Showing the world that scientists might not know best, S. Sethumadhavan, a farmer in the Tamil Nadu area of India, has broken a state record by producing 24 tonnes of rice per hectare using a 30 year old technique. The system of rice intensification method (SRI) was developed in Madagascar over three decades ago, and lately has been dismissed by university researchers and received little funding from agribusiness. Despite this, Sethumadhavan has grown a crop using this method that far surpasses the average, which for most rice varieties is 3 tonnes per hectare.
The SRI technique uses less water, fewer seeds*, and fewer chemical fertilizers than methods encouraged by researches in agriculture. Most research is done in bolstering the seeds instead of focusing on proper soil management. The costs of the SRI technique are less than methods that use biotechnology and plant-breeding. These seeds often require more chemical fertilizers and insecticides, the cost of which can break the bank for small-scale impoverished farmers.
Some researchers have questioned the authenticity of Sethamudhavan’s yield, saying that the numbers must be faked because it is impossible to have a yield that high. And although the advantages of the SRI technique (higher yield, less chemicals, fewer seeds, and less water) far outweigh the drawbacks (the technique is more labour intensive), an agriculture professor at Cornell says what matters aren’t record breakers but the average. Norman Uphoff says that what feeds hungry people aren’t farmers like Sethamudhavan, but higher averages than normal are needed to bring people out of poverty.
Considering the average yield is 40% greater when using the SRI method, perhaps the lesson to be learned is that innovation might not always be the answer if there is an older technique that gets the job done. Thank you to over 9 million farmers in Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, and Vietnam for showing us that sometimes less is more.
*SRI uses 3 kgs of seeds, versus the 30 kgs traditionally used.
Here’s a video of success stories from farmers who use the SRI method: