Non-GMO rice growing method takes root worldwide

While highly publicized attempts to genetically engineer rice are promising to “feed the world” tomorrow, a grassroots revolution in non-GMO rice production is sweeping rice fields worldwide, creating positive impacts today.

Rice is a staple food for half the world’s population. In China the word for rice is the same as the word for food. The number of rice varieties grown by farmers worldwide may be as many as 40,000, according to some estimates.

But experts warn that rice yields have to increase more than 50% by 2050 to feed a growing world population.

Moreover, rice farming is increasingly unsustainable; it is the largest consumer of global freshwater resources and one of the largest consumers of fossil-fuel based fertilizers. Flooded rice paddies also emit a significant amount of methane, a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming.

Many “experts” say genetic engineering is the answer to increase nutrition and yields and such attempts are now underway. “Golden rice” genetically engineered to produce higher levels of vitamin A has been touted as one solution, but has never been grown commercially. China plans to introduce insect-resistant GM rice by 2012. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation provided $11 million to the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) to develop GM rice that increases yields.

SRI: Grassroots revolution

Yet while these highly publicized GM rice projects promise to “feed the world,” a grassroots revolution is sweeping rice fields worldwide, creating positive changes. The revolution is called the System of Rice Intensification (SRI), an innovative, sustainable method for growing rice that increases yields and uses less water, inputs, and seeds.

SRI was developed in Madagascar in the 1980s by Father Henri de Laulanié, an agronomist and Jesuit priest, along with local colleagues and farmers. Father Laulanié and his colleagues aimed to help smallholder farmers grow more rice at less cost with limited resources.

Conventional rice production involves continuously flooding fields to reduce weeds, planting many seedlings close together, and using unsustainable chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

With SRI, 1-2 seedlings at 8 to 12 days old are planted per hill and into soils that are not flooded. Seedlings are spaced apart farther in a grid to give roots more room to grow and to facilitate weeding. Soils are alternately dried and wetted. Organic matter is used for fertilizer and integrated pest management methods are encouraged.

According to Olivia Vent, SRI liaison at Lotus Foods, which sells SRI rice products, less water keeps soil more aerobic, which enhances root growth. “The roots are healthier because they get more oxygen,” she says.

Planting fewer seedlings also produces stronger roots. “Roots are put in carefully and can spread out immediately. The roots are larger and go deeper in the ground anchoring plants to withstand wind and storms,” Vent says.

A way out of poverty”

Stronger roots produce healthier plants which increase yields by 50-100% and more. SRI cuts water usage by 25-50%. With many fewer seedlings transplanted, SRI dramatically reduces the number of seeds, about 11-15 pounds per hectare, compared to 110-165 pounds per hectare for conventional rice production.

Farmers can use their own locally adapted seed varieties and are not dependent on multi-national companies for patented or hybrid seeds. “This methodology works best with indigenous rice varieties,” says Caryl Levine, co-owner of Lotus Foods. “Farmers don’t want to grow GMOs or hybrids because they are costly and farmers can’t save seeds for the following season. And they prefer the taste and nutritional value of their local varieties.”

Methane gas emissions are also reduced because fields are not flooded.

“Farmers can cut production costs, reduce pesticides, save on labor, and use fewer toxic chemicals,” Vent says.

Those benefits have attracted farmers worldwide. SRI practices have been adopted by an estimated 2 million farmers in 40 countries throughout Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East in a variety of climates and geographic conditions.

OutlookBusiness, a leading Indian business magazine, selected SRI as one of its “25 Ideas That Will Change Our World.”

“SRI represents an opportunity for more food, more money, better heath, and more options—in short, for a way out of poverty,” Levine says.

Money going to fish and not fishing poles”

Non-governmental organizations such as Oxfam, Africare, and Worldwide Fund for Nature have been instrumental in the adoption of SRI, says Levine. “NGOs are working with the farmers and have been important in building relationships with other organizations.”

One of those organizations is the Cornell International Institute for Food, Agriculture and Development, which has an SRI Group that facilitates research, global market development and information sharing and maintains a global SRI website.

More recently, the World Bank has taken a proactive role in promoting SRI, Vent says.

The governments of China, India, Cambodia, Indonesia, and Vietnam also support the adoption of SRI.

Surprisingly, rice research groups such as IRRI have been skeptical and even hostile about SRI. “You would think that scientists would want to understand how it works, but probably because SRI came out of a non-research environment there has been resistance,” Vent says.

IRRI is focused on breeding new rice varieties, such as the Gates Foundation-funded genetically modified C4 rice project, and not on rice growing methods, a critical difference, says Levine. “The research money is going to fish and not fishing poles.”

Some rice scientists say there is a lack of research demonstrating the benefits of SRI though published literature documenting its value is increasing.

A major study on SRI is now underway with funding from the Gates Foundation. Participants include IRRI, Cornell, and Wageningen University, a leading Dutch agricultural institution.

“The aim is to try to better understand SRI and why it has moved so quickly,” Vent says.

While the study is going on, farmers continue joining the SRI grassroots revolution.

“This could be a tipping point to change how rice is grown around the world,” Levine says. “We have a methodology on the shelf that farmers can use to feed themselves. It’s simple, and they have all resources they need. They just need to be trained.”

For more information about SRI rice methods, visit

(Copyright The Organic & Non-GMO Report, July/August 2010)