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“One Seed Revolution (English)”

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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 SRI-RICE staff includes Norman Uphoff, who was instrumental in transplanting the SRI methods originated by Fr. Henri de Laulanié in Madagascar to the rest of the world.

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.

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28 comments

  1. Claudius

    It’s a great idea and exciting (very much along the lines of the Green Revolution) but there are several caveats (certainly in SE Asia) to the confident notion of cheap rice pudding for all:

    1) With the SRI method, there is a high rate of dis-adoption – as much as 70% – due to the greater requirement of labor (and local pricing factors) particularly in India, Philippines and Thailand. And, even though farmers know that the SRI methods gives higher yields, for non-extended family (or non-co-op) farmers casual labor is short-term and relatively expensive – especially for very poor farm households, which require regular income/savings to survive between harvests.

    2) Though average rice yields are currently 2 tons per hectare (t/ha)), and SRI factorial trails indicate an average increase in yields of around 8 /ha, and high yields in the 12-15 t/ha range yields are not exponential – there is evidence of “yield ceiling” for rice between 12 and 15 t/ha (though I’ve yet to read anything definitive on this).

    3) Rice supply and demand system is often distorted by external factors. The consumers demand for steady supply of good quality rice products at reasonable prices, the farmers want the highest prices for their harvest, and the processors and traders have to make a living as licensed intermediaries. Government’s policy is, typically, to import cheap rice for consumers, maintain a high local farm gate price for paddy, and leave the processing sector to the market forces. This additional uncertainty provides little incentive for the small farmer and cooperatives to invest time and money in more efficient processing methods.

    4) The econometrics for local farmers – response and demand for local rice in areas where there is a mix of SRI and ‘standard’ rice farming methods increases the fluctuation of supply in the short/medium term. That is the quantity to be supplied next year is a function of the current price -irrespective of potential yield. This means that current supply quantity is a function of last year`s price and that current supply is not a function of current price. As such, the current demand for rice is affected by and is a function of the current price and, overall, fluctuations in the price from one year to the other may steadily approach the equilibrium price. In short, it’s hard for small, local farmers (where the average scale of rice farming for most of Southeast Asia is about 3 hectares). And, to top that, is the problem of variable fixed capacity in rice processing……. See 6.

    5) Net-net, for your average small farmer with a 3 hectare rice paddy, deals with a local trader that assembles the harvest of farmers in an area and delivers the same to the processor. For his effort, the trader charges say $0.017 per kg, or $204 per 12 tons of paddy. The farmer gets 47.6% of the processed value of his harvest while the processor only gets 1.8% of the market value of the farmer’s harvest. The farmer’s income is limited by the size of his land holding while the processor’s income is limited only by his plant’s capacity, and his capital to buy paddy. Processors frequently go bankrupt or out of business, plant is sold off piecemeal and transport to future processing plants increase distance and cost.

    I don’t mean to sound pessimistic. But, too often, an economy of scale for rice farmers, throughout South East Asia, is something you weigh your product on.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      Thanks for the very thoughtful reply. Personally, I’d be heartened by a dis-adoption rate of only 70% and I wonder if extended families is the variable.

      Also, since SRI’s competitors are petroleum-based, adoption may increase as infrastructure decays.

      I didn’t really mean “rice pudding for everybody,” if it came off that way. Rather that there’s a better alternative out in the world that people know about. Can’t kill an idea!

      1. Yves Smith

        I’m wondering also if the dis-adoption is high because the staple in question is rice, which is a very labor intensive crop to begin with (for instance, there are sociologists who speculate that the reason Japanese culture is so extremely non-individualistic is the demands of rice cultivation). If you apply this to less labor intensive grains, you might see lower dis-adoption rates. However, the problem there is so much acreage has already been turned over to large-scale agriculture. But (again thinking out loud) soyabeans are another staple in Asia, under considerable price pressure (from what I can see in the US) and I’d presume still cultivated on relatively small plots in Asia while also cultivated large scale in places like South Dakota. Eggplant is a virtual staple in India….

