer as a result of their increased harvest, and helped to decrease vulnerability during the lean season.

Resistance to change

“For some farmers, they don’t see why they should change the way their fathers and grandfathers grew rice. To minimize risk, they may start practising SRI in one corner of the rice field,” Fitzgerald explained. “Others are interested in the method, but do not know how to start or have received insufficient training, so partners are working to address these gaps.”

''For some farmers, they don’t see why they should change the way their fathers and grandfathers grew rice''

“We don’t tell them to do this. We tell them: If you think it’s useful, we can help you with it,” Abhukara added.

At the institutional level, the Better U Foundation helped to create an association known as the Groupement SRI de Madagascar (GSRI).

GSRI has 267 members, including local and international NGOs, research institutes and private sector entities. In June 2011, the Ministry of Agriculture included SRI in its national strategy for rice development for the first time.

“We were also quite pleased that the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier De Schutter, in his preliminary conclusions cited SRI as an important agro-ecological method that could contribute to the country’s food security,” Fitzgerald said.

Apart from increased productivity for farmers, the method has environmental benefits, its proponents claim. With increased yields and improved incomes, there is less pressure for farmers to cut down forests for agriculture purposes. SRI also contributes to a reduction in greenhouse gases, especially methane, because the rice fields are not continuously flooded as in traditional rice cultivation.

“Just producing more rice is not enough. For an effective SRI dissemination strategy, you have to consider the whole rice chain, such as farmers’ access to micro-finance as well as the storage, transportation and marketing of rice,” Abhukara said.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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