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Do crop intensification techniques hold the key to food security?

Rice Harvesting in India

Crop intensification technique has led to higher yields in Bihar and Himachal Pradesh states in north India. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images


Powered by article titled “Do crop intensification techniques hold the key to food security?” was written by Caspar van Vark, for on Monday 9th September 2013 10.39 UTC

Yields achieved under the system of rice intensification (SRI) have made headlines in recent years, with one farmer in India reported to have produced a record-breaking 22.4 tonnes from one hectare of land in 2011. But why stop at rice? Farmers and NGOs have found that the same principles can be applied to other crops such as wheat and teff, where it is referred to more broadly as the system of crop intensification (SCI).

SRI is based on improved planting and growing techniques, rather than improved seed varieties and other inputs. It aims to produce more from less, using fewer seeds and less water, but carefully managing the relationship between the plant and soil. This low-input approach – and the results it can achieve – have made it popular among resource-limited farmers.

In the case of rice, seedlings are planted earlier than usual, minimising transplant shock. They’re placed individually in spacious grid patterns 20-25cm apart, so there’s less competition for nutrients compared to conventional crowded fields. Soil is enriched with organic matter, and water use is controlled, with fields not kept permanently flooded. This encourages the development of large, strong root systems. Studies of SRI have reported yield increases of 40% or more. For small-scale farmers, such gains might mean the difference between food deficit and surplus, so it’s unsurprising that interest in the system has spread to other crops.

“Wheat and finger millet are grass-family plants like rice,” says Norman Uphoff, professor of government and international agriculture at Cornell University, who has championed the use of SRI since the technique first emerged in Madagascar in the 1980s.

“They are monocotyledons, with bushy root systems, so botanically it’s likely they would grow similarly to rice. SRI goes back to basics, with the idea that plants need space and light and big root systems, and when you go back to those principles you see that maybe we can tease more genetic potential out of wheat too.”

This thinking led the India-based NGO People’s Science Institute (PSI) to lead a trial applying SRI to wheat in 2006 at its own farm. Using two varieties of wheat, it achieved average yield increases of 25% and 57%, which encouraged PSI to introduce a programme of sustainable wheat intensification (SWI) to around 470 farmers in the state of Himachal Pradesh during the 2008-9 season, with funding from WWF and ICRISAT.

Some SCI principles – such as lower plant density – can seem counter-intuitive because they rely on a belief that less will produce more. With wheat, for example, rather than ‘broadcasting’ seed on the field, seeds are sown individually, in rows. This can mean using just 25kg of seed per hectare, rather than 120-180kg. To encourage farmers to try it, PSI selected representatives from smaller, local NGOs around Himachal Pradesh as ‘master trainers’.

“These master trainers went to different programme areas and trained and mobilised farmers there,” says Debashish Sen, deputy director of the PSI.

“Then during the cropping season other farmers from neighbouring villages were invited to see how the crop had performed, and government agricultural experts were brought in and the results shared, which all helped to scale this up.”

The yield improvement in Himachal Pradesh was even greater than in PSI’s own trial, with average increases of 82% to 91%. PSI also found farmers experimenting with spacings themselves, with some maintaining grids of different sizes, and others maintaining line spacing but not plant-to-plant. Results varied, but all improved on conventional techniques.

“I’ve seen farmers doing intercropping too,” says Sen. “They’re growing pulses, trying out lentil and gram between rows of wheat. These aren’t things we have told them to do, so there’s lots of experimentation going on.”

By the 2011-12 season, more than 12,000 farmers in the region were using SWI methods. But in the state of Bihar, home to many of India’s poorest small-scale farmers, the take-up has been particularly enthusiastic. In 2008, 415 farmers were introduced to SWI methods with support from the NGO Pradan and funding from the state and the World Bank. By 2012, 91,289 households in Bihar were using SWI to cultivate 11,790 acres of wheat, seeing an average 72% increase in yields.


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