Only 2 per cent ryots benefit under MGNREGA

K. N. MURALI SANKAR

http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-national/tp-andhrapradesh/article3268447.ece

A mere 2 per cent of paddy farmers from East Godavari district can be benefited from the offering of workers under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), scheduled from April 1, 2012.

As the paddy farmers have been accusing the government of throwing them into debts by way of increasing the labour costs by introducing the MGNREGA, a decision has been taken to bring the paddy cultivation into the fold of the scheme. However, labourers will be allocated only to those who are opting for the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) cultivation.

In the district which is known for its canal system, paddy farmers are using SRI technique only on an extent of 5,000 hectares.

According to the guidelines announced by the Union Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh last month, each small and medium SRI farmer will be eligible for eight person-days of work per acre for one-time transplantation, two person-days of work per acre for weeding at 10 to 15 days after transplantation and two person-days of work per acre for weeding at 20 to 30 days after transplantation.

Paddy is being sown on 2.4 lakh hectares during the kharif season and 1.7 lakh hectares during the rabi. Thus, the extent of SRI remains two per cent of the total area in the kharif and three per cent in the rabi season.

“The government’s decision hardly makes any difference. If it is sincere towards the farmers, it must expand the employment guarantee scheme to the entire agriculture sector,” says Yellapu Suryanarayana, general secretary of the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh.

“Instead of SRI cultivation, the scheme can be extended to direct sowing method. It is beneficial to a good number of paddy farmers not just in East Godavari,” says Kovvuri Trinadha Reddy, general secretary of the A.P. Farmers Water Management Committees Association.

Technical adaptations for mechanized SRI production to achieve water saving and increased profitability in Punjab, Pakistan

http://www.springerlink.com/content/e1568029183w1106/fulltext.pdf

Asif Sharif

Even in a country with a large population and rapid population growth, there can be labor shortages in the
agricultural sector, because of out migration of the ablebodied work force. The System of Rice Intensification
(SRI) is not necessarily more labor-intensive once the methods have been learned, but the initial labor requirements can be a barrier to adoption, and farmers with large land areas cannot find the labor needed to use these more productive methods. Recognizing this problem, a set of agricultural implements have been designed for mechanizing the operations of SRI, with a view to reducing water requirements as well as labor requirements because the current conditions for agricultural production in the Punjab region of Pakistan include water scarcity and poor water quality as well as labor shortages. This article reports on the process of mechanizing SRI production in Punjab, which has been quite successful so far. Average yield is considerably increased with a 70% reduction in water requirements and a similar reduction in labor needs. The machinery and methods have been further adapted to other crops, being grown on permanent-raised beds, so that SRI with organic fertilization is combined with Conservation Agriculture. This combination is referred to as ‘‘paradoxical agriculture’’ because it enables farmers to achieve higher outputs with reduced inputs.

Knowledge, technology, and the politics of rice

http://fes.org.in/common-voices-8.pdf

by Harro Matt

The current financial crisis in Europe brings out politics as we know it. The political leaders of nation states deliberate lessons from the past and negotiate solutions for a new future. We are intrigued by the moves of presidents and prime ministers and expect their decisions to affect our personal economic situation. Reversely, we blame the politicians for the loss of jobs, increase of rent or governmental restrictions. It helps to express anger and frustration, but does it help in negotiating with our employers, landlords or administrators?

The gaze towards the top is a common feature in our understanding of political processes. The politics of knowledge and technology is no exception. What is peculiar here is that the fascination applies to both politics and science and technology. The dominant image is that of ‘big science’ and top-notch technologies dealt with by high-level politics.The dominant focus on advanced technologies and higher-level politics, I argue here, has limited value for understanding crucial elements in processes of technological change that take place in society, therewith touching upon key democratic values. This is illustrated with introduced changes to rice cultivation. Technological change is often associated with innovation.

Think nuclear energy, hydro-electric dams, biotechnology or nanotechnology, and the association is political leaders and ministers confronted by protest and opposition. This is not just an image evoked by the media. It is also engrained in theories and concepts that we use in our understanding of the politics of science and technology.

