Global Forum on Food Security and Nutrition (FSN Forum)

Norman Uphoff

Cornell University
United States of America

Contribution for international Symposium on “Agriculture, Biodiversity and Food Security: From Commitments to Actions,” Quebec, April 30-May 2, 2024

The System of Rice Intensification (SRI) developed in Madagascar is an agroecologically-informed set of principles and practices for growing rice, the world’s most widely grown and consumed food grain. Initially used with irrigated rice production but now also with rainfed cropping, SRI capitalizes upon biological processes and potentials that exist within rice plants and in the soil systems they grow in, departing from current strategy of relying on new seeds (genomes) and synthetic inputs to increase production. 

Put most simply, SRI management induces more productive and robust phenotypes (crops) from a given genotype (variety). This management leads to higher gain yields from existing varieties, with reductions in inputs such as water, seeds, and agrochemicals. For most rice farmers, it is also labor-saving once the methods have been mastered. SRI is not a usual kind of technology, but rather a change in paradigm. It is still a work in progress, with improvements coming in farming systems and in mechanization.

SRI’s effects are protective or conserving of biodiversity, both above- and below-ground, at the same time these make for a more efficient and sustainable agriculture and for greater food security. This is in part because SRI phenotypes are more resistant to the hazards of climate change, including damage from water stress, storms and wind, and pests and disease, and they also reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The principles and practices of SRI are applicable also, with appropriate adaptations, to other crops such as wheat, millet, sugarcane, and some pulses and vegetables. 

SRI achieves more robust and productive plants by two main results from its modifications of crop management: larger and more effective root systems, and promotion of the abundance, diversity and activity of the soil biota, particularly of beneficial soil microbes. The latter live around, on and inside plants, and we are learning that microbes living within plant tissues and cells (as endophytes) can influence plants’ expression of their genetic potential in beneficial ways, so our ‘optic’ for crop improvement needs some revision.

The paper submitted, after reviewing what constitutes SRI, discussed first some indirect effects of SRI crop management on the conservation of biodiversity: how this methodology  reduces crop requirements for water that compete with the needs of natural ecosystems; how SRI reduces the application of agrochemicals and synthetic fertilizers that affect soil health and the inhabitants of soil ecosystems; and how it reduces greenhouse gas emissions that are driving global warming and climate change. 

It then discusses direct uses of SRI to help conserve biodiversity, starting with maintaining the genetic diversity of rice, the staple food grown and consumed most widely. It also discusses how civil society and government entities have introduced SRI to help protect endangered fauna such as lemurs, orangutans, rhinoceroses, ibises and storks, and vulnerable ecosystems such as mangrove, forest, and highland biospheres. And it considers how SRI practices benefit the soil biota, on which all other life on earth depends.

SRI is not a ‘silver bullet’ applicable everywhere, and certain limitations and conditions are reviewed in the paper, along with ways to deal with these. SRI is still a work in progress, but it contributes to the agroecological reorientation of agriculture that will help to make this sector an asset for biodiversity conservation rather than an impediment.

Please find the attached file with a short paper on how the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) can contribute to conservation of biodiversity, above and below ground, in various ways.

Best regards,

Norman Uphoff

Professor Emeritus of Government and International Agriculture

Department of Global Development, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY