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2-plants: Madagascar non-GE rice trials lead to agricultural revolution

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TITLE:  Madagascar rice trials lead to agricultural revolution:
        New methods break with centuries of tradition
SOURCE: Financial Times, John Madeley
DATE:   January 23, 2001

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Madagascar rice trials lead to agricultural revolution: New methods break 
with centuries of tradition.

When small farmers in Madagascar employed a new way of growing rice in the 
late 1980s, the results were so startling that agricultural scientists 
could hardly believe they were possible. Yields of about two tonnes per 
hectare had shot up to about 8-10 tonnes per hectare, without chemical 
fertilisers, pesticides or expensive seed varieties, and by breaking some 
of the conventional "rules" of rice management. For years the new 
technique, known as the System of Rice Intensification (SRI), was virtually 
ignored. The system was developed in Madagascar by an agronomist priest, 
Henri de Laudani, working with a small farmers group, Association Tefy 

Last week a representative of the group, Sebastin Rafaralahy, presented its 
work to a conference in London, "Reducing Poverty though Sustainable 
Agriculture", organised by the University of Essex together with the 
Department for International Development.

Traditionally, rice is transplanted into fields at about eight weeks, said 
Mr Rafaralahy, when the plant is strong and likely to survive, and three or 
more seedlings are planted in clumps in the hope that one will fully 
mature. But with SRI, seedlings are transplanted at about six days and 
planted individually, enabling farmers to use less seed. For thousands of 
years lowland rice has been grown under flooded conditions to ensure water 
supply and reduce weed problems. But while rice can survive in water, it is 
not an aquatic plant, Mr Rafaralahy pointed out.

Farmers in Madagascar noted that root growth was far greater if the plant 
was not kept continually submerged in water - "the plants receive more 
oxygen and nutrients from the atmosphere and derive greater benefit from 
the warmth of the sun", he said. Using the SRI system the soil is only kept 
continually wet during the reproductive stage when the plant is producing 
grains. During the rest of the growth cycle the fields are irrigated in the 
evening and dry during the day. Using their own seed, some 20,000 farmers 
have now adopted the method in Madagascar, and the yields have proved 

After being evaluated by Cornell University in the US, the system has 
spread to other countries, including major rice growers such as Bangladesh, 
China and Indonesia. In China yields of 9-10.5 tonnes per hectare were 
achieved in the first year of the system, compared with the national 
average of 6 tonnes per hectare. This initiative in Madagascar was one of a 
number presented to the conference, all of which are included in a database 
of sustainable agriculture projects built up by professor Jules Pretty of 
the University of Essex.

He told the conference that the database now contains information on 208 
initiatives from 52 countries, which indicates that at least 9m farmers 
have adopted sustainable agriculture methods on 29m hectares of land - some 
3 per cent of land under crops in Africa, Asia and Latin America. 
Sustainable agriculture makes the best use of "nature's goods and services 
to help with pest control, soil regeneration and nutrient cycling", said 
professor Pretty; "and better use of the knowledge and skills of farmers, 
so improving their self-reliance".

Modern agriculture, he believes, is "very successful in terms of food 
production but causes a lot of damage to the environment and has tended to 
damage the natural processes". The evidence, he said, shows that switching 
to sustainable agriculture "can lead to substantial increases in per 
hectare food production".

For non-irrigated crops, yields typically increase by 50-100 per cent 
"though considerably greater in a few cases. For 146,000 farmers 
cultivating roots - potato, sweet potato and cassava - average food 
production increased by 150 per cent". For irrigated crops, the gains were 
much smaller, 5-10 per cent, "through starting from a higher absolute yield 

With policy and institutional support, the benefits of sustainable 
agriculture could spread to much larger numbers of people, believes 
professor Pretty, but he cautions that "even the substantial increase 
reported here might not be enough". "We cannot yet say that a transition to 
sustainable agriculture will result in enough food to meet the needs of 
developing countries, but there is scope for considerable confidence," he 

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