Driven by images of progress and an urge to outstrip competitors, the only way forward is to get rid of old ideas or cranky tools and embrace novelty and rapid change. This, it seems, is the course of history. Just as steam locomotives replaced draught animals, a better future lies in advanced scientific knowledge and technical novelties. By definition, innovations are unfamiliar to the wider public. This is why financial support from investors and patronage from ministries and political leaders is required. The pattern is visible in the introduction of short-straw, fertiliser-responsive rice varieties (known as high-yielding varieties or HYVs) in the late 1960s. HYVs are innovation. Indeed they were, back in the 1960s, radically different from the rice types grown in most places. Thus, it was thought, HYVs would quickly replace existing (old) varieties simply because what was there could never compete with HYVs. However, HYVs have not fully replaced other rice varieties because in some places they never arrived, in other places they lost to competition with the old (but apparently better) varieties, and even in those many places where HYVs did yield well, other varieties never entirely disappeared.

Currently, the HYVs of rice have lost some of their grandeur. The high output is based on high input of fertiliser and water, making farmers dependent on economic factors, largely beyond their control. Environmental concerns increase the pressure to find alternatives. One alternative currently promoted is the System of Rice Intensification (SRI). Comprising of the use of young seedlings, wider-spaced square planting, reduced water requirements and mechanical weeding, SRI offers a set of techniques that is supposed to increase rice yields with less dependency on external inputs. Moreover, SRI is introduced mainly by civil-society organisations and less so by research institutes. SRI thus seems to move away from too high expectations on advanced science and novelty. However, SRI promoters are not entirely void of the pitfalls of innovation thinking. There is active lobbying for political and donor support to promote SRI. Currently, several governments of states in India and elsewhere are actively engaged in its distribution. Besides SRI being presented as innovative, farmers are commonly considered as traditional or stubborn when expected higher yields do not occur or when they disregard (parts of) the SRI method.

The dominant focus on advanced technologies and higher-level politics, I argue here, has limited value for understanding crucial elements in processes of technological change that take place in society, therewith touching upon key democratic values.

The introduction of SRI reveals the shortcomings of innovation thinking. Innovations need venture capital and institutional support to quickly access markets and convince customers. Science, technology and democracy in this context implies using the leverage of political power and donor money to offer users a simple choice: innovate or remain backward. The organisations pushing the HYVs for rice were good in making a political case for innovation. Persuasion was labelled as ‘training and visit’. SRI is introduced in very similar ways in some places.

In several states in India, we see newly emerging partnerships between organisations promoting SRI and state governments. This, it is thought, helps to distribute SRI and thus improves rice farming across the country.

Leaving aside the question of what we can expect from politicians and ministers, taking the route of high politics drags us further into innovation thinking. Preliminary findings from a research programme on SRI in India suggest that farmers in many places are instructed to take up SRI in very similar ways as they were instructed to plant HYVs in previous decades.

Analyses of processes to enhance public engagement in science and technology in various parts of the world have shown that under the label of participatory processes, powerful actors like governments, companies or other large organisations push for certain decisions or solutions. Not only are views and preferences of people disregarded, there is also underestimation of the knowledge and solutions people have developed themselves. The science and technology of the people are usually adequate for context-specific challenges.

Depending on folk wisdom or existing techniques therefore is not about being backward or not being able to escape old patterns. It is simply asserting that change is not about throwing away everything and starting all over again.

What is the role of science? It is not helpful to oppose scientific knowledge and local or indigenous knowledge. Nor is it useful to oppose innovation and stagnation. Science can help to understand what works where and how. This requires a social science understanding of technology-in-use as well as an understanding on how processes of change work. An on-going research project between our university and several partners in India has taken up this challenge for the changes in rice cultivation induced by SRI. Changes in rice cultivation taken up by farmers are not about rejecting or accepting an innovation. Nor is the politics of rice about meetings and consultation processes on what methods or varieties farmers want. Understanding science, technology and democracy in rice cultivation is about understanding the very changes in the techniques and derived insights from farm-based experimental practices as employed by the farmers.

