Report Reveals Groundbreaking Results for Rice Farming

A new report from the West and Central African Council for Agricultural Research and Development (CORAFdescribes the results from “the largest System of Rice Intensification (SRI) project ever undertaken in the world,” according to technical lead for regional coordination Dr. Erika Styger. It reveals higher yields for rice farmers in West Africa using SRI. SRI is an adaptable rice farming methodology for reducing the need for inputs, including agrochemicals, while increasing yields.

Rice is an important crop in West and Central Africa—most of the 430 million peopleliving in the region depend on it as a staple—but West Africa currently consumes more than it produces and has been importing rice from other parts of the world, such as Asia. A regional offensive initiated by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) aims to change this by increasing regional rice production.

Organizations and farmers are working toward this goal through initiatives such as the “Improving and Scaling up the System of Rice Intensification in West Africa” project (SRI-WAAPP). This three-year project involved more than 50,000 rice farmers, more than 1,000 sites, and 13 West African countries. It was coordinated by the National Center of Specialization on Rice in Mali along with Cornell University through the West Africa Agricultural Productivity Program (WAAPP)—a program of CORAF. The project is “one of the most successful in the CORAF portfolio,” says CORAF’s Executive Director Dr. Abdou Tenkouano. “This SRI project has been groundbreaking in its participatory design and implementation.” “The involvement of the rice stakeholders in the 13 countries since the design of the project was the key factor of success during its implementation,” Dr. Gaoussou Traoré, the project’s regional coordinator, tells Food Tank when asked about this participatory design.

According to the report, use of SRI shows promise for helping rice farmers meet the growing demand in the region. In fact, authors Styger and Traoré write that complete adoption of this method in 2017 would have eliminated the need for rice imports. They also estimate that just in the 2015-2016 growing season, use of SRI produced more than an additional 20,000 tons of milled rice at the project sites, valued at about US$10 million.

The report details yields for farmers using SRI compared with farms using conventional growing practices. An independent evaluation in five countries found that yields increased by 54 percent, 65 percent, and 153 percent for irrigated, rainfed lowland, and rainfed upland systems, respectively. It also found a 41 percent average increase in farmers’ incomes. The project team’s assessment of overall results found even higher yield increases for irrigated and rainfed lowland systems, at 56 percent and 86 percent, respectively. Given these findings, the authors advocate for further scale-up of SRI in the region: “If SRI is to make a real contribution to rice self-sufficiency in West Africa, many more farmers must adopt it.”

However, “successful expansion of SRI will depend on adapting SRI practices to local environments,” say Styger and Traoré. Because SRI is an approach based on a set of principles—rather than a static technology—it is adaptable to farmers’ diverse circumstances, such as irrigated or rainfed systems and different ecological characteristics. “The practices, of course, should always be adapted to suit local conditions,” says Norman Uphoff, Senior Advisor for the SRI International Network and Resources Center (SRI-Rice) program at Cornell University. “We see SRI more as a menu than as a recipe.” Dr. Traoré explains that participants of the SRI-WAAPP project used a conceptual framework based on four defining and unchanging principles—“the backbone of SRI”—while agreeing that “the rice production practices or techniques used to implement the four principles may vary and need to be adapted to local agro-socio-economic conditions.”

Though SRI is far from full adoption, the methodology has been spreading around the world and is used in more than 50 countries. Consequently, SRI is used in a wide variety of socioeconomic contexts and can look different between communities and between farms. For example, in some cases where SRI decreases labor requirements, people have raised concerns that its economic benefits will not extend to groups like landless farm laborers. On the other hand, sometimes SRI intensifies labor requirements, particularly while farmers become familiar with it and learn what practices work best for their farms.

CORAF’s Regional Gender and Social Development Adviser Dr. Mariame Maiga worries that SRI’s labor intensity could place additional burdens on women who already have significant responsibilities in addition to agricultural work, including cooking, obtaining water, and caring for children. “Women have to work very hard with SRI to produce rice,” she tells Food Tank. Dr. Maiga recommends that steps be taken to prevent SRI adoption from overburdening women and exacerbating gender disparities. In response, the team adopted a labor-saving weeding technology from India to help make SRI more convenient.

This is just one example of how projects can adjust their SRI implementation, and farmers and organizations all over the world have been finding new ways to adapt SRI. Because the SRI-WAAPP project was so large, the team was able to foster cross-border collaboration: “The regional nature of this project made it possible to connect researchers, extension staff, and farmers working under similar conditions across West Africa and help them to identify and share innovations,” say the report’s authors. “This enabled faster dissemination, adaptation, and adoption of SRI to different rice production systems, ultimately leading to better results.”

