Is farming rice differently the key to ending hunger? India tries it

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Is farming rice differently the key to ending hunger? India tries it

Children eating rice in Darjeeling, India. Photo: Colin Spurway/Mercy Corps.

Almost half of India’s children are chronically malnourished, but recent changes in farming trends could help feed the nation.

While the government lays out a plan to stockpile and distribute subsidized grains to feed the hungry, a new way of planting and farming rice across India has proven dramatic success.

It's called the "System of Rice Intensification" and it's a farming method designed to increase rice yields. Using the SRI technique, farmers plant fewer, younger rice seedlings farther apart than the conventional method, and use water sparingly instead of flooding the fields continuously. This minimizes competition by the seedlings for nutrients, water, and sunlight, which allows for healthier root growth.

Farmers around the world using the method have experienced production increases of 20 percent to 50 percent or more, while reducing seed use by 80 percent to 90 percent. And they've saved up to half of their usual water use. Indian rice farmers who have switched to the new technique report that they spend less time in the fields, although initially it's labor intensive.

Duddeda Sugunavva, a rice farmer from the Warangal district of Andhra Pradesh in India, began using the method on just one-tenth of her two acres of land. 

“I was reluctant at first to try a method that was completely contrary to what I’ve been using for decades,” she told SRI India.

But after harvesting six 70 kg bags from that small plot--rather than the usual four bags--Sugunavva expanded the method to her entire two acres, and has been using SRI practices exclusively for five seasons. SRI has saved Sugunavva 4,000 rupees per acre.

While the farming method has gained popularity in India in the last few years, SRI is not an entirely new concept. Developed in Madagascar in the early 1980s by the French Jesuit priest Henri de Laulanié, SRI increased Malagasy farmers' productivity, while decreasing the country's dependence on rice imports.

In its early days, SRI was not taken seriously, but now an estimated 4-5 million farmers worldwide use the technique, and governments in China, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Vietnam and India promote it.

The Indian state of Bihar, which saw dramatic crop gains in 2013 from SRI, will invest $50 million towards educating farmers about the new method in 2014.

While the Indian government supports experimentation with SRI, a quarter of the world’s 870 million hungry poor live in India, so it also must continue to battle poverty through traditional mean, like food subsidies.

In order to alleviate chronic hunger and poverty, the government passed the National Food Security Bill in August, which provides subsidized rice, wheat, and millet to nearly 70 percent of India’s 1.2 billion people.

The government will spend about $4 billion per year to distribute these grains through the approximately 500,000 “fair price shops,” which are government-approved stores located throughout the nation that sell subsidized food and non-food items.

In order for the bill to be effective, India also needed to convince the World Trade Organization (WTO) to change global subsidy limits so governments of developing countries would have more flexibility to pay poor farmers above market prices to contribute to national food stockpiles.

India took a firm stand on the food security issue, and after tough negotiations, the WTO reached an agreement in early December that permits nations such as India to store and sell staple grains to the poor at subsidized rates.

The agreement will allow India to go ahead with its food security plan.

Critics of the new food security bill warn that such a policy shift could harm poor farmers in other parts of the world, since rules on farm subsidies don’t allow domestic policies to alter the price of food on the international market. This means that farmers outside India must compete with the prices of the heavily subsidized grains, threatening their livelihood.

Food security analysts also raise concerns about corruption interfering with the distribution of the grains. If intercepted by middlemen, much of the subsidized food may end up being sold illegally rather than through the intended fair price shops, according to the Wall Street Journal.

SRI appears to offer a long-term, environmentally friendly, cost- and time-effective food production future for India. A 30 percent increase in crop yields could go a long way to empower India’s smallholder farmers and alleviate poverty.

But the question remains: Can the technique work well enough to surpass traditional aid and feed India's poor?

Which direction do you think India should go? Leave your comments below.

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