Recommended reading
Berkhout, E. and D. Glover. 2011. The evolution of the System of Rice Intensification as a sociotechnical phenomenon: A report to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Wageningen, the Netherlands: Wageningen University and Research Centre.
Chataway,, J., H. Maat and L. Waldman (eds.). 2007. Understanding participation through science and technology. IDS Bulletin 38(5). Brighton: IDS.
Edgerton, D. 2006. The shock of the old; Technology and global history since 1900. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Paddy production: Bihar panchayat breaks China’s record

http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/industry-and-economy/agri-biz/article3016481.ece

NEW DELHI, MAR 20:

A gram panchayat in Nalanda district of Bihar has surpassed the Chinese record of paddy production, the Union Agriculture Minister Mr Sharad Pawar informed Parliament today.

“As per the reports received from the state government, the yield of wet paddy has been recorded at 22.4 tonnes per hectare and that of dry paddy at 20.16 tonnes a hectare in the district of Nalanda, Bihar…,” Mr Pawar said in a written reply to Lok Sabha.

The record yield was achieved under demonstration on System of Rice Intensification (SRI) which was organised at farmer’s field during kharif 2011, he added.

“It has surpassed the yield of 19 tonnes per hectare which was recorded earlier in China,” Mr Pawar said.

This rare feat has been achieved by Darbespura panchayat in Katri Sarai block of Nalanda, which is also native district of the Chief Minister Mr Nitish Kumar.

India is estimated to have produced a record 102.75 million tonnes of rice in the 2011-12 crop year (July-June).

On incentives provided to increase paddy output, Mr Pawar said the government has been providing financial assistance of Rs 3,000 for organising demonstration of 0.4 hectare each on SRI under National Food Security Mission-Rice (NFSM-Rice) in identified districts of 16 states.

The states included Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Gujarat, Jammu & Kashmir, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh and others.

Similarly, under the sub-scheme “Bringing Green Revolution in Eastern India” of Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojna (RKVY), rice crop promotion programmes including SRI are being extended to farmers in the seven states namely Assam, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Odisha, Eastern Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal.

Cimate-smart agriculture can diminish planthopper outbreaks, but a number of bad habits are counterproductive

http://ricehoppers.net/2012/02/cimate-smart-agriculture-can-diminish-planthopper-outbreaks-but-a-number-of-bad-habits-are-counterproductive/

by MONI on FEBRUARY 29, 2012

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C. (Kees) J. Stigter, Agromet Vision, Bondowoso/Depok, Indonesia

The fluctuation in areas infested by BPH in Indonesia from 1991—2010. Source: E. Budiyanto, Directorate of Plant Protection, the Ministry of Agriculture presented at a meeting on “Food Crop Protection Policy in 2011” in Pontianak on 9 October 2011.

Planthopper fluctuation in Indonesia between 1991 and 2010 that Mr. Budyanto presented (Graph 1) showed that the peaks of the two most serious outbreaks were related with the occurrence of La Ni?a.  The graph shows the peaks of BPH outbreaks in 1998, 2005, and 2010 with its highest damages of up to 140,000 ha.  Damage was close to 120,000 ha in 1998.

From the Climate Charts posted by Kelly O’Day on January 25, 2011 (Graph 2), the 2010—2011 cycle seems to be following a similar path to four previous cycles shown in the chart: 1970—1971; 1973—1974; 1983—1984; and 1998—1999. The current La Ni?a is close to the La Ni?a lows in 1998—99 and 1973—74. The year of 1998—99 mentioned by Budiyanto also had high BPH outbreaks similar to those in 2010—2011.

 

Source: http://chartsgraphs.wordpress.com/2011/01/25/comparison-of-2011-11-el-nino-la-nina-cycle-with-previous-cycles/

Microclimatic factors

Climate parameters such as temperature, rainfall and relative humidity routinely observed have been used for analyses to relate climatic factors with BPH in rice fields. However BPH inhabit at the base of rice plants and thus live in a microenvironment of the crop canopy. Rainfall may affect ambient relative humidity but the close distances between hills are important for survival and growth of the nymphs.