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Liberian Rice Company Closing Gap On Imported Rice

Monrovia – A Liberian entrepreneur, Reverend Robert Bimba, has stressed the need for Liberians to start feeding themselves with homemade rice.

Reverend Bimba, who is the head of the Community of Hope Agriculture Project (CHAP), says the group is currently cultivating rice to supply the Liberian market.

CHAP has implemented several projects for the Ministry of Agriculture, West Africa Productivity Program WAAPP/World Bank, WHH, and UNFAO.

CHAP also has the following priority areas, Livelihood and Agriculture, Health & Hygiene, Education, Community Mobilization, SRI Program, capacity building training, Village Savings and Loan Program, and Value Chain among others.

Bimba said “for too long Liberians have lived on imported products including rice to survive”.

He told FrontPage Africa that CHAP is using System of Rice Intensification (SRI) for dry season farming as a climate smart innovation with less water, “Rice plant can do better with less water,” he said.

He also disclosed that CHAP has profound expertise in the Liberian rice sector, saying, it is the focal point organization on SRI in Liberia with support from IFAD, the World Bank, CNS-Riz (Mali), SRI-Rice (Cornell University, USA), and Abide in the Vine Fellowship Owego, NY, USA.

Rev. Bimba said US$2 is million spent per annum on subsidizing projects and the US$200 million spent on the importation of rice can be invested in the rice sector.

He noted that when more funding is infused into the agriculture sector, it will provide job opportunities for young people in the country.

He, however, disclosed that CHAP currently has milling machines with a capacity of producing a minimum of 8 metric tons a day.

Bimba disclosed that CHAP in collaboration with other partners and has begun developing a roadmap for the supply of Liberian rice to the local market.

“If we put our time and focus on eating our own rice and work towards promoting it, we will all start to feed ourselves from our own soul,” he said.

“There are people who want to always see your downfall in the job we do for our partners, but they are all detractors and we will not pay attention to them because this project is also geared towards the production of more food and to reduce hunger in the country.”

He called on all Liberians to join CHAP for the fight against hunger.

“Join us in our big bumper SRI harvest. Rush and buy your own Liberian milled rice now US$20 /25kg white rice and US$30/25kg red rice, let support each other and stop tearing each other,” he noted.

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The miracle method for sustainable rice – and bigger harvests

Farm leader Duangchan Witchalin. Photograph by John Vidal / The Guardian

Farm leader Duangchan Witchalin. Photograph by John Vidal / The Guardian


A technique developed by a Jesuit priest is producing bumper crops – and reducing emissions of a grain responsible for 1.5% of greenhouse gases

Buathong Kukamjad from Warin Chamrap district with his large crop of jasmine rice, grown without flooding the soil. Photograph: John Vidal/The Guardian

The fragrant jasmine rice growing on the left side of Kreaougkra Junpeng’s five-acre field stands nearly five feet tall.

Each plant has 15 or more tillers, or stalks, and the grains hang heavy from them. The Thai farmer says this will be his best-ever harvest in 30 years and he will reap it four weeks earlier than usual.

It is very different on the other side of the field. Here, Junpeng planted his rice in closely spaced clumps of 20 or more seedlings in shallow water just as he, his father and millions of other small farmers across south-east Asia have always done. He used the same seeds but the conventionally grown plants are wind-battered and thin, and clearly have fewer, smaller grains.

Junpeng is part of a pilot project to see if it’s possible to grow more rice with less water and fewer greenhouse gases. The dramatic difference between his two crops points a way to help the world’s 145 million small rice farmers, and could also greatly reduce global warming emissions from agriculture.

The project, backed by the German and Thai governments and by some of the world’s largest rice traders and food companies, has seen 3,000 other farmers in this corner of Thailand’s “rice basket” near the Cambodian border trained to grow sustainable rice according to the principles of a revolutionary agronomical system discovered by accident in Madagascar in the 1980s.

Jesuit priest Henri de Lalanié working in the highlands observed that by planting far fewer seeds than usual, using organic matter as a fertiliser and keeping the rice plants alternately wet and dry rather than flooded, resulted in yields that were increased by between 20 and 200%, while water use was halved. Giving plants more oxygen, minimising the competition between them and strictly controlling the water they receive is thought to make them stronger and more resilient to flood and drought.

When it was first employed outside Madagascar in 2000, the system of rice intensification (SRI) was dismissed by a handful of scientists who questioned the legitimacy of the reported increased yields. But since then, it has evolved and been developed by peasant farmers working in many different climates around the world.

Academic criticism has since all but disappeared and the SRI system of farming has been validated in hundreds of scientific papers and adopted by up to 20 million farmers in 61 countries, according to the SRI information centre in Cornell University.

“The results consistently cite yield increases, decreased use of seed, water and chemicals, and increased income,” says Norman Uphoff, professor of global agriculture at Cornell.

Vietnamese, Cambodian, Nepalese, Filipino, Indian and African farmers have all reported large increases. In 2011, a young Indian farmer broke the world recordfor rice production, harvesting 22 tonnes from a single hectare (2.47 acres).

“SRI is very positive in west Africa. It uses fewer seed and fertilisers and needs less water. Farmers saved up to 80% of the cost of seed and got increased yields and incomes. They see the advantages and they change. People are teaching each other now,” says Professor Bancy Mati, director of the water research centre at Jomo Kenyatta University in Nairobi, Kenya.

The Thai farmers who took part in the Ubon Ratchathani trial say they are delighted. Says Khampha Bunchansee from Noan Dang village: “It was very easy to learn. I will use the extra money to invest in a tractor. If I can do it, anyone can. Everyone can come and learn.”

“I applied more fertiliser on my conventional crop but it produced lots more leaf but not more grain,” says Wanna Sriwila, also from Noan Dang. “Now I bring other farmers to see what can be done. Seeing is believing.”

But what is now exciting some of the world’s largest food corporations and governments is that growing rice along SRI principles also greatly reduces emissions of the powerful greenhouse gas methane, which escapes when rice, or any other crop, lies waterlogged for weeks at a time.

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Farm leader Duangchan Witchalin. Photograph: John Vidal/The Guardian

Methane is roughly 30 times more powerful than CO2 as a greenhouse gas, and rice emits as much as 1.5% of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions. With the human population in south-east Asia expected to grow by around 100m people in the next 20 years, emissions from rice growing could increase 30% or more.

The urgency to act for the global good, self-interest in maintaining production and the possibility of accessing money to reduce farm emissions has now led heavy rice-using food companies like Mars and Kellogg’s, and the agri-business colossus Olam, to set up the Sustainable Rice Platform (SRP).

This coalition of companies, NGOs and governments sets the world’s first voluntary sustainability standards for rice growing. It adopts the basic SRI principle of planting seedlings further apart, and keeping them moist rather than flooded, but adds targets and measurements to provide consistency.

“Rice is both a victim and a cause of climate change,” says Sunny Verghese, CEO of Singapore-based Olam’s, which grows its own rice on 25,000 acres in Nigeria, owns mills and processing plants across south-east Asia and ships nearly 20% of the world’s globally traded rice.

“South-east Asian rice farmers are among the world’s most vulnerable to climate change impacts such as rising sea levels, salinity, temperature rise and droughts. Yields can decrease as much as 10% for each 1C temperature increase, threatening food security for billions of people.

“With another two billion people we cannot carry on the way we are. We must go beyond what is currently being done and achieve far more at greater scale. We must re-imagine the whole food supply chain if the world is to become carbon neutral by 2050,” he says.

“SRI should influence everyone’s thinking. In Nigeria we saw a 70% increase in yields, albeit from a low base. SRI is revolutionary. It is a genuine change in thinking. It is difficult for scientists to understand that an amateur [like Lalanié] should have a solution. We want to partner with SRI, to scale up in Africa.

“But reducing emissions from rice cannot be a trade-off that hurts farmers and communities who depend on it for their income and sustenance. We have to measure the true cost of food and dismantle the subsidy system.”

Working with German development agency GIZ and south-east Asian governments, Olam now plan to roll out SRP rice to 100,000 farmers in Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and India within five years, increasing yields and incomes, and reducing methane emissions by 50%.

Governments and global bodies must act too, says tropical agronomist Erika Styger, director of climate-resilient farming systems at Cornell University who led a three-year World Bank study of 50,000 farmers using SRI methods in 13 west African countries. This saw a 56% rise in yields in irrigated areas, an 86% increase in rain-fed areas and an average 41% increase in income.

“The SRI revolution is happening. People are changing their practices and you can see SRI in the field in many places now. There is no reason why SRI should not become normal agronomic practice,” says Styger.

“But there is no long term funding. If we want to make it mainstream it needs to get to a critical mass. We are left with breadcrumbs, with only short-term project finding,” she says.

“The food system is broken. Olam on its own cannot fix it, we can only change it. We can’t do it overnight but there is a new way of collaborating. Companies must change and reduce their resource intensity. The whole food sector must change,” says Verghese.

“What is needed now is large retailers to brand SRP. It’s the way we can reduce emissions, use less water and grow more. Win. Win. Win.

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