A Global Economic Opportunity in Rice

A Global Economic Opportunity in Rice

Sara Qamar's picture

More than half of the world’s population depends on rice as a staple crop, including both consumers and growers. Because a world food shortage is looming, we need to do more than just diversify and increase crop output – we need to find a way to turn this dire problem into a global opportunity for economic prosperity, especially for small farm holders.

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Nutrient preservation may be low on the list for many experts that are grappling with agricultural innovation. This is a misjudgment that Ashoka’s “Nutrients for All” movement is trying to correct.

Fortunately, the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) form of farming is gaining momentum because it produces high yields, and also retains key nutrients and micro-nutrients in the soil, which is crucial to the health of people and the environment.

SRI is an open source farming method with guiding principles that integrate organic farming into a type of rice production that eliminates the need for flooding rice paddies to suppress weeds. SRI has the potential to create widespread benefits for human health and the environment if it continues to grow in popularity – and it has good reason to. Farmers using the SRI method have recently enjoyed record-setting high yields in India.

It is estimated that four to five million farmers are practicing SRI in more than 50 countries. The practices promoted by the SRI-Rice Center at Cornell University suggest less dense sowing of seeds, individually spacing them apart in soil to circulate more air between the plants, which also reduces the chance that diseases will spread.

The basis of SRI is to “create the best environment for individual plants to grow in and reach their full genetic potential,” said Erika Styger, SRI-Rice's director of programs.

Because most farmers use some kind of pesticide, not all adherents to SRI follow the guideline to use soil enriched with organic matter, which improves the nutrient holding capacity of soil, Styger said. But the advantages of using organic matter, such as lowering cost, may help wean farmers off fertilizers and pesticides.

“The fertilizer doesn't really improve soil—it improves your plant,” she said. “In order to have a healthy system, you need to have healthy soil. If you only apply fertilizer, you degrade organic matter in soil, and your yields go down over time.”

Traditional rice growing uses 600 gallons of water to produce one pound of rice. The advantages of reducing irrigation in rice production are numerous.

Standing water can cause accumulation of arsenic, which can be taken in by the plants, and it can attract mosquitoes that spread malaria. Reducing standing water also decreases methane gas emissions that contribute to global warming.

SRI is an open source, non-patented method. Thus, farmers from all walks of life can adopt the practice to their needs and environment. Farmers that previously had been limited to hybrid varieties by seed companies can use their own seeds with SRI, maintaining biodiversity while getting the same or higher yields from their local varieties of rice.

“Each farmer has the ability to fine tune practices to his conditions,” Styer said. “It is not just a recipe of things to implement, but guiding principles. The better care you give, the better you will produce.”

SRI has its critics, but farmers continue to have success with it, and they are also applying the main principles to other crops such as wheat, sugar cane, mustard, and potatos. In India, where SRI is has gained much ground, consumers have limited money and are less concerned about nutrients than having a full stomach, said Shashwat Gautam, Ashoka’s “Nutrients for All” advisor.

“It's all very absurd to them,” Gautum said, “they don't really care about what they're eating.” Gautum is a farm owner in Bihar who has conducted field research in his home state, and a Global Leaders Fellow at George Washington University.

However, thanks to the incentive of high yields, farmers may inadvertently lead the charge for creating a nutrient economy in India. “We are trying to insure that not only are we eating good and producing good, but also giving back to nature,” Gautam said.

SRI rice is mostly sold locally, where it is produced. But Lotus Foods, based in California, is bringing SRI to retailers in the United States, marketing it as “More Crop Per Drop.” Lotus Foods co-founder and co-owner Ken Lee imports rice from small farmers in Madagascar, Indonesia, and Cambodia that have been vetted by the SRI-Rice Center as producing suitable rice for export.

“A lot of these farmers have blackout periods where they don’t even have enough rice to eat throughout the year,” he said. “That is why SRI is so revolutionary. You can grow more with less, and feed your family throughout the year.”

In the long-run, it takes more than bulk and quantity to keep people healthy. What these current innovations tell is that there’s no need to trade off nutrient-rich and high yields – a global opportunity exists for all in the flow of nutrients.