I read John Vidal’s recent Observer article, India’s Rice Revolution with great interest. The piece outlines the remarkable rice and potato yields that small scale farmers in Bihar, India’s poorest state, are garnering from SRI (System of Root/Rice Intensification). The method, which doesn’t use GM or herbicides, is being hotly debated as a sustainable solution to world food shortages. It proposes an alternate method of plant cultivation which forgoes planting into flooded fields in favour of cultivation in well-drained and well-structured soil where natural biological activity is maximised. The foundation stone of the method is dependent on high status soil fertility.
I’ve noted before in this blog, that from my own direct observation, yields on our farm of cereal crops and grass can easily vary by 100% or more, depending mainly on the fertility of the soil.
Some of the variations of soil fertility are clearly beyond a farmer’s control. For instance, some of our soils are deep, loamy and free draining with plenty of organic matter and, therefore, nutrient availability. Others are thinner, silty, compacted and relatively anaerobic, with the obvious consequence that yields are much reduced.
Despite these variations it is my experience that if we do the ‘right thing’, even on these ‘difficult’ soils, such as adding organic matter and improving structure through mechanical means like mole ploughing, the results in yield improvement can be truly spectacular.
When I was recently in Zimbabwe visiting a small holder farm, I observed this first hand. The woman concerned (the majority of farmers in Zimbabwe are women) had achieved dramatic yield improvements using methods very similar to those that John Vidal described in his SRI article.
Critics of SRI are quick to point out that most of these ‘miracle’ increases in rice yields are achieved on smallhold farms with a great deal of personal plant tlc from farmers, which is not available on larger and more mechanised farms.
These critics use that same argument to argue in favour of GM crops and fertilisers as the only realistic way to feed the world. The criticism is unwarranted and acts as a smoke screen to obscure the underlying truth behind the SRI experience – that increasing soil fertility is the be all and end all of what we need for a sustainable food revolution. There are no real increases in yield in a world where most of the increased food production that has happened in the last half century, has been based on the depletion of natural capital. This is by definition, totally unsustainable.
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