        1. Lambert Strether Post author

          I have read that SRI techniques are being adapted to vegetables, and why not? As far as the cultural aspect, it seems to be the same in Thailand; a key cultural value is sanuk, which means having fun in a group (that is, the whole village).

          I wonder if the more permanent uptake happens in areas where (a) the extended family is still strong, and (b) soil practices are better. The first means more laborers, and the second less labor (or at least a faster and better initial result).

        2. tyaresun

          We grow eggplants on the borders of the farm, not the farm itself.

          I am very hopeful about SRI, thank you for discussing it.

  2. direction

    SRI looks good. It seems to mainly involve more care in planting (transplanting seedlings rather than direct seeding, etc) and water saving regimens.

    It’s bound to be a lot more work this way, which is why they have written papers on SRI’s adoption and disadoption rate in Madagascar (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0308521X02000410) (unfortunately a pay per view site)

    and the video (I can’t watch it, but from your descriptive “tools of persuasion” ) might be built the way it is because they are trying to address the disappointing adoption rate by being proactive with their attention to new media. It does seem like it could work better in India.

    1. direction

      i posted before I saw Claudius’ excellent reply.

      I agree with C on so many fronts. SRI still looks great and maybe they just need to do more market analysis to be able to target the type of farmer that falls into the 30% that sticks with the system, rather than assuming everyone should do it. The links I saw implied that it was working less for large or very small operations. SRI focussed on Madagascar early on because the environmental degradation there is huge, and single farmers were having a hard time feeding their own families. But these people disadopted often because there was not enough labor or capital to hire labor during the planting season.

      It’s a good movement. They promote that people keep parts of the method even if they go back to commercial seed or direct seeding or pesticides, etc.

      Keep up the faith Lambert, and thanks for posting on farming.

    2. Zachary Smith

      SRI looks almost too good to be true, and it strikes me as odd that everybody in the past thousand years overlooked this particular type of cultivation.

      Assuming that’s exactly what happened though, your mention of ‘direct seeding’ caused me to make a search for that in connection with the SRI.

      http://sri.ciifad.cornell.edu/countries/india/AP/In%20AP_DST_KVK_Drumseeder_Rpt2012.pdf

      Not too surprisingly, direct seeding appears to be a viable option. I know virtually nothing about rice and have planted (with ignorance and incompetence) two microscopic plots of upland rice in my entire life. But I DO know something about tomatoes, and in my part of Indiana the direct-seeded plants are darned near as quick to produce as the ones I pampered in pots indoors. And they’re generally much healthier if you’ve kept them clear of weeds.

      If we don’t have another drought this year may my third rice plot. :)

      1. Lambert Strether Post author

        It doesn’t strike me as odd at all. It took millenia to invent the yoke so farmers could draft animals. Plows were also slow to develop. Some civilizations never developed the wheel. And when you are, as it were, “betting the farm,” it is perhaps best to be conservative in any case….

        1. direction

          I don’t think the techniques are new. Just a readoption of old techniques that are labor intensive and increase yield

  3. Ron

    Improved planting and spacing combined with organic soil enrichment means higher crop yields on small plots, not a surprise to many organic backyard farmers in the world but shocking to the corporate driven Ag community.
    It would be interesting to interview Amish Ag sources here in the U.S. and review there methods as they mirror smaller Asian farmers.

    1. diptherio

      Sadly, the Hutterites around where I live have converted almost entirely to mainstream commercial methods (so I’ve been told by reputable sources). Hutterite butter and eggs are big around here, and turkeys around thanksgiving/christmas. They are, no doubt, better than the really big operations, but I fear that even the Colony is moving away from old methods. Maybe the Amish are different.

  4. Bridget

    You have to understand the nature of what you are growing. I can’t imagine that there is any promise in the small scale growing of wheat. Truck farming, on the other hand, lends itself to intensive small scale methods. Temperatures will still be a limiting factor, but have you ever seen how the Dutch produce prodigious amounts of lovely vegetables in a cool climate? They make widespread use of greenhouses. Citrus trees are tough, though. They just really don’t like getting cold.

