News ID: 238168
Published: 1252 GMT January 30, 2019

Miracle method for sustainable rice that scientists dismissed

Miracle method for sustainable rice that scientists dismissed
JOHN VIDAL/Theguardian.com

A technique developed by a Jesuit priest is producing bigger harvests — and reducing emissions of a crop responsible for 1.5 percent of greenhouse gases.

The fragrant jasmine rice growing on the left side of Kreaougkra Junpeng’s five-acre field stands nearly five feet tall, theguardian.com wrote.

Each plant has 15 or more tillers, or stalks, and the grains hang heavy from them. The Thai farmer said this will be his best-ever harvest in 30 years and he will reap it four weeks earlier than usual.

It is very different on the other side of the field. Here, Junpeng planted his rice in closely spaced clumps of 20 or more seedlings in shallow water just as he, his father and millions of other small farmers across south-east Asia have always done. He used the same seeds but the conventionally grown plants are wind-battered and thin, and clearly have fewer, smaller grains.

Junpeng is part of a pilot project to see if it’s possible to grow more rice with less water and fewer greenhouse gases. The dramatic difference between his two crops points a way to help the world’s 145 million small rice farmers, and could also greatly reduce global warming emissions from agriculture.

The project, backed by the German and Thai governments and by some of the world’s largest rice traders and food companies, has seen 3,000 other farmers in this corner of Thailand’s ‘rice basket’ near the Cambodian border trained to grow sustainable rice according to the principles of a revolutionary agronomical system discovered by accident in Madagascar in the 1980s.

Jesuit priest Henri de Lalanié working in the highlands observed that by planting far fewer seeds than usual, using organic matter as a fertilizer and keeping the rice plants alternately wet and dry rather than flooded, resulted in yields that were increased by between 20 and 200 percent, while water use was halved.

Giving plants more oxygen, minimizing the competition between them and strictly controlling the water they receive is thought to make them stronger and more resilient to flood and drought.

When it was first employed outside Madagascar in 2000, the system of rice intensification (SRI) was dismissed by a handful of scientists who questioned the legitimacy of the reported increased yields. But since then, it has evolved and been developed by peasant farmers working in many different climates around the world.

Academic criticism has since all but disappeared and the SRI system of farming has been validated in hundreds of scientific papers and adopted by up to 20 million farmers in 61 countries, according to the SRI information Centre in Cornell University.

“The results consistently cite yield increases, decreased use of seed, water and chemicals, and increased income,” said Norman Uphoff, a professor of global agriculture at Cornell.

Vietnamese, Cambodian, Nepalese, Filipino, Indian and African farmers have all reported large increases.

In 2011, a young Indian farmer broke the world record for rice production, harvesting 22 tons from a single hectare (2.47 acres).

“SRI is very positive in west Africa. It uses fewer seed and fertilizers and needs less water. Farmers saved up to 80 percent of the cost of seed and got increased yields and incomes. They see the advantages and they change. People are teaching each other now,” said Professor Bancy Mati, director of the water research Centre at Jomo Kenyatta University in Nairobi, Kenya.

The Thai farmers who took part in the Ubon Ratchathani trial said they are delighted. Said Khampha Bunchansee from Noan Dang village, “It was very easy to learn. I will use the extra money to invest in a tractor. If I can do it, anyone can. Everyone can come and learn.”

“I applied more fertilizer on my conventional crop but it produced lots more leaf but not more grain,” said Wanna Sriwila, also from Noan Dang.

“Now I bring other farmers to see what can be done. Seeing is believing.”

But what is now exciting some of the world’s largest food corporations and governments is that growing rice along SRI principles also greatly reduces emissions of the powerful greenhouse gas methane, which escapes when rice, or any other crop, lies waterlogged for weeks at a time.

Methane is roughly 30 times more powerful than CO2 as a greenhouse gas, and rice emits as much as 1.5 percent of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions. With the human population in south-east Asia expected to grow by around 100m people in the next 20 years, emissions from rice growing could increase 30 percent or more.

The urgency to act for the global good, self-interest in maintaining production and the possibility of accessing money to reduce farm emissions has now led heavy rice-using food companies like Mars and Kellogg’s, and the agri-business colossus Olam, to set up the Sustainable Rice Platform (SRP).

This coalition of companies, NGOs and governments sets the world’s first voluntary sustainability standards for rice growing. It adopts the basic SRI principle of planting seedlings further apart, and keeping them moist rather than flooded, but adds targets and measurements to provide consistency.

   
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