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Imagine this: 2,000 poor rice farmers, whose average farm income is around US$100 per year, suddenly take on the role of agricultural scientists. Over the course of two years — i.e. four growing seasons — they prove that insecticides are a waste of time and money, and that they can significantly reduce the amount of nitrogen fertiliser they use. They save, on average, US$17 per year.

That might not sound like much to some. But it's a 17 per cent pay rise for people who struggle to provide sufficient food for themselves and their families, and enough to help put children through school or buy grain to tide rice-deficit farm families over to the next harvest.

Sound unlikely? Well, it's just happened in Bangladesh. In the last two years, the Livelihood Improvement Through Ecology (LITE) project, led by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), has trained 2,000 farmers to perform experiments in their own fields which demonstrate that insecticides can be eliminated and nitrogen fertiliser (urea) applications reduced without lowering yields. Four thousand more farmers are currently in training.

What's more, if LITE continues as it has started, in less than a decade, most of Bangladesh's 11.8 million rice farmers — almost one twelfth of the country's population of 141 million, according to the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (BRRI), a key project partner — will have copied their example.

LITE is part of the IRRI-led project Poverty Elimination Through Rice Research Assistance, funded in Bangladesh by the United Kingdom's Department for International Development. It set out to discover the precise cause of an assumed drop in rice yield when farmers stop spraying insecticide. The ultimate aim, explains LITE principal investigator and IRRI senior entomologist Gary Jahn, was to identify safe alternatives to insecticides.

"To my surprise, when people stopped spraying, yields didn't drop — and this was across 600 fields in two different districts over two seasons," says Jahn, "I'm convinced that the vast majority of insecticides that rice farmers use are a complete waste of time and money."

"We quickly realised the most important thing to focus on was scaling LITE up," he explains. "We've already trained 2,000 farmers. We've reduced insecticide use among participating farmers by 99 per cent, and by 90 per cent among non-participating farmers in the same villages. Even in the control villages, where no farmers conducted the experiments, insecticide use dropped from 80 per cent to 55 per cent — much of this because of casual contact with participating farmers."

So how did the farmers take on their scientist role? Lead farmers — local farmers who happened to be relatively successful — were taught how to conduct a simple experiment by partitioning their fields into quadrants, each of which received different management strategies: with and without spraying, and with and without using a leaf colour chart (used to optimise urea applications). Other participating farmers bisected their fields, spraying one half but not the other.

Joinal Ahmad
The results have made real differences for those involved in the experiment. Take 35-year-old Joinal Ahmad. Before joining LITE, Ahmad grew rice on just over half a hectare in his village of Tatoipara, eking out a farm income of 2,800 Bangladeshi taka (US$48) a year. He and his wife of 18 years struggled to look after their two young sons and put their two older daughters through school.

Now, with the money he has saved, Ahmad has been able to buy extra land and increase his planted area to almost two-thirds of a hectare. He has cut his exposure to health- and environment-threatening chemicals, and has almost doubled his annual farm income to 4,800 taka (US$80).

"I can grow rice at lower cost because I use less urea and no insecticide," Ahmad explains. "With the money I save, I help my family and pay for my children's education."

There a number of reasons why spraying is ineffective. Insecticides often kill the natural enemies of rice pests more effectively than the pests themselves, and many supposed insect pests don't attack either the parts of the plant that affect grain production, or the grain itself.

Compounding this, many farmers use poor equipment to apply out-of-date or inappropriate insecticides at the wrong time. According to Nazira Qureshi Kamal, head of BRRI's entomology division, and LITE's in-country coordinator, the mere presence of insects on the crop can panic farmers into spraying.

The method used to expand the scale of LITE from a few hundred farmers to several thousand — and potentially millions — is known as 'success case replication' (SCR). After being trained to perform the LITE experiments themselves, lead farmers then train other farmers in their own village, as well as successful farmers from surrounding villages, who become the next lead farmers.

The new lead farmers do the same, and the process repeats. In principle, the number of trained farmers grows exponentially each rice season – like recipients of a chain letter, but this time good things actually happen.

3,000 rice farmers attend a
LITE field day in Bangladesh
Jan Orsini, an IRRI consultant to LITE on SCR, and a former United Nations rural development officer, says that in terms of cost-benefit LITE is extremely successful, bringing US$4 farm income for every dollar spent — well above the threshold used by the World Bank and other funding agencies to define a worthwhile project.

And this is for the first year alone, without factoring in subsequent years' savings. "This will only get better with time," enthuses Orsini. "The longer that farmers use the LITE regime, the more they will save. After five years, say, the ratio will be 1:20, which is truly exceptional."

Jahn is confident that the farmers will adhere to LITE practices because, first, they have seen the results of their own experiments in their own fields and, second, LITE goes straight to the bottom line. "Where farmer field schools rely on the farmers learning and understanding ecology," he explains, "LITE relies on understanding your wallet, which is almost innate."

Adam Barclay works for the International Rice Research Institute