  5. mpinca

    The title of the film brings to mind the book of a Japanese rice farmer, Masanobu Fukuoka, “The One Straw Revolution,” that received a lot of attention in the late ’70s. Fukuoka’s approach was almost the opposite of SRI, working with natural cycles to minimize the farmer’s labor. For instance, rather than planting seeds directly into a flooded paddy (or even more work-intensively, transplanting seedlings), he would mix the seed into clay, push it through a screen to make small pellets, scatter them on dry ground, and then wait for the first rain to sprout them at the right time.

    He also had a citrus orchard which he managed without pruning. He insisted that if a tree was never pruned to begin with, it would grow in a natural form that would allow every branch to receive sunlight, maximizing yield and minimizing disease.Fukuoka decried the use of “labor-saving” machinery and remembered a time when Japanese farmers could make a living farming much smaller plots while having leisure for writing poetry and making music. He called his method Do Nothing Farming.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      I agree it’s good to do as little work as necessary, but in the same way that permaculture has a niche (maybe even a big niche) but isn’t for everybody, so Fukuoka.

      * * *

      Also, I really disagree on pruning. I’ve seen careful pruning greatly improved both yield and the “happiness” of the trees. There are plenty of my own branches I might have pruned, given the opportunity.

  6. diptherio

    Oh snap, the other meaning of SRI just hit me. How very appropriate.

    The goddess Sri, who is also commonly known by the name Laksmi, has been known in the Hindu tradition since pre-Buddhist times. She is one of the most popular goddesses in the Hindu pantheon…Throughout her history Sri has been associated with prosperity, well-being, royal power, and illustriousness. In many respects she is the embodiment of these qualities, and it is commonly understood that when these qualities are evident, Sri herself is present or reveals herself.~David R. Kinsley Hindu Goddesses

    That is what I call culturally-appropriate marketing. Jaya Sri Devi!

  7. Emperor Wang of Market Mongo

    On Mongo we believe food diversity enhances sales and a broad product offering can create demand.

    Our food engineers long ago applied Moore’s Law to DNA science and have reached the practical limit in bio-diversity and yield per meter^2. So they focused on developing food products that “sell themselves”.

    On Mongo we have adopted the online marketing approach to sales and distribution, but Mongopoly Online Catalog customers (dba residents) still must go to the Mongopoly Warehouse Center to pick up their purchases. Mongopoly marketers of course recognized that this creates and opportunity for “cross selling” and clamored for our food engineers to animate food species whom know how to sell themselves to this captive market. The customer experience at your Mongopoly Warehouse Center is now overwhelmingly dynamic.

    Speech enabled fruits and vegetables call out phrases like “Eat Me!”, “I’m Delicious”, “I’m Succulent”, “I’m Wholesome!”, “I’m Decadent”, “I’m Fortified and Gluten Free!” and “I’ll Knock Your Socks Off!”.

    Product placement is important, so motive specie jostle for front of shelf position and jump from lower shelf to upper shelf.

    At first, our marketers asked that food should be red, because this is the color most likely to catch the customer’s eye. Fortunately, they realized where this would lead, and instead asked for reverse chameleon coloring so that a food product would sense it’s neighboring product color and choose a color that clashes. Due to a prior patent, only soup is packaged in static red and white.

    How to properly animate meat and fish product was more of a challenge. Marketing surveys indicated customers didn’t like being reminded that these were once a living animal, and it didn’t matter whether it was a cute animal or an ugly animal. Marketing decided to just go with audio enabled specie in this case to give a sense of “freshness”. We have gentle meat sounds like a pleasant “moo” or “baa”, the occasional cheerful “oink”, and the contented “cluck, cluck” from the meat isles. Gentle wave sounds calmly fill the seafood isles.

    Frozen and convenience foods are packaged with holo projectors showing chefs preparing their contents from fresh, wholesome, mouth watering ingredients. The “cooking show” presentation format was found to be very effective.

    All of the above approaches are used in our snack food specie. For instance, our “Twinkles R Kids” product projects a holo image of Mom hugging a deliriously happy child wolfing down giggling Twinkle after Twinkle. Then a fast forward animation shows the child growing up into a tall, muscled football hero with a voluptuous hottie girlfiend at his side. Flash Gordon and Dale modeled for that part in the latest version of the holo software.

    And sure, “sex sells”, so some specie promote themselves as marital aids.

    That’s how we do it on Mongo. Sorry, but this focus you Earthlings have on one grain seems quite boring to your Emperor.

  8. Susan the other

    Haven’t all the small farmers in India been pushed to the brink of insanity by the “need to export”? So they do the monsanto/big ag immitation. And then they need to conform to a processing plant’s requirements, whatever they are. So one of the most fundamental problems is agriculture-for-export. Agriculture should be local. I see no conflict at all between permaculture and SRI. So what if one is horticulture and one is agriculture. And I thought of pruning too when I read about SRI. It’s just pruning the paddy. The beauty of both systems is that they are both organic. Remember there were once natural and vast grasslands across the American midwest. If the midwest had had any bogs and wetlands, something else would have grown there, like rice; and if the midwest had had uplands and forests – yet again another ecology altogether. Anything that gets rid of American style uberfarming is OK with me. Farm locally. Maybe insure globally.

    1. tyaresun

      Yes, the farmers take huge loans to mimic western farming and then commit suicide when they cannot pay back the loans.

      I hope that SRI helps them move away from this trend.

  9. tiebie66

    I wonder if the planting procedure could not be made more agreeable either by examining the work flow and improving it or by simple mechanizing. The device that street sweepers use to pick up scattered bits of garbage comes to mind, but modified and used in reverse order. That said, I have no experience of planting rice; the planting of individual tree seedlings on a grid pattern, if comparable, is certainly backbreaking work.

  10. j.s.nightingale

    “From the built environment, the clothing, the dishes, we are clearly in the second world, but there are cell phones and televisions everywhere.”

    On a point of correction: the “Second World” ceased to exist in 1989. Henceforth we had only the “First World” and the “Third World”. But “Third World” is pejorative, on the one hand and on the other hand parts of suburban Nairobi are indistinguishable from parts of suburban New Orleans, so we now have the “One World” with good bits and bad bits distributed everywhere.

    Otherwise: good article.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      Yes, that was sloppy wording. William Gibson says: “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.”

      Of course, the fiture isn’t the same as “progress” or even “improvement,” necessarily.

  11. different clue

    There might in some cases be benefits that flooded paddy rice growers get from rice-in-water that would be lost from strictly non-flooded SRI rice growing. Here is a cutpaste about fish growing to edible size in the paddy water while the rice is growing.
    “Farmers can also integrate fish into their rice paddies to help with nutrient cycling. The fish eat the insects and weeds while fertilizing the crop. The farmers stagger the planting throughout the year so the fish move through the system as needed. Once the fish become too big for the rice paddies, they become a protein and income source for the family.” And here is the article that came from.
    http://www.sustainableharvest.org/news-articles/articles/newsletter-articles/integrated-aquaculture-rice-paddy-success
    I have read that edible fish from paddy-water has long been part of the rice system in Indonesia for example. If Indonesian growers went to strict SRI, would their gains from more rice make up for their losses from no more paddy-water fish?

    I have read that in Vietnam, nitrogen for the rice soil is fixed by masses of a floating fern called azolla. Under strict SRI, would azolla be banished from the system? From where, then, would Vietnamese rice growers get bio-fixed nitrogen?
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Azolla
    Perhaps a system of some SRI and some flooding for fish and azolla could be worked out?

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  13. American Slave

    As my family from Russia and Europe in the past (for over 200 years) and others have done, to answer a question or statement about why one would grow a sapling and plant it rather than throw seeds at the ground is simple. For one birds don’t eat the seeds like in the field and the plant is guarantied to start but doesn’t always mean it will survive, and another thing is to save the seeds from the harvest only from the best biggest and strongest plants for replanting while selling or eating the weak and bad performing ones it’s a process of selection kind of deal.

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