Farmers in India are producing higher yields of rice and wheat while using less water and fewer chemicals thanks to an innovative farming technique called the 'System of Crop Intensification' (SCI) which on average improves yields from two to eight tonnes per hectare.
The idea behind SCI is to improve planting and growing techniques by using fewer seeds and less water; manage the relationship between plant and soil and use organic fertilisers as opposed to synthetic. Care is taken to allow the plants to grow naturally and with as little interference as possible. While it is a labourious process, especially during the initial stages of sowing seeds, it is ultimately in the long run a cheaper low-input approach that brings impressive results, and is slowly becoming more popular among resource-limited farmers.
For example, the planting of rice, which is the number one source of food for three billion people on the planet, is done earlier than usual to minimise damage caused to the plant through transplant shock. The seedlings are placed individually in spacious grid patterns 20-25cm apart. Rather than spreading the seeds randomly through the field, each one is individually sown in rows. Around 20kg of seeds per hectare are used rather than 120-180 kg. This is done to reduce competition for nutrients among the plants. Weeds and other plants which use valuable water and nutrients are removed. The soil is enriched with organic matter and the level of water use is controlled, fields are not completely flooded with water.
Studies show that yields can increase by an astonishing 40 percent. With results like these it is no wonder that small-scale farmers with limited resources are turning to these methods to grow rice and other crops.
The techniques first appeared in Madagascar in the 1980s when Henri de Laulanie, a priest and agronomist, developed a crop-growing system based on research that he had conducted over two decades. Initially used for growing rice the techniques are now being applied to other crops particularly wheat and finger millet. In 2006 the NGO People's Science Institute (PSI) produced 26 and 57 percent increased yields on wheat crops using the techniques. This led to the PSI introducing a programme of sustainable wheat intensification (SWI) to 470 farmers in the state of Himachal Pradesh in 2008.
“There is no secret and no magic with SRI (System of Rice Intensification, what SCI was originally called). Its results are and must be explainable with solid and scientifically validated knowledge. From what we know so far, SRI management practices succeed in large part because they promote better growth and health of plant roots, and increase the abundance, diversity and activity of beneficial soil organisms,” said Norman Uphoff, senior adviser to the SRI International Network and Resources Center (SRI-Rice), who is often credited with bringing Laulanie's work to a larger audience.
The benefits of SCI are far reaching: water consumption is reduced by 25-50 percent; the soil is protected from harmful chemicals which can make their way into the food supply and be potentially harmful to humans; there are lower economic costs; less negative environmental impacts and a greater contribution to human and ecosystem health. It also has massive socio-economic benefits for the farmers who now, by applying these easy to learn scientific methods to their land, can improve their yields and reap the benefits.
Author: Stephen Walsh/ RESET editorial