Using only manure and without any herbicides, a young farmer in India’s poorest state yielded a world record-breaking rice crop, making him a national hero. The method of cultivation he used is called “System of Rice (or root) Intensification”(SRI).

SRI is also being lauded for increasing yields of other crops…and for the potential it might hold for the globe’s small producers and the billions who rely upon them for food.

But the results have caused controversy and divided scientists, creating what one expert terms a “turf war.”

John Vidal (@john_vidal) from The Guardian reports:

When I meet the young farmers, all in their early 30s, they still seem slightly dazed by their fame. They’ve become unlikely heroes in a state where nearly half the families live below the Indian poverty line and 93% of the 100 million population depend on growing rice and potatoes. Nitish Kumar speaks quietly of his success and says he is determined to improve on the record. “In previous years, farming has not been very profitable,” he says. “Now I realise that it can be. My whole life has changed. I can send my children to school and spend more on health. My income has increased a lot.” 

A leading proponent of SRI is Dr. Norman Uphoff, a Cornell professor and director of the International Institute for Food, Agriculture and Development. He said this about SRI:

“It is a set of ideas, the absolute opposite to the first green revolution [of the 60s] which said that you had to change the genes and the soil nutrients to improve yields. That came at a tremendous ecological cost,” says Uphoff. “Agriculture in the 21st century must be practised differently. Land and water resources are becoming scarcer, of poorer quality, or less reliable. Climatic conditions are in many places more adverse. SRI offers millions of disadvantaged households far better opportunities. Nobody is benefiting from this except the farmers; there are no patents, royalties or licensing fees.”

Achim Dobermann offers a different perspective, telling The Guardian:

“SRI is a set of management practices and nothing else, many of which have been known for a long time and are best recommended practice,” says Achim Dobermann, deputy director for research at the International Rice Research Institute. “Scientifically speaking I don’t believe there is any miracle. When people independently have evaluated SRI principles then the result has usually been quite different from what has been reported on farm evaluations conducted by NGOs and others who are promoting it. Most scientists have had difficulty replicating the observations.”

A must-read piece that explores in a balanced fashion the challenges of sustainably producing food in an increasingly complex world.