Sunday, March 30, 2008

Jesuit Innovation Increses Rice Production

System of rice intensification
MOST people know Robert “Obet” Verzola as a University of the Philippines engineer who pioneered information technology in this country in the 1970s. Others know him as an election watchdog whose critiques of past polls he has backed up with copious statistics.
But this engineer cum inventor turned social activist is also an enthusiastic proponent of SRI—short for “system of rice intensification.”
It was almost four years ago when Verzola guested at the weekly Kapihan sa Sulo media forum to help drum up support for SRI, which was to be the topic of a conference at UP Los Baños in October 2004. Unsurprisingly, SRI did not get much of a response from the government—and the vested interests in the commercial farming sector whose megaprofits stood to be eroded if Filipino farmers adopted this innovation in rice production. It is now 2008—and our collective indifference to SRI has begun to haunt us. While the authorities are correct in denying the existence of a rice shortage, the fact remains global supplies of this and other cereals have become increasingly tight due to a confluence of factors. And experts agree that the supply situation can only get tighter in the years ahead. Obviously, the time has come for the government—particularly Secretary Arthur Yap and the Department of Agriculture—to give SRI a second look.
Jesuit inventor
Online sources tell us that SRI, as a method of increasing rice yields,
was invented in 1983 by a Jesuit priest, Henri de Laulanie, in Madagascar—although full testing of the system occurred only some years later. It was Norman Uphoff, director of the International Institute for Food, Agriculture and Development at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, from 1990 to 2005 who helped spread SRI from Madagascar to other countries.
In 1993 Uphoff met officials from Association Tefy Saina, the NGO set up in Madagascar in 1990 by Father de Laulanie to promote SRI. Uphoff saw for himself the success of SRI for three years when Malagasy farmers—whose previous yields averaged two tons per hectare—began to harvest eight tons per hectare with SRI. Uphoff was quickly persuaded of the merits of the system, and in 1997 he started to promote SRI in Asia. As of 2007 the beneficial effects of SRI methods have been documented in 28 countries, most recently in Bhutan, Iraq, Iran and Zambia. Governments in the largest rice-producing countries—China, India and Indonesia—are now said to be supporting SRI extension. In India, SRI concepts and practices have reportedly also been applied with success to such crops as sugar cane, finger millet and wheat. In 2004 Verzola published “SRI: Practices and Results in the Philippines.” The paper reviewed the range of practices and results from field trials of SRI in the Philippines, based on the reports of groups, institutions and individuals that have tried SRI and on personal interviews with SRI practitioners and researchers.
Verzola, who is also secretary general of Philippine Greens, found the then-current average yield of SRI trials to be 6.13 tons per hectare—or 104 percent more than the national average of three tons per hectare. Meanwhile, return on investment ranged from 78 to 452 percent. Worldwide, Verzola said, yield gains from SRI have ranged from 14 percent in China to 209 percent in Gambia.
The practices that attained these yields include: younger seedlings; one seedling per hill and wider spacing between hills; avoiding seedling root damage; moist, not flooded, rice fields; regular use of mechanical weeder; and compost instead of chemical fertilizers.
Verzola noted that the Philippine government’s hybrid rice program included some SRI practices, like single seedlings and wider planting distances. “This suggests that some of the reported hybrid rice yield gains are due to the SRI effect and not to changed genetic potential,” he added. Verzola proposed a scientific conference on SRI, more research on SRI practices, nationwide verification trials, widespread farm-scale trials, and a review of the government rice program to include SRI in the DA budget. That was four years ago—and little has been heard from the government on the SRI proposal.
SRI critics
To be sure, SRI has its share of detractors. According to online sources, SRI proponents point to other benefits aside from yield increase. These include resistance to pests and diseases, resistance to abiotic stresses like drought and storm damage, more output of polished rice when SRI paddy (palay or unmilled rice) is processed, less chemical pollution of soil and water resources. Critics, nonetheless, have focused on yield—alleging that claims of increase are due to “poor record keeping and unscientific thinking.” They objected to what they called a lack of details on the methodology used in trials and a lack of publications in the peer-reviewed literature. Online sources acknowledged that systematic trials that will satisfy scientific critics remain to be done—although researchers at the International Rice Research Institute in Los Baños, Laguna, and Cornell were last reported to be planning a joint evaluation. Instead of finger-pointing, our leaders could find better use for their—and our—time by supporting efforts to increase rice production through methods like SRI. This time around, let them put their money where their mouth is.
Link (here)


Lawrence said...

"SRI proponents point to other benefits aside from yield increase. These include resistance to pests and diseases, resistance to abiotic stresses like drought and storm damage, more output of polished rice when SRI paddy (palay or unmilled rice) is processed, less chemical pollution of soil and water resources."

I'm not so sure about this..., If I'm not mistaken SRI takes out so much more that the system can replenish--which in turn would require fertiliser use and "abiotic stress"...the critiques were right in stressing the need for clear details.

And to be certain, this is very much more an issue of distribution rather than availability. Say SRI did succeed in bringing yields, it would require a whole pro-farmer infrastructure for returns to actually trickle down to the farmers.

Cheers. said...

A great deal of worthwhile data for me!