Indian Farmers Achieve Record Crop Yield without GMOs or Chemicals
25 Feb, 2013
What if the agricultural revolution has already happened and we didn’t realize it? Essentially, that’s the idea in this report from the Guardian about a group of poverty-stricken Indian rice and potato farmers who harvested confirmed world-record yields of rice and potatoes. Best of all: They did it completely sans-GMOs or even chemicals of any kind.
[Sumant] Kumar, a shy young farmer in Nalanda district of India’s poorest state Bihar, had—using only farmyard manure and without any herbicides—grown an astonishing 22.4 tonnes of rice on one hectare [~2.5 acres] of land. This was a world record and with rice the staple food of more than half the world’s population of seven billion, big news.
It beat not just the 19.4 tonnes achieved by the “father of rice”, the Chinese agricultural scientist Yuan Longping, but the World Bank-funded scientists at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, and anything achieved by the biggest European and American seed and GM companies. And it was not just Sumant Kumar. Krishna, Nitish, Sanjay and Bijay, his friends and rivals in Darveshpura, all recorded over 17 tonnes, and many others in the villages around claimed to have more than doubled their usual yields.
Another Bihar farmer broke India’s wheat-growing record the same year. They accomplished all this without GMOs or advanced seed hybrids, artificial fertilizer or herbicide. Instead, they used a technique called System of Rice [or root] Intensification (SRI). It’s a technique developed in Madagascar in the 1980s by a French Jesuit and then identified and promulgated by Cornell political scientist and international development specialist Norman Uphoff.
SRI for rice involves starting with fewer, more widely spaced plants; using less water; actively aerating the soil; and applying lots of organic fertilizer. According to Uphoff’s SRI Institute website [PDF], the farmers who use synthetic fertilizer with the technique get lower yields than those who farm organically. How’s that for pleasant irony?
The breadth of the results in Bihar have gotten international attention. The Guardian reports that economist Joseph Stieglitz, a Nobel laureate and international development aficionado, visited the area last month. After seeing their amazing results, he declared the farmers “better than scientists.”
High praise aside, the technique is not without its detractors. Most western governments and agricultural scientists remain skeptical of the practice: Many challenge that the reported yields aren’t verified, there’s insufficient science behind the technique, and they worry it can’t scale to larger farms.
Achim Dobermann, deputy director of worldwide standard-bearers the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), dismissed the technique in comments to the Guardian:
SRI is a set of management practices and nothing else, many of which have been known for a long time and are best recommended practice … Scientifically speaking I don’t believe there is any miracle. When people independently have evaluated SRI principles then the result has usually been quite different from what has been reported on farm evaluations conducted by NGOs and others who are promoting it. Most scientists have had difficulty replicating the observations.
Given the paucity—or total absence—of independent testing done on GMOs and pesticides developed by companies like Monsanto and Syngenta, it’s galling to read of scientists complaining “there is not enough peer-reviewed evidence around SRI” and that “it is impossible to get such returns.”