Politics of Poverty

Food, agriculture and justice: Building a new rice future for people and the planet

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Vietnamese farmer Hoang Thi Lien, 53 at her SRI (System of Rice Intensification) farm in Dong Phu commune, My Duc district, Ha Tay province. Lien is a core farmer that gives instruction for and help other farmers to cultivate SRI rice. Photo: Chau Doan/ Oxfam America

The system of rice intensification doesn’t just help small-scale farmers experiment with new methods, but also gives people greater confidence in public spaces.

Minh Le is the Global Agriculture Advisor at Oxfam and is based in Vietnam.      

One of my favorite things is to stroll through paddy fields as they shine yellow and gold, taking in the timeless picture. White storks also walk along the irrigation canals, which reflect the sunlight like mirrors. When the first drops of rain come, you see farmers planting seedlings in the muddy soil and then, a few months later, loading sacks full of grains for home consumption or selling to traders.

A staple, the world over

Rice cultivation is deeply rooted in the minds and lives of billions of people – not just mine. Half of the world’s people get sustenance from rice. One billion people are engaged in growing rice. It is ironic, however, that nearly three fourths of the 805 million children, women, and men who are undernourished live in Asia – where rice production is in surplus and where the Green Revolution has been embraced since the 20th century.

The 2008 food price crisis triggered renewed investment in agriculture around the world. However, these investments have been heavily focused on increasing production rather than on achieving more sustainable, affordable, and diversified food production in rural areas.

Small farmers’ struggle

More and more, small-scale farmers are being left behind by agricultural advances. They struggle to cope with the rising costs of fuel, fertilizers, and pesticides, as well as the increasing competition for land. This is particularly true for small-scale producers of rice, an important crop for food security, national economies, and ecological systems.

Compounding these challenges, a decline in rice yields in major Asian rice-producing countries due to weather unpredictability and disasters may be on the horizon, as the 5th Assessment Report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns. Smallholder farmers are most affected by climate change, but they rarely have a voice in setting rice policies as rice suppliers and traders resist reforms that would eat into their profits.

The prize is awarded to…SRI

So it is very welcome news that at this week’s Montpellier Global Science Conference on Climate-Smart Agriculture, the very first Olam Prize for Innovation and Food Security was awarded to Cornell University’s SRI International Network and Resources Center (SRI-Rice) for its work on the System of Rice Intensification (SRI). It is a well-deserved recognition! Climate smart agricultural practices such as SRI help farmers achieve food security and adapt to climate variability.

Alternative agro-ecological rice-growing practices such as SRI need more attention. It is high time for SRI to be adequately understood and supported among this global community. SRI methods are immediately accessible to poor smallholder farmers, who are not waiting for handouts or outside investors to increase their yields. According to Cornell’s SRI-Rice, some ten million farmers practice most or all SRI methods on over 3.4 million hectares. The value of this increased paddy production is estimated at $862.5 million.

Oxfam’s experience with SRI

In 2002 Oxfam started promoting SRI to help women and men in rice farming communities improve their food and income security and increase their resilience to shocks and stresses. As of 2013, more than 1.5 million smallholder farmers in groups supported by Oxfam’s partners in Cambodia, Sri Lanka, and Viet Nam have benefited from SRI using both improved and local rice varieties.

At Oxfam, we’ve seen that agro-ecological approaches such as SRI can utilize more productively the resources that are available to farmers, with positive effects on soil and environmental quality. SRI is a principle-based management system that has gained wide popularity among resource-poor farmers, conscious consumers, social entrepreneurs, and sustainability-focused supply chains in many parts of the world.

Learning SRI and collaboration around its adoption has given farmers greater confidence in public spaces and in experimenting with new methods. Farmer-led practices such as the hand-held rotary weeder in Cambodia, the System of Teff Intensification in Ethiopia, the minimum-tillage potatoes method in Vietnam, and home gardens in Sri Lanka are proving effective and are addressing time-poverty for women. Furthermore, adopting SRI also helps to improve the community solidarity and effectiveness of farmer cooperatives as in Haiti and Timor Leste. Even though more research is needed on the relationship between SRI and gender, SRI and labour returns, rice quality, and profitability, these are remarkable results to build upon!

More than just more rice

My hope is that SRI-Rices’ good news at the start of the 3rd Global Science Conference on Climate Smart Agriculture will mean that the conference will not just highlight science and new technologies for the mass production of staple food crops. We also need to see smallholder farmers’ needs and risk horizons prioritized.

Incentives are needed so that more effective institutional support can be offered to the majority of the world’s farmers. Support can take many forms, but smallholder farmers are likely to benefit most from investments that acknowledge their limited assets, help them adapt to the challenges of climate change, and tap into and enhance their knowledge.

SRI is much more than just more rice. SRI is a movement that is opening doors for more cooperation and genuine support for smallholder farmers. SRI is helping to address the vitally important issue of justice in food and agriculture—that is, who gets access to what resources and how these decisions get made – which is necessary to right the wrong of hunger and poverty.

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