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Thierry Benoit. The real strength of the SRI method is its flexibility

Innovation / -

Courtesy of IFAD

Thanks to the project implemented in Madagascar by IFAD and Cornell University, the yield of the rice cultivation has been increased. Nevertheless, the Intensification System still divides the experts. These are the arguments of those in favor.

Its name is SRI – System of Rice Intensification – and it could represent a huge step towards the agriculture of the future. But like all potential miracles, it stirs up contrasting passions and causes divisions.
The initiator of SRI, in the 1980s, was a French Jesuit called Henri de Laulanié, who by carefully observing rice-workers in Madagascar developed a system designed to produce more rice with less seeds, less water and less fertilizer. How? By using younger plants, planted one by one at a distance of 25 centimeters, only intermittently watered, but frequently and precociously weeded. The real impact of this method – which was perfected by Professor Norman Uphoff, of Cornell University – has been seriously doubted by other scientists and researchers, such as those of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), which contests its results and its large scale applicability.
This is why, in the margins of the Official Awards Ceremony for Best Sustainable Development Practices by Feeding Knowledge, we asked Benoit Thierry – Country Program Manager of the Asian and Pacific Division of IFAD (International Fund for Agricultural Development) – to illustrate the strong points of the project carried out in Madagascar by Cornell University, which won the prize in the Thematic Priority 2 category (Quantitative and Qualitative increases in Agricultural Productivity).
The SRI system has raised various doubts relating to its large scale application and effective productivity gain. What is your reply to the detractors of SRI?
Naturally, there’s still an enormous amount of work to be done, but thanks to this method the income of the rice farmers using it in Madagascar increased by 75 percent. Actually, the great thing about the SRI is that it’s such a flexible system. Because it can be used with modern seeds or traditional seeds, with chemical or natural fertilizers. The most important result of this project is that it has demonstrated that there are many different methods of applying this method.
The criticisms from the IRRI, for example, regard the fact that we didn’t use modern seeds. Actually, we wanted to show that even using local seeds we could still increase their past productivity. And we did: the traditional seeds which used to produce roughly 1 ton of rice per hectare, when grown with the SRI method produced between 6 and 8 tons. Therefore, the seed’s potential is high, and the farmers who have used the same seed for centuries can now, thanks to this technique, finally liberate the full potential contained in each seed.
And can this happen in every country?
Yes, because SRI was invented in Madagascar, but it has already been applied by researchers in other countries. In the Philippines, for example, 1 million farmers use it, and likewise in India. It exists everywhere: in Latin America, Asia and America. And people adapt it to their own regions, also using it for crops other than rice: maize, wheat, etc. In the end, the person who invented SRI simply developed a system based on various good practices regarding the use of water, of seeds and of crops. SRI helps farmers to create a good product, using very simple methods. And it’s highly important that this is achieved while saving huge amounts of water!
Apart from your best practice project, which other projects most struck you, among the 18 award winners?
Above all I was amazed to see so many good practice projects coming from so many different countries, and with such variety. I was especially struck by some of the case histories from the Middle East, particularly from a country like Syria, where farmers – despite the war – still do their best to produce food. This is truly extraordinary, because it shows the potential of their country, their people and their territory.
The photo story of the Madagascar System of Rice Intensification project is exhibited in the last room in Pavilion Zero in Expo Milano 2015. 

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