This week, the media was full of reports about a “rice revolution ” in India. The trail started from the article in the Guardian, which claimed that record yields of rice had been achieved in the state of Bihar, in India, without GM or herbicides. It reported how 5 farmers decided to use the SRI system( System of Rice Intensification) and came up with unprecedented yields of 22 tonnes per hectare. Nobel Prize winning economist Prof. Stiglitz is quoted as saying this type of inspiring organic farming should be studied and replicated elsewhere.
So, first I needed to understand what SRI involves: it is a set of techniques for managing soil , water, planting conditions to increase yield ,which was first noted in Madagascar by a priest and then tried out elsewhere as well. Improving agroecological practices is crucial for the food system but can this be replicated effectively to solve the system’s inherent problems? This question is best answered by looking at the report which gives details of this effort: the farmers start off with hybrid seeds from Bayer and Syngenta, and plants in the SRI as well as regular fields receive doses of inorganic fertilizer so this rice crop cannot actually be termed “organic”. The experiment provides pesticides to the regular crop but uses cono weeding to control pests in the SRI field. More labor is required in the SRI field for careful application of water but less water is actually required for the process, also fewer seedlings are planted in the SRI field and so less labor is required on that account. So what we have a is conventional seeds with good farming practices giving encouraging results. This is not unknown, to the contrary, many advocates have been recommending such a mix of methods rather than depending for the sake of ideology on any one particular option.
Whether the results from Bihar can be replicated over time, countries and scale to have a real impact remains to be seen and one can hope that it will be useful specially for smallholder farmers. But long before that, the waters have been muddied by people pushing agendas. It seems strange that a year’s effort from five fields is touted as proof that biotechnology is useless but years of tests and safe consumption of biotech crops are dismissed as lies. For fixing a global food system breaking down under the strain of feeding a growing population and quite unprepared to withstand the shocks of climate change, we need the calm of the middle not the chaos of the extreme and we owe it to the planet and to our children to make that happen.