SRI Method and feeding the population

Whenever an alternative is put forth to the conventional high-input agriculture one is immediately questioned whether it will be feeding the growing population of the world. Feeding the people means addressing issues of not only what is grown but also how it is grown and who is growing it. Further one also needs to address the issue of what is food, which is deeply rooted into cultural and social fabric of the people. Organic agriculture or SRI method of cultivation per se does not address problems of poverty and poor. In this article I will refer to System of Rice Intensification as SRI method because SRI alone mis-conveys to the farmers that we are talking about a variety rather than a set of practices or more appropriately an approach. Though SRI has its origins in rice it is now successfully implemented with other crops like sugarcane and ragi or finger millet; crops which exhibit tillering capacity and are irrigated. However, the implications of technological options in SRI method on the poor and feeding of the population can be and must be discussed.

Shifts with SRI method

SRI method is an important shift in the way we look at agriculture because of two reasons:

  • It’s origins and energy of spread are from outside the established scientific institutions
  • The traditional agronomical practices of the farmers were displaced by ‘scientific knowledge’ promising high yields based on high external inputs (seed, fertilizer, water, etc.). We can now assuredly say that this euphoria is short lived viewed from the point of evolution of agriculture in the human civilization. These scientifically and externally prescribed agronomical practices have now been once again challenged, based on low external inputs of SRI method.

The paradigm shifts that we are looking with SRI method are:

  1. The package of practices is not tightly cast to be conveyed to the farmer as in the present predominant one way agriculture communication/ extension.
  2. In this sense the farmers are not passive recipients of external knowledge. In fact they are the founders and perpetuators of this knowledge. Where SRI method is to be taken into newer areas it has to be in partnership with the local farmers who understand the principles and evolve appropriate methods in accordance with local needs and situations.

The question of yield

The traditional varieties yielded well in the context of integral practices of soil fertility management and provision of organic matter through various means. This scenario changed with Nitrogen entering the picture in the chemical form. The traditional varieties failed to respond (being tall they lodged easily) to this external chemical N. This resulted in efforts to develop short and sturdy varieties that yield well making use of external inputs. This brought market economy into agriculture and the approach of chemically analyzing the soil and crops and making recommendations for doses of chemical fertilizers. This approach missed the fact that plants are living beings and the entire biological phenomena of the soil biota. SRI method brought back the importance of the living soil and the role of various beneficial soil micro and macro organisms. This beneficial aspect of the soil biota cannot be easily quantified and need not be quantified from the view point of the farmer. Like any living beings the soil biota need the following for their survival and proliferation:

  1. food, that is organic matter
  2. water
  3. air (except for some micro organisms that function in anaerobic conditions)
  4. appropriate temperatures

SRI method provides all these situations for the soil biota. Further in SRI method, the potential of increased yields is high as a result of wider spacing in transplantation with single seedling per hill, using younger seedlings, increased activity of soil biota, etc. The wider spacing and higher tillering of SRI method would even out the shorter spacing and lower tillering with conventional agriculture. However, SRI method would edge out conventional practices on account of higher number of effective tillers, greater panicle length, more number of grains per panicle and higher grain weight. But, and this is very important, an emphasis on higher yields is not desirable due to two reasons:

  • When the expectations are raised high, even a small increase in yields would result in disappointment and high rate of non-adoption; further there might be no increase in the yields in the first year. The gamut of high yields also results in false data with attention seeking and publicity mongering motifs.
  • The high yield game sets the ground for prescriptive based extension to be followed by farmers rather than they being partners and developers in new knowledge and practices.

The issues and concerns of SRI in different contexts

Big farmer and small farmer: Normally big farmers depend on hired labour and produce surplus for the market. They are concerned about labour costs, which might be high until SRI methods become part of the skill bank of labourers. Also, initially the labour might be reluctant to undertake operations like transplanting of young seedlings. The issue of operating the weeder is also not readily accepted by hired labour. Weeding in paddy is mostly done by women manually. Introduction of weeder shifted this work into the domain of men (which, need not be so). Simple modifications in the weeder should make it easy for women also to operate the weeder. While absence of a workable model of mechanized weeder is definitely a lacuna, the operational costs of such mechanical weeders would be prohibitive for its extensive use.

In case of the small farmers undertaking SRI method with family labour, it would be advantageous. For them the improvement in soil health and quality of produce would be definitely important, more so, when it is done mostly for home consumption. However for the small farmers the capital investment on implements might be high.

Canal, tank and tubewell systems: The complexity and need for collective action reduces in that order. In canal command area, the adoption of SRI method requires high level of coordination at policy level and convergence of irrigation and agriculture departments. The farmers need to synchronise nursery and transplanting dates to match with rotational releases of quantified water into canals. In the absence of such systems, SRI method will be confined to small pockets of committed farmers in the canal command area. Under tank irrigation, the complexities of collective action are reduced depending on the extent of command area of the particular tank.

Under tubewell irrigation, the regulation of water seems to be under control of the individual and easy. However, the issues in this scenario are assured quality supply of electricity and no breakdown of transformer/ motor equipment.

How to go about promoting SRI

After slow and steady spread of SRI method over two decades, mostly through farmers, this has now caught the fancy of researchers/ scientists, policy makers and other stakeholders. They are eager to upscale the method in large areas within a short span. One needs to adopt a conscious and prudent approach. It should not lead to disillusion and non-adoption.

Resource farmers: In this regard, resource farmers should be identified and developed who would be a source of demonstration and dissemination of SRI method. If properly planned, SRI method would expand with these resource farmers forming the epicenter.

Skill building: Nursery in SRI method is taken up on a raised bed. This and other practices like transplanting young seedlings, drawing of marker and using weeder need certain level of skill sets. A careful and sensitive hand holding and support mechanism should be planned until these skills get ingrained into farmers and farm labour groups.

One way of tackling the skill building is to organize groups of farm labour and enable group learning of nursery raising, transplantation and weeding operations. These labour groups would in turn offer these services to farmers on a contract basis. This will result in higher wages to the labour.

Community nursery: To make available young seedlings to the farmers in time, a centralized/ community nursery can be raised. As the seed required is less, the community nursery of appropriate sizes can be raised with short intervals. This will ensure that farmers have ready access to seedlings for transplantation throughout the season which is spread over 15 to 30 days. This aspect can be taken up either in an individual enterprise or cooperative activities by the community.

Equipment bank: Markers and weeders may be made available through ‘equipment bank’ run by appropriate village level institutions. Needy farmers take these equipment on rental basis on the norms decided locally.

The emphasis should be on the principles of SRI method rather than on yields. Reduced costs, better soil health, healthy food should be seen as the primary goals and any increase in yields as a byproduct or even as a bonus. The focus should be on the farmers understanding the principles of SRI method wherein they become ‘experimenters’ and ‘scientists’ evolving practices appropriate to their local situation and need.

K.Suresh, Director  (Resource Centre), Watershed Support Services and Activities Network (WASSAN), H.No. 12-13-452, Street No. 1, Secunderabad – 500 017, Tel. No. + 91- 40- 27015295 / 27015296, Email:

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