The Politics of Poverty

Ideas and analysis from Oxfam America's policy experts

Demystifying a rice revolution

Posted by

Share this story:

Barry Shelley is Oxfam America’s global agriculture and climate change advisor.  A recent story by Dan Charles on mysteries related to the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) highlights some critical issues in current SRI debates. First, intensified labor demands can be an obstacle to initial SRI adoption in some locales. Second, since development work must […]

Barry Shelley is Oxfam America’s global agriculture and climate change advisor. 

A recent story by Dan Charles on mysteries related to the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) highlights some critical issues in current SRI debates. First, intensified labor demands can be an obstacle to initial SRI adoption in some locales. Second, since development work must be contextual, we must be cautious in broadly applying research findings from one context. Third, the analysis of agriculture innovation must extend beyond agronomic techniques and productivity measures to impacts on households and communities and the incentives or disincentives they generate.  Unfortunately, on this last point, Charles’ story did not discuss the fact that monetary incentives are not the sole reason why farmers adopt SRI. Non-monetary benefits also play a role.

Vietnamese farmer Hoang Thi Lien, 53 at her SRI (system of rice intensification) farm in Ha Tay province, Vietnam. Chau Doan/Oxfam America
Vietnamese farmer Hoang Thi Lien, 53 at her SRI (system of rice intensification) farm in Ha Tay province, Vietnam. Chau Doan/Oxfam America

After an impressive record of SRI adoption in Vietnam, Oxfam’s initiatives to support SRI in Haiti’s Artibonite Valley encountered varying challenges. One obstacle to adoption in Haiti has been the increased labor demands, similar to what the study by Takahashi and Barrett found in Indonesia.  In contrast, labor intensification did not pose a significant constraint in Vietnam, in part because it is minimized after farmers have become more efficient in SRI techniques. So, yes, increased labor demands can be a significant factor in SRI adoption and impact.  But how labor “acts” in these dynamics varies between locales. It will depend on many factors, including average parcel size, rural labor supply, alternative labor opportunities, and the point of comparison—i.e. the labor demands of the traditional growing practices under local conditions.  Every experience of SRI is not the same.

However, Takahashi and Barrett’s research (pdf) is very important, welcomed, and highly relevant.  They are correct that there has been little solid evidence on how SRI adoption affects household income and household welfare more broadly. In an effort to address this gap, Oxfam recently initiated a rigorous SRI impact evaluation study in Haiti in collaboration with researchers Michael Carter and Travis Lybbert of the University of California at Davis. They were selected, in part, because they had not been immersed previously in the SRI debate and could offer a measure of independence.

In the village of Quatorzieme, Oxfam is helping a small group of women experiment with innovative practices of growing rice known as System of Rice Intensification or SRI. Brett Eloff/Oxfam America
In the village of Quatorzieme, Haiti, Oxfam is helping a small group of women experiment with innovative practices of growing rice known as System of Rice Intensification or SRI. Brett Eloff/Oxfam America

Unfortunately, Charles’ article leads toward a more simplistic conclusion than is warranted.  The story focuses on reported dis-adoption rates and on Takahashi and Barrett’s demonstration that SRI adoption does not lead to any significant increase in household income in their study area. However, in their research these authors go on to ask:  “If there is no observable economic gain, why have farmers shifted from the conventional rice cultivation practices to SRI in the first place and only 18 percent of those who had experimented with SRI had disadopted [sic] by the time of our survey?”  (page 32)  They suggest that additional incentives for SRI adoption include preferring on-farm over off-farm work, not needing to travel for employment, being closer to home for child care, cultural values of keeping women closer to home, and/or more leisure time. In other words, there must be net household welfare gains—gains significant enough to persuade farmers to adopt SRI for the long-term—even if there is no income increase. But their data does not allow further analysis of those non-monetary benefits. The picture is more complex and promising than the story implies.

Strong evidence supports claims that SRI offers multiple monetary and non-monetary benefits both to adopting farmers and to society at large: increased yields and land productivity that offer smallholder farmers the possible welfare gains suggested above, that stabilize rural communities and that provide increased food production; decreased green-house gas emissions; water savings; and decreased chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. So, while we do need to understand SRI adoption incentives and household impacts, we also hear an additional set of questions: How can we better mobilize knowledge and resources to create the conditions required for increased adoption of SRI and other agro-ecological methods? Why is there not more private and public investment in SRI? What policies and strategies do we need to advocate for SRI? How do we recognize the social benefits of SRI and generate incentives accordingly? How do we help farmers get past the initial increase in labor demands, instead of letting that be a game stopper?

SRI is too promising to leave its future to the whims of an ideological and narrow debate. Years ago my mentor Thomas McCollough, a social ethicist, taught me the importance of asking the right questions.  Let’s ask those right questions—all of them.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *