SRI (System of Rice Intensification, pronounced shree) has been getting favorable press (and pushback) lately, so I thought I’d look into it some. Basically, I’m inclined to think there’s something in it, just based on what farmers are saying. So SRI is a real sign of hope. Here’s an educational — well, OK, propaganda — video about SRI made in and for India. It’s got English subtitles, so just pretend you’re in an art house.
One Seed Revolution is a short film which focuses on the lives of Dashrathi Senapathi and Savitri Sahu — two individuals who took up the challenge of switching over to SRI and were a role model for their fellow villagers. The Natural Resource Management and Rural Livelihoods team of the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust promote and support SRI to farmers across India.
Here’s a general description of SRI methods from Cornell’s SRI International Network and Resources Center:
SRI methodology is based on four main principles that interact with each other:
- Early, quick and healthy plant establishment
- Reduced plant density
- Improved soil conditions through enrichment with organic matter
- Reduced and controlled water application
Based on these principles, farmers can adapt recommended SRI practices to respond to their agroecological and socioeconomic conditions. Adaptations are often undertaken to accommodate changing weather patterns, soil conditions, labor availability, water control, access to organic inputs, and the decision whether to practice fully organic agriculture or not.
The video isn’t a training video, so it doesn’t take the viewer through the seasonal cycle from planting to harvest, but you will see examples of the methods if you look closely, and especially farmers exclaiming joyously about their yield.
So, a few thoughts:
1. SRI is a very different world from permaculture, which is where I first encountered the real pleasures of growing plants. Permaculture’s quest for yield tends toward a very dense, multi-layered, and above all site-specific systems: ideally (IMNSHO) an edible forest in constant climax. Permaculture tends toward horticulture, and while it’s all about edges — there’s always an energy flow at an edge — it isn’t necessarily about property lines. SRI, by contrast, is very much about agriculture; its quest for yield is very much about pounds or tons per (owned!) hectare. (Savitri has a paddy of 2.5 hectares; tiny). SRI seeks simple methods that are above all scalable, and hence not site-specific. Of course, it’s hard to go wrong by enriching your soil with organic matter, all things being equal. Both horticulture and agriculture have their place. (Whether the Agriculture Revolution was, indeed, the worst mistake in the history of the human race and, if so, what to do about that is a thread for another time.)
2. SRI’s relative methodological simplicity and scalability may explain why it propagates differently from permaculture. Permaculture proceeds very much by a form of apostolic succession, where trainers train the trainers through a process of certification. Certified permaculturists then acquire a patch and often go into the business of training more permaculturists. And they all put up YouTubes of their projects!
SRI YouTubes, by contrast, tend to be professionally produced either tools of persuasion, conference presentations, or training videos funded by foundations or government; the video above is funded by the Tata Foundation, which is like the Rockefeller Institute of India, except maybe bigger. Presumably funders go for scalable methods because performance metrics are easy to devise. And heck, SRI’s life-saving and enhancing potential is ginormous, so maybe they’re right!
3. One might dub SRI “the Green Revolution That Should Have Been.” Rather than rely on inputs like petroleum from far away (colonialization again) or proprietary seeds (Monsanto and debt slavery), SRI listens to the plant and sources inputs locally. (The Thais, notable rice growers, would call this sufficiency.)
4. I know very little about Indian culture, so I suppose I should take the video with a grain of salt.** But of course the village elders rejected SRI at first, and of course a forward-thinking woman adopted the technique, and what happened to her, anyhow? (Not, one hopes, rape). And of course the white short-sleeved technicians and bureaucrats from the metropolis are supportive, knowledgeable, and never corrupt.
5. Finally, the video shows the incredible penetration of media into the India Village. From the built environment, the clothing, the dishes, we are clearly in the second world, but there are cell phones and televisions everywhere. So, the conditions for propagating new ideas about agriculture to peasants rapidly are very different from conditions in the days of the physiocrats, of Jefferson, or even Leibig.
So, I have to say — and I hope I’m not wrong — that SRI looks really hopeful. Some good news at last?
NOTE ** The video shows a farmer preparing a pot of water for germinating rice, and adding enough salt so that an egg or a potato would float. But the video never explains why that’s the procedure! A permaculture video would dwelled on that in loving detail.