Less is more: working miracles in Nepal’s rice fields

Planting rice seedlings in Dan Bahadur Rajbansi's field Copyright: Kunda Dixit

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Dan Bahadur Rajbansi is planting rice seedlings on his farm near Nepal’s border with India, 300 kilometres southeast of Kathmandu.

The monsoon rains came late to Nepal this year and many farmers delayed transplanting their rice seedlings from nursery beds to paddy fields.

But Rajbansi was ready. He is one of a dozen farmers in Morang district testing a new method of planting rice. It is reported to boost harvests without requiring farmers to flood their fields or use chemical fertilisers and pesticides.

It sounds too good to be true. After all, this is not a high-yielding variety of genetically modified rice but the normal local variety, mansuli.

Bumper harvests

The secret lies in the cultivation method: the seedlings are transplanted when they are only two weeks old instead of at six weeks. Instead of being flooded, the field is drained. And the seedlings are planted farther apart — while a normal paddy field needs 50 kilograms of seed per hectare, the new method uses less than ten kilograms.

Yet because each seedling produces many more shoots than when planted conventionally, the harvest can more than double.

“I thought, how can this be?” says local agriculture officer Rajendra Uprety, recalling first reading about the technique on the Internet. He decided to test it out. “Since 2002, we’ve achieved double and triple harvests on test plots. It’s just amazing.”

“Why didn’t my ancestors think of
it?” asks Ananta Ram Majhi
Photo Credit: Kunda Dixit

Ananta Ram Majhi, another of Morang district’s rice farmers, admits he was sceptical. “Initially, I thought to myself, if this is such a great idea why didn’t my ancestors think of it?” he says, wading ankle-deep in mud to prepare his next field. “But I decided to take the chance and this is my third year using the new method.”

Majhi used to harvest five tonnes per hectare, but is now getting at least twice as much. He has achieved those yields with only one-third of the seeds he used before and with less water.

News of the amazing harvests spread quickly from Morang district, where about 100 farmers have adopted the new method. Uprety brings farmers from other districts there on inspection visits. “Actually, it has been more difficult convincing the agronomists and officials than the farmers,” he laughs.

Sceptical scientists

It hasn’t been easy to convince international scientists either. Agriculture research institutes have been doubtful ever since Henri de Laulanie, a French Jesuit priest in Madagascar, devised the new method in 1983.

It was only after the International Institute for Food, Agriculture and Development at Cornell University in the United States started pushing the idea that it was taken seriously.

The System of Rice Intensification (SRI), as it is now called, has been tried and tested in about 20 countries, from Cuba to China.

Tens of thousands of farmers have adopted the method in the few years since researchers introduce it in Cambodia. There, as in India, Laos, and Sri Lanka, farmers report that SRI means bigger harvests and better incomes, for fewer seeds and less water.

But critics say that scientific evidence for such claims is lacking. Most field trial results have, for instance, not been recorded in detail and published in peer-reviewed journals (see Can ‘rice intensification’ feed the world?)

When researchers at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and colleagues tested SRI in field trials in China, they found no difference in yield between SRI and conventionally-grown rice.

Their study, published in Field Crops Research in March 2004, concluded that: “SRI has no major role in improving rice production generally”.

Training the trainers

For Uprety though, the results speak for themselves. He points out that the technique’s success depends on skillful farming, good timing, and careful planting and drainage. Since planting on flooded paddy fields helped to control weeds, the drier SRI fields need weeding several times during the growing season.

Uprety shows off the copious shoots on three-month
old rice plants
Photo Credit: Kunda Dixit

But the benefits far outweigh these obstacles, says Uprety, adding that the main challenge is training.

He has turned local farmers like Kishore Luitel, who are now total converts to SRI, into trainers. A few years ago Rajbansi thought Luitel had gone mad for adopting the new technique. But earlier this month, Luitel was in Rajbansi’s field teaching him how to plant his seedlings the new way.

The tiny two-week-old seedlings look fragile in Luitel’s hands as he picks them up one by one and plants them 20 centimetres apart in the sticky mud — not the 10 centimetres apart in slush needed for normal rice planting.

Luitel points out his own field where rice now grows in thick tufts with more than 80 shoots from one seed. “Using the old method, you plant three or four seedlings in one spot and you only get about ten shoots per seed,” he says.

For Uprety and Luitel, seeing is believing. They are convinced that no part of Nepal need be short of food anymore if SRI is promoted nationally. Every year, Nepal needs to produce more than 90,000 tonnes of rice seeds. The SRI advocates say the method would save 80,000 tonnes and harvests nationwide could be doubled.

Uprety sums it up: “Sometimes the best solutions are the simplest ones.”

Photo Credit: Kunda Dixit