Crops planted using SRI (System of Rice Intensification) tend to have wider between hill distances and may favor BPH development less. Similarly the temperatures experienced by hoppers in their habitat may also be affected. Higher temperatures promoted by dense canopies may shorten BPH generation times. “Smart” microclimate manipulations can thus help to reduce population growth.

The existing literature shows that rainfall, temperature and relative humidity are positively related to BPH outbreaks when they are high. Only statistical relationships between climate and BPH outbreaks are available, whereas the cause and effect connections of these relationships are little known. However in different seasons (rainy and dry seasons), our analyses reveal that the continuous rain periods throughout the 2009/2010 rainy season and the 2010 dry season in Java had greater impact on BPH outbreaks across diverse regencies, but also in adjacent fields in the same regency.

In the low flat areas with abundant water, the heavy continuous rainfall of the La Ni?a of 2010/2011 seems to lead to high relative humidities in densely planted fields, making them conducive for BPH. In rainfed areas however, the conditions were different as water shortage would reduce the relative humidity. In the La Ni?a of 2010/2011, farmers in rainfed areas would thus have higher benefits from rice planting in the dry season. Organizing water conditions in the fields “smartly” can therefore play a significant role in  BPH management.

 Climate is not the only factor

Climate elements are not the sole factors affecting the microenvironment of rice fields that favor outbreaks of a pest like BPH. Water management by farmers and the state is one example of human activities which play a role in increasing or reducing the relative humidity under the condition of water availability in particular places. Using SRI is another example.

In addition other crop management practices also play vital roles. Among the “not so smart” practices are :

1) using highly susceptible varieties and plant rice continuously;

2) using hybrid varieties with narrow gene base and high susceptibility to pests and diseases;

3) asynchronous cropping which provides the constant availability of food for the pest;

4) misuse and overuse of fertilizers and insecticides that can lead to more serious outbreaks by increasing BPH fitness and reducing biological control ecosystem services.

In summary, the rice ecosystem sustainability is under jeopardy. The increasing vulnerability to BPH outbreaks is a crucial factor. Examining the origin of the recent outbreaks and the contributing factors in different places in Java can help us better understand the mechanisms. Since these outbreaks happened 25 years after the 1985-1986 severe infestation, it is interesting to know the similarities and differences between the two BPH resurgences. The same applies to the 1998/1999 observed BPH outbreaks. In particular the fourth factor above, i.e. pesticide and fertilizer misuse and overuse very often may be a triggering cause of the BPH epidemics.

NREGA to Agriculture (for SRI now)

Read below three articles published, The new guidelines primarily aim at resolving the conflict that had emerged between NREGA and the farm sector by offering workers under the scheme to paddy cultivators under the System of Rice Intensification or SRI (a low-water cultivation technique being popularised in many states).Each small and medium SRI farmer will be eligible for eight person-days of work per acre for one-time transplantation, two person-days of work per acre for weeding at 10 to 15 days after transplantation and two person-days of work per acre for weeding at 20 to 30 days after transplantation, the new guidelines say.

* NREGA 2 aimed at bolstering UPA
Hindustan Times, 22 February 2012, http://www.hindustantimes.com/India-news/NewDelhi/NREGA-2-aimed-at-bolstering-UPA-2/Article1-815496.aspx

* States’ grants tied to wage payment
Business Standard, February 23, 2012, http://www.business-standard.com/india/news/states-grants-tied-to-wage-payment/465547/

* Expanded National Rural Employment Guarantee Act to arrest fall in appeal
Economic Times, 23 February 2012, http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/economy/policy/expanded-national-rural-employment-guarantee-scheme-to-arrest-fall-in-appeal/articleshow/11998606.cms

Estimation of Efficiency, Sustainability and Constraints in SRI (System of Rice Intensification) vis-a-vis Traditional Methods of Paddy Cultivation in North Coastal Zone of Andhra Pradesh

Rao I.V.Y. Rama,
Cost of Cultivation Scheme, Regional Agricultural Research Station, Anakapalle, Visakhapatnam-531 001, Andhra Pradesh
Published on 14 November, 2011
Abstract
The study has assessed the economics and sustainability of SRI (system of rice intensification) and traditional methods of paddy cultivation in North Coastal Zone of Andhra Pradesh for the period 2008–09, based on the data of costs and returns of crop. Apart from budgeting techniques, benefit-cost ratio (BCR), yield gap analysis, sustainability index and response priority index have been employed in the study. It has shown that BCR is higher for SRI (1.76) than traditional (1.25) methods. Further, there is a 31 per cent yield gap between SRI and traditional methods, in which cultural practices (20.15%) have shown a stronger effect than input use (10.85%). The most important constraint in SRI cultivation has been identified as ‘nursery management’. The SRI method being more skill oriented, the study has observed that yields can be made sustainable if constraints are addressed on war-footing basis.

Organic rice cultivation transforming lives of Damoh farmers


The longer organic variety of rice versus HYV variety. Photo: Mahim Pratap Singh
The HinduThe longer organic variety of rice versus HYV variety. Photo: Mahim Pratap Singh

Till last year, Shiv Singh, a landless labourer from the Pinarayi village of Damoh district knew of only one survival strategy-migrating to Delhi to earn his living as a construction worker.

This year, with the Rs. 8,000 he had saved from his Delhi earnings, Shiv took a 3-acre piece of land on lease and grew rice on it. The harvest in September fetched him Rs.55,000 besides enough rice for his family to last for a year.

But, unlike most success stories, his is not an isolated case.

Several villages of Damoh, which was last in news for being the hub of farmer suicides earlier this year, are witnessing a small, quiet, yet successful green revolution-of the organic kind.

Farming has not been a successful proposition in this very backward district of the parched Bundelkhand region of Madhya Pradesh since the late 1980s due to a rapidly receding water table and scarce rainfall.

Last December and this January, Damoh witnessed the first of the several farmer suicides across Madhya Pradesh when large tracts of pulses crop perished owing to frost bite.

But over the last year and a half, over 1200 farmers of 32 villages of the Tendukheda block of Damoh, have taken to farming rice organically. Most of them are small and marginal farmers; some, like Shiv Singh, are even landless labourers.

Helped by Gramin Vikas Samiti, a local pro-organic farming organization, and People’s Science Institute, a Dehradun based non-profit, these farmers together cultivated rice on a total of over 1500 acres.

The trend started with just four farmers of Beldhana village and has now spread to other villages like Ajitpur, Hardua, Harrai etc.

The farmers in these villages shunned the High Yielding Varieties and the “progressive”, high-input, fertilizer-pesticide dominated farming practices often advocated by the government and took to completely traditional methods along with a set of cultivation practices collectively called System of Rice Intensification (SRI), initially developed in the early 1980s by a French priest in Madagascar.

The results have been more than encouraging.

While the average rice yield in Bundelkhand is around 17-20 quintal/hectare, these villages recorded average yields of at least 75-80 quintal per hectare this season. While the lowest yield in these 32 villages was 44 quintals/hectare, the maximum yield stood at 115 quintals/hectare.

Even agriculture scientists, who usually advocate modern and scientific farming over traditional practices, agree.

“These are miraculous results, considering the low rice productivity found in most of Madhya Pradesh and the extremely low productivity found in Bundelkhand,” says Dr. Sanjay Vaishyampayan, Senior Scientist, Krishi Vigyan Kendra, Damoh, which comes under the Jawaharlal Nehru Agriculture University, Jabalpur.

“Moreover, these farmers used very less seed, 2.5 kg/acre compared to 40kg/acre required in non-traditional methods. They also saved on pesticide and fertilizer costs as they only used organic manure,” says Dr. Sanjay.

The farmers used traditional varieties of rice like Lochai, Ganjakali, Kesar etc which they found in the neighbourhood homes of Gond adivasis.

Along with that, they used organic manure prepared from household ingredients like cow dung and urine, lemon juice, banana pulp, milk and curd etc which were all mixed together in specific quantities and kept under a lid in an earthen pot (matka) for about 15 days.

“Earlier, most farmers of our village were hesitant so we used these techniques on a small part of our lands. Last year I cultivated half an acre. After seeing the good yield, I have brought two acres under this system,” says Moolchand of Ajitpur village, who owns four acres.

The plant thus grown is 6 feet long compared to the 3.5 feet long HYV variety and has over 300 grains compared to about 100 grains in the latter.

“This is entirely the result of the hard work of these farmers, we only suugested them to take to organic farming and use other SRI which involves planting less seeds, planting them in rows spaced 10 inches from each other and using organic manure,” says Govind Yadav of Gramin Vikas Samiti.

The new methods have also made lives simpler for women, who used to toil hard, standing for hours in ankle-deep water taking out the weed. That task (taking out the weed) is now done by the menfolk with the help of a locally made de-weeder, which costs about Rs.1000.

The farmers don’t want to form a cooperative yet, but they are seriously thinking about setting up a seed bank of traditional varieties, “which are so hard to find these days”.

The little success story of these farmers is like a ray of hope in Madhya Pradesh where rice productivity is far from satisfactory, especially since the high-productivity areas split to form Chhattisgarh.

Weed Management in Paddy

The war on weeds

The war on weeds.jpgThe war on weeds_1.jpg

In his search for a solution to the problem of weeds that limit African rice production, Jonne Rodenburg works at many levels, from genetic research to production systems. One of his findings is that farmers’ practices and considerations must be included in crop and weed management strategies. There is no silver bullet or one-size-fits-all solution.

In his many publications, Jonne Rodenburg has presented some frightening statistics. For example those on the losses in African rice due to uncontrolled weeds. In lowland areas, as much as 28%–74% of the rice crop may be lost, while in upland systems the losses can be 48%–100%! Weeds represent a huge threat to food security in Africa, and indeed worldwide. One of the major culprits is the parasitic weed Striga hermonthica, also known as witchweed, an attractive plant with bright pink-purple flowers. ‘You could almost grow it as a houseplant,’ Rodenburg says.

As urbanization is changing the patterns of nutrition across Africa, rice is rapidly becoming one of the most important staple crops across the continent. More and more people are migrating from the countryside to the cities, where it is not practical to consume traditional staple crops, like sorghum, because the preparation time is too long. Rice is far more suitable for consumption in the cities. This means that there is tremendous pressure to increase the production of rice. Already about half of the rice consumed in Africa is imported. It is essential that production increases in the next decades.

In Africa there is still enough land that can be turned to agricultural use. New land is being used for rice production, for instance in inland valleys where seasonal floods mean that rice is the only crop that can be grown. But land that was previously used for maize and sorghum production is also increasingly being used to grow rice. These new environments are the habitats of parasitic weeds. One could say that rice is encroaching on the territory of weeds like Striga hermonthica and Striga asiatica in upland areas (rain-fed dry land rice), and of another killer weed known as Rhamphicarpa fistulosa in inland valleys (rain-fed lowland rice).

Know your enemy

Jonne Rodenburg received his PhD in 2005 for a WOTRO-financed study of resistance and tolerance against Striga in sorghum. At the Africa Rice Center, he is facing his old adversary once again. In all wars it is vital to know your enemy, and this is particularly true in the war against weeds. ‘We are studying different kinds of weed. We want to understand their biology and their ecology. In the knowledge of how these plants live, reproduce and compete with rice lie the keys to effective weed management strategies.’ While much of the research is done at the Center’s laboratories and fields in Africa, Rodenburg and his team commission more sophisticated research, at the cell and even gene level, for example, to his alma mater Wageningen University in the Netherlands, and the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom.

Crops can fight parasitic weeds in two ways: resistance and tolerance. Resistance refers to the abilities of the host plant to keep parasites at arm’s length. Tolerance is the ability of plants to cope with certain parasites. Considerable attention has been given to increasing resistance, Rodenburg says, but less so to tolerance. Rodenburg and his team are looking at ways to integrate both mechanisms. ‘Resistance to certain parasitic weeds is usually temporary, and after some time resistance will inevitably break down. Unfortunately, tolerance enables the parasitic weed to grow and reproduce, but also lowers crop production losses due to infection. Combining both mechanisms, reducing infection through resistance and reducing the negative effects of infection through tolerance, would result in the most stable defence.’

In the war on weeds, the stakes are high. Rice is an important element in global food security. It is the only staple food that can be produced in wet and dry conditions. In Africa, rice is grown in irrigated and rain-fed lowlands as well as in rain-fed upland areas, and the potential for increased production is huge. No wonder that Chinese and Korean companies are currently buying huge stretches of land for rice production.
Adaptation

At the Africa Rice Center in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, Rodenburg and his team are screening a large number of rice varieties to determine their ability to fight different kinds of weeds (normal weeds as well as parasitic ones). ‘We have come a long way in this process’, says Rodenburg. ‘On the basis of our findings we can advise farmers on what varieties to use in certain conditions.’ But knowledge of rice varieties and their interactions with different kinds of weeds is not static. Faced with changing climatic conditions, farmers constantly have to adapt their way of producing. More rain, less rain, higher temperatures, higher levels of CO2 – all of these factors will affect the ways that crops and weeds interact. Farmers can never take things for granted.
Rodenburg and his team recently discovered that Striga seems to be able to adapt to rice varieties – clearly it is smart as well as deadly. ‘It appeared that many of the newly introduced varieties were resistant to the Striga we found in some rice fields, whereas the local varieties that had been grown for over 30 years in these Striga-infested fields were devastated by this parasite. This is only explicable if this particular Striga ecotype has adapted to the local rice variety.’ This is pretty exciting stuff, Rodenburg explains enthusiastically. ‘We will certainly explore this further. How long does it take for Striga to adapt to new cultivars? How does the process of overcoming resistance take place? The answers we find could very well contribute to more sustainable solutions to help farmers in Africa fight these noxious parasites.’

The Africa Rice Center aims to assist small-scale farmers, and this poses several other challenges. ‘There are many ways to fight weeds. For farmers with resources at their disposal, weeds don’t have to be a major problem. But it is different for resource-poor African farmers. These people are often illiterate, have few financial resources, live in remote areas and are often difficult to reach by extension and crop protection services. Fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides are usually not available to them, and even if they are, farmers don’t know how to use them. Using too much or too little herbicide, or in the wrong phase of the production cycle, will have adverse effects.

The results of Rodenburg’s research and that of his colleagues are now being used by an outreach programme organized by the Center. Through radio broadcasts and farmer instruction videos in local languages, farmers throughout Africa can learn about weeds and weed management and practical ways to implement the findings.

Practical solutions

In a recent study, one of Rodenburg’s PhD students examined the controversial System of Rice Intensification (SRI). This alternative, but rather rigid method of rice cultivation, involving the use of greater distances between plants and intermittent irrigation, was developed in Madagascar more than 40 years ago, but recently SRI has found new supporters in Asia and elsewhere who claim that SRI results in higher yields with lower water inputs. Although there is scant scientific evidence to support these claims, which in turn causes widespread controversy, Rodenburg is reluctant to discard any opportunity to address the challenge of augmenting rice production in Africa.

Rodenburg’s work with his PhD student involved testing four rice production practices simultaneously with farmers on their own farms under similar conditions. The first system involved the methods used by farmers (‘farmer practice’). The second used best management practice, whereby the farmers applied the most recent management recommendations. The third was SRI, and the fourth was a mix whereby farmers were free to choose from the techniques used in the other three systems. The results were striking, Rodenburg says. The ‘farmer practice’ yielded the lowest production, but the other three scored about the same.

That the labour-intensive SRI could yield about the same as the input-intensive best management practice was to be expected. The surprise was that when farmers were able to make use of modern techniques, and combine and adapt them following their own considerations and experiences, their production levels remained high but with fewer (water and herbicide) inputs and less