Revolution or Ruse in Rice Production?

Stephen DeAngelis

June 26, 2008

Science involves the search for understanding and truth. It’s about generating hypotheses and then testing them to either prove or disprove them. Although we are used to seeing competing theories debated, we normally associate such debates with high level physics rather than agriculture. With the world locked in the grips of a food shortage (which will be exacerbated by the flooding taking place in America’s breadbasket states), a controversy has arisen about the best way to grow rice — one of the world’s most important food crops [“Food Revolution That Starts With Rice,” by William J. Broad, New York Times, 17 June 2008]. The controversy surrounds the theories of Norman T. Uphoff, an emeritus professor at Cornell University.

“Many a professor dreams of revolution. But Norman T. Uphoff, working in a leafy corner of the Cornell University campus, is leading an inconspicuous one centered on solving the global food crisis. The secret, he says, is a new way of growing rice. Rejecting old customs as well as the modern reliance on genetic engineering, Dr. Uphoff, 67, an emeritus professor of government and international agriculture with a trim white beard and a tidy office, advocates a management revolt.”

It is not just Uphoff’s methods that have spawned the controversy it is his claims concerning them.

“Harvests typically double, he says, if farmers plant early, give seedlings more room to grow and stop flooding fields. That cuts water and seed costs while promoting root and leaf growth. The method, called the System of Rice Intensification, or S.R.I., emphasizes the quality of individual plants over the quantity. It applies a less-is-more ethic to rice cultivation. In a decade, it has gone from obscure theory to global trend — and encountered fierce resistance from established rice scientists. Yet a million rice farmers have adopted the system, Dr. Uphoff says. The rural army, he predicts, will swell to 10 million farmers in the next few years, increasing rice harvests, filling empty bellies and saving untold lives.”

Critics argue that his claims about harvest yields and the number of farmers using Uphoff’s methods are both exaggerated. But Uphoff continues to argue his case.

“‘The world has lots and lots of problems,’ Dr. Uphoff said recently while talking of rice intensification and his 38 years at Cornell. ‘But if we can’t solve the problems of peoples’ food needs, we can’t do anything. This, at least, is within our reach.’ That may sound audacious given the depths of the food crisis and the troubles facing rice. Roughly half the world eats the grain as a staple food even as yields have stagnated and prices have soared, nearly tripling in the past year. The price jolt has provoked riots, panicked hoarding and violent protests in poor countries. But Dr. Uphoff has a striking record of accomplishment, as well as a gritty kind of farm-boy tenacity.”

His critics, however, are powerful, also enjoy a global reputation, and have a proven record of accomplishment.

“[Uphoff] and his method have flourished despite the skepticism of his Cornell peers and the global rice establishment — especially the International Rice Research Institute, which helped start the green revolution of rising grain production and specializes in improving rice genetics.”

The reason that the controversy continues is that critics argue that Uphoff uses anecdotes rather than controlled experimentation to make his case.

“Critics dismiss S.R.I. as an illusion. ‘The claims are grossly exaggerated,’ said Achim Dobermann, the head of research at the international rice institute, which is based in the Philippines. Dr. Dobermann said fewer farmers use S.R.I. than advertised because old practices often are counted as part of the trend and the method itself is often watered down. ‘We don’t doubt that good yields can be achieved,’ he said, but he called the methods too onerous for the real world. … In 2006, three of Dr. Uphoff’s colleagues at Cornell wrote a scathing analysis based on global data. ‘We find no evidence,’ they wrote, ‘that S.R.I. fundamentally changes the physiological yield potential of rice.’ While less categorical, Dr. Dobermann of the rice research institute called the methods a step backward socially because they increased drudgery in rice farming, especially among poor women.”

Nevertheless, Uphoff has a broad base of support and it seems to be growing.

“His telephone rings. It is the World Bank Institute, the educational and training arm of the development bank. The institute is making a DVD to spread the word. … He lists top S.R.I. users as India, China, Indonesia, Cambodia and Vietnam among 28 countries on three continents. In Tamil Nadu, a state in southern India, Veerapandi S. Arumugam, the agriculture minister, recently hailed the system as ‘revolutionizing’ paddy farming while spreading to ‘a staggering’ million acres. Chan Sarun, Cambodia’s agriculture minister, told hundreds of farmers at an agriculture fair in April that S.R.I.’s speedy growth promises a harvest of ‘white gold.'”

Uphoff has even managed to win over some former critics.

“A former skeptic sees great potential. Vernon W. Ruttan, an agricultural economist at the University of Minnesota and a longtime member of the National Academy of Sciences, once worked for the rice institute and doubted the system’s prospects. Dr. Ruttan now calls himself an enthusiastic fan, saying the method is already reshaping the world of rice cultivation. ‘I doubt it will be as great as the green revolution,’ he said. ‘But in some areas it’s already having a substantial impact.’ Robert Chambers, a leading analyst on rural development, who works at the University of Sussex, England, called it a breakthrough. ‘The extraordinary thing,’ he said, ‘is that both farmers and scientists have missed this — farmers for thousands of years, and scientists until very recently and then some of them in a state of denial.’ The method, he added, ‘has a big contribution to make to world food supplies. Its time has come.'”

Uphoff’s story is an interesting one. Broad reports:

“Dr. Uphoff’s improbable journey involves a Wisconsin dairy farm, a billionaire philanthropist, the jungles of Madagascar, a Jesuit priest, ranks of eager volunteers and, increasingly, the developing world. … On Cornell’s agricultural campus, Dr. Uphoff runs a one-man show from an office rich in travel mementos. From Sri Lanka, woven rice stalks adorn a wall, the heads thick with rice grains. His computers link him to a global network of S.R.I. activists and backers, like Oxfam, the British charity. Dr. Uphoff is S.R.I.’s global advocate, and his Web site (ciifad.cornell.edu/sri/) serves as the main showcase for its principles and successes. ‘It couldn’t have happened without the Internet,’ he says. Outside his door is a sign, ‘Alfalfa Room,’ with a large arrow pointing down the hall, seemingly to a pre-electronic age. … Dr. Uphoff grew up on a Wisconsin farm milking cows and doing chores. In 1966, he graduated from Princeton with a master’s degree in public affairs and in 1970 from the University of California, Berkeley, with a doctorate in political science. At Cornell, he threw himself into rural development, irrigation management and credit programs for small farmers in the developing world. In 1990, a secret philanthropist (eventually revealed to be Charles F. Feeney, a Cornell alumnus who made billions in duty-free shops) gave the university $15 million to start a program on world hunger. Dr. Uphoff was the institute’s director for 15 years. The directorship took him in late 1993 to Madagascar. Slash-and-burn rice farming was destroying the rain forest, and Dr. Uphoff sought alternatives. He heard that a French Jesuit priest, Father Henri de Laulanié, had developed a high-yield rice cultivation method on Madagascar that he called the System of Rice Intensification. Dr. Uphoff was skeptical. Rice farmers there typically harvested two tons per hectare (an area 100 by 100 meters, or 2.47 acres). The group claimed 5 to 15 tons. ‘I remember thinking, “Do they think they can scam me?”‘ Dr. Uphoff recalled. ‘I told them, “Don’t talk 10 or 15 tons. No one at Cornell will believe it. Let’s shoot for three or four.”‘ Dr. Uphoff oversaw field trials for three years, and the farmers averaged eight tons per hectare. Impressed, he featured S.R.I. on the cover of his institute’s annual reports for 1996 and 1997. Dr. Uphoff never met the priest, who died in 1995. But the success prompted him to scrutinize the method and its origins.”

So what is System of Rice Intensification? Broad continues:

“The priest [who developed SRI], during a drought, had noticed that rice plants and especially roots seemed much stronger. That led to the goal of keeping fields damp but not flooded, which improved soil aeration and root growth. Moreover, wide spacing let individual plants soak up more sunlight and send out more tillers — the shoots that branch to the side. Plants would send out upwards of 100 tillers. And each tiller, instead of bearing the usual 100 or so grains, would puff up with 200 to 500 grains. One drawback was weeds. The halt to flooding let invaders take root, and that called for more weeding. A simple solution was a rotating, hand-pushed hoe, which also aided soil aeration and crop production. But that meant more labor, at least at first. It seemed that as farmers gained skill, and yields rose, the overall system became labor saving compared with usual methods.”

Until a controlled field trial is conducted and the results confirmed, the controversy will undoubtedly continue. Fortunately, such a trial is coming.

“Opponents have agreed to conduct a global field trial that may end the dispute, he said. The participants include the rice institute, Cornell and Wageningen University, a Dutch institution with a stellar reputation in agriculture. The field trials may start in 2009 and run through 2011, Dr. Uphoff said. ‘This should satisfy any scientific questions,’ he added. ‘But my sense is that S.R.I. is moving so well and so fast that this will be irrelevant.’ Practically, he said, the method is destined to grow.”

Obviously, the field trial and its subsequent impact won’t impact the current food crisis unless it lasts several more years. Although current climatic conditions aren’t helping this crisis pass, hopefully the food shortage will be short-lived. Regardless of the current situation, the field test should help drive the direction of rice production in the future. If SRI proves as effective as Uphoff claims, I suspect that technologies will be developed to help reduce the manpower requirements to make the method even more effective and efficient.