Record-Breaking Rice Yield Prompts Professor Uphoff to Promote Cultivation Technique

Instead of using GM, new technique studies the entire system of a plant and manipulates the environment it grows in...

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By Gabriella Lee via the Cornell Daily Sun, 3/6/13

Last year, a farmer in Bihar, India, claimed to have broken the world record of rice yield without the help of genetically modified seeds. The method the farmer used, System of Rice Intensification, is one that Prof. Emeritus Norman Uphoff is trying to promote around the world.

“What the System of Rice Intensification does is [it creates] ideal growing conditions for the rice plant, so that it brings out the potential that exists within the rice genome [better],” Uphoff said.

Uphoff said he first learned about SRI in December 1993 on a visit to Madagascar, when he was the director of the Cornell International Institute of Food, Agriculture and Development.

He said the steps involved in the process include “changing the age of seedlings when transplanting, spacing between plants, soil aeration, using organic soil matter as fertilizer and carefully [reducing] application of water.”

According to Uphoff, while traditional approaches to improve rice production have focused mostly on altering the genetics of crops to maximize their yield, the SRI approach studies the entire system of a plant and manipulates the environment it grows in.

“[The SRI method] is really a dramatic reorientation. In some ways, it’s a paradigm shift from what can be called a ‘genocentric’ conception to a more ‘biocentric’ framework,” Uphoff said. “We’re finding we can make even greater improvement in crops’ production [and] their resistance to pests, diseases [and] climactic stresses by simply changing the crops’ management.”

The SRI technique, which originated in Madagascar, was initially created in the 1980s by Henri de Laulanie, a French priest, according to Uphoff. Uphoff said he became acquainted with the technique when he visited Madagascar with a Cornell colleague about 20 years ago as part of a project to help save the rainforest ecosystems in Madagascar’s Ramonafana National Park.

Uphoff said that the institute’s original goal was to find alternative, better ways for farmers to grow rice to curtail their “slash-and-burn” agriculture, which is harmful to the environment. The institute teamed up with Association Tefy Saina — a local NGO in Madagascar — that was working to spread the use of SRI among farmers.

According to Uphoff, for three years in a row, small-scale, low-income farmers working with the institute and Tefy Saina were able to raise their average yield of rice from two tons per hectare to eight tons per hectare through SRI.

Still, Uphoff said it took him three years to be convinced that SRI is a reliable agricultural method.

Although the number of farmers practicing the SRI technique has increased all over the world, Uphoff said scientists pushed back against the SRI results, questioning the legitimacy of the institute’s findings.

Peter Hobbs, an adjunct professor of crop and soil sciences, said that he also has reservations about the SRI technique.

“My opinion is that [SRI] definitely will lead to good yields, because all of the practices are good agronomy. Where I have a problem is when there are claims of very high yields,” Hobbs said.

Uphoff has continued his work spreading SRI, helping to establish the SRI-International Rice Research Institute — which aims to create a network for the spread of SRI research and knowledge — at Cornell in 2010.

Uphoff said he has high hopes for the SRI method’s success in the future.

“My hope is that within 10 years, farmers all around the world will know about this option,” he said. “SRI doesn’t cost money to do it, because it’s about using your existing resources differently.”

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