Rice is life. It is true for me and for millions of farmers and families living in the riparian countries of the Mekong River.
Almost a decade ago, I got to know about the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) via a local organization in Cambodia. I was intrigued by its potential to not only improve rice production, but also to offer solutions to the complex problems and constraints faced by smallholder farmers.
The strengthening SRI movement has become a popular topic recently in development circles and with politicians simply because everyone cares about finding a way of feeding more people and, at the same time, improving environmental sustainability. SRI literature saw a spike of scientific and public interest in the last 10 years. Some 250 scientific articles have been produced in comparison to a few dozen in the previous decade. The March 2013 issue of the journal, Farming Matters, (published by ILEIA, the Centre for learning on sustainable agriculture) is exclusively devoted to SRI. I agree with the editors that SRI is indeed about more than just more rice.
In 2006, Oxfam initiated a regional initiative to support smallholder farmers in the lower Mekong basin, catalysing SRI innovations in rice production. In Vietnam “Simple and Effective” is the motor to promote SRI. Five year later, it was reported that one million farmers (some 10% of the total national farming population) have adopted SRI, following a partial or full set of its principles. It was reported by the Plant Protection Department under the Vietnamese Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development that SRI adoption covered 16% of the rice land in the North and 6% of the rice land in the country overall. Though progress is being made, it is obvious that the task is not yet completed.
There are still millions of farmers in Vietnam and hundreds of millions elsewhere who should have the opportunity to learn about and gain confidence in agro-ecological methods such as SRI. Multi-institutional and multi-level collaborations have been the key to success of SRI scaling up in Vietnam and many attempts have been made to try similar farmer-centered approaches with other crops. I see the SRI movement as opening doors for more cooperation and genuine support for farmers, as research, extension, and practice make progress together.
So let’s move the SRI debate beyond right and wrong and focus our energy and scare resources on better addressing farmers’ risk horizons, their appetite for change, and their aspirations towards improved rice productivity. In Vietnam, finding local solutions to food production is essential to eliminating hunger and providing insurance against rising food prices.
Rice is life and it is at the nexus of urgent global challenges for meeting food needs with less land per person, diminished water availability, rising energy costs, and adverse climate changes. It is not an over-dramatization that our planet’s future will be influenced to no small degree by how this essential grain is grown in the decades ahead.