The world’s poor populations depend more on rice—for both income and consumption—than any other food. Rice is the single-largest source of employment and income for rural people; rice fields cover 11 percent of Earth’s arable land. But rice production has a significant environmental footprint. Current practices are wasteful of increasingly scarce and costly resources such as water and fossil fuels. Heavily fertilized, continuously flooded rice fields produce greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming, and misuse of inorganic fertilizers and agrochemicals results in soil and water pollution. Rice cultivation is currently using up about one-quarter to one-third of the world’s annual supply of fresh water.
The need to produce more with less will only grow more acute in the future. Farmers will need to cope with less arable land per person, rising energy costs, limited access to water, and changing weather patterns and other adverse impacts of climate change.
SRI can help raise productivity, curb pollution, and meet local food needs in a resource-constrained environment. SRI is an agro-ecological approach that simultaneously raises the productivity of the land, water, and capital in irrigated rice by changing the management of plants, soil, water, and nutrients. The recommended SRI management practices for rice include:
- Transplanting rice seedlings when they are very young and spacing them farther apart on a regular grid rather than randomly. (This approach reduces crowding, strengthens root systems, and allows farmers to use manual weeders.)
- Using integrated pest management rather than using herbicides pre-emptively.
- Enriching soil with organic matter rather than inorganic synthetic fertilizer.
- Applying water intermittently rather than continuously flooding paddy fields.
- Using manual weeders to aerate topsoil and remove weeds.
SRI requires no additional investment of inputs and machinery, and site-specific and farmer-specific adaptations make SRI adoption affordable to small-scale rice farmers. SRI originated in Madagascar in 1986, and its principles and practices have been validated in 41 countries with a wide range of cropping systems and farm sizes. More than one million households in Vietnam, Cambodia, India, and Mali have adopted SRI methods since 2003. Oxfam America is now promoting this system in Haiti and expanding it in Cambodia and Vietnam.
With Oxfam’s support, more than one million farmers and families in Vietnam and Cambodia have practiced SRI and benefited from both improved and local rice varieties. On average, farmers have seen a 10–100 percent or more increase in yields, up to a 90 percent reduction in required seed, and up to a 50 percent savings in water usage. The rice plant health and ecosystems in the paddy fields continually improve. SRI has reached more than 16 percent of the total rice farming population in the northern region of Vietnam—home to most of the small-scale, resource-poor rice farmers in the country. SRI farmers in Vietnam earned an estimated $17.6 million in additional income (VND 370 billion) in the 2011 spring crop season.
Working with farmer communities and partner organizations in the country, Oxfam has elevated SRI to the national policy agenda. In both Cambodia and Vietnam, SRI is included in the national strategy for coping with climate change.
In Cambodia, Oxfam is also promoting complementary innovations such as a handheld rotary weeder. This innovation not only reduces the need for herbicides, but it enables women to weed crops much more quickly and efficiently. Thus, the weeder is socially empowering and addresses time poverty for women. The confidence SRI builds encourages farmers to continue the culture of innovation and to try innovations on other crops. They are applying new techniques successfully to grow minimum-tillage potatoes in Vietnam and teff in Ethiopia.
SRI is an unprecedented success and offers enormous potential. Small investments in SRI boost income for farmers and national economies, strengthen social capital, and provide long-lasting protection to the environment. SRI principles are flexible enough to apply to a wide variety of crops and conditions and to help millions of smallholder farmers. But SRI’s flexibility makes it challenging to scientifically substantiate the long-term environmental impacts of scaling up this effort. Additional research is needed, the work of farmers must be validated, and individuals and organizations with global influence will need to stand by SRI farmers to help this grassroots enterprise truly reach its potential.
Learn about the SRI International Network and Resources Center.