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Advances in Rice Farming May Not Improve Farm Life

Advances in Rice Farming May Not Improve Farm Life

Rice farmers in Indonesia are not benefitting from new methods.

cornelluniversity, rice, agriculture

In the 1980’s a French priest in Madagascar by the name of Henri de Laulanié developed an innovative and sustainable method for rice farming known as the “System of Rice Intensification” (SRI).  This revolutionary system took the focus off of fertilizers and water while making more use of compost and careful, well spaced, planting.  For its positive impact on the environment as well as crop yields, 30 years later SRI has many advocates and practitioners, among other places among rice farmers in Indonesia. SRI fans often point to the rice farmers of that region as shining examples of using less harmful and costly farming methods while yielding more rice than ever before. But what they haven’t looked very closely into is how the lives of SRI farmers have or have not improved with the use of this method.  That was until a team of researchers from Cornell University published a working paper on this topic in January of this year, which focused on the socio-economic situation of SRI farmers in Indonesia.

What they found is that despite dramatic improvements in yields, the financial situation for farmers has not changed.  Which might seem like a strange disconnect, if you grow more rice and cut out the costs of fertilizers and water, wouldn’t you make more money?  Turns out, despite the savings, the increased amount of labor required to handle SRI planting  means less time that farmers spend doing other income generating activities.  This is because farmers in Indonesia, not unlike farmers in most of the world, are usually involved in some other economic activities when they aren’t farming, to earn money for their families.  But SRI requires more time spent in the fields and therefore less time at that other job.  According to the working paper, bigger yields and less costs combined with less time to spend doing the other usual economic activities means no significant change in the financial situation of these families.

Of course it is a complicated puzzle if the goal is to improve lives through the introduction of smarter and more sustainable farming practices.  From an environmental and agricultural point of view, SRI can still be described as a great method with a future.  But the other part of the puzzle, the one that concerns improving the socio-economic status of a rice farming family in this world, that part still needs more attention and research, in order to understand and address where SRI still falls short.

Source: Cornell University

Photo: diwong / flickr

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