Small farmers in the rural Indian state of Bihar are setting yield records for rice, potatoes and wheat — without the use of genetically engineered (GE) seed or pesticides.
The acronym stands for System of Rice (or root) Intensification, and was developed by researchers from Cornell University working with Madagascar farmers in the 1980s. As described in a recent article in The Guardian, it is basically a "less is more" approach in which farmers plant fewer seedlings with more space between each plant, keep the soil much drier and carefully weed between each plant to aerate the soil.
For rice farmer Sumant Kumar, this meant a jump from four or five tons per hectare to 22.4 tons per hectare when harvest time came.
Agroecology is "best hope"
These bumper crops from agroecological farming reinforce what we know from previous studies. According to the most comprehensive analysis of world agriculture to date — the World Bank and U.N. sponsored International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Scientific and Technology for Development (IAASTD) — agroecology is our best hope for feeding a hungry world.
As The Guardian reports, SRI has incredible potential:
SRI appears to offer a long-term, sustainable future for no extra cost. With more than one in seven of the global population going hungry and demand for rice expected to outstrip supply within 20 years, it appears to offer real hope. Even a 30% increase in the yields of the world's small farmers would go a long way to alleviating poverty.
Dr. Surendra Chaurassa from Bihar's Ministry of Agriculture explains why the state agency is now investing heavily in SRI training:
"Farmers use less seeds, less water and less chemicals but they get more without having to invest more. This is revolutionary. I did not believe it to start with, but now I think it can potentially change the way everyone farms."
And these impressive yields significantly impact farmers' lives. As one Bihar farmer put it, "My whole life has changed. I can send my children to school and spend more on health. My income has increased a lot."
Still pushing GE?
The state of Bihar will invest $50 million to promote SRI next year, and is looking for additional support. One ministry agronomist points to the need for additional farmer training for the knowledge-intensive approach: "The biggest problem we have is that people want to do it but we do not have enough trainers."
Yet even as agroecological methods like SRI are resulting in record-breaking harvests, western government agencies and foundations are holding back their support. And industry continues to aggressively promote pesticide-dependent GE crops as the solution to world hunger.
However, GE crops consistently fail to live up to the hype. After three decades and billions of public dollars spent on GE research in the U.S., we have yet to see a GE crop that delivers on the promise of increased yields. Instead, GE crops have been responsible for dramatic increases in herbicide use — precisely because most of them are engineered to withstand increased applications of these chemicals. And it is no accident that the world's largest GE seed manufacturers are also the world's largest pesticide companies.
Meanwhile, small farmers grow 80% of our food worldwide. And in rural India, farmers like Sumant Kumar are driving what's fast becoming known as the "new green grassroots revolution" as they demonstrate techniques that can truly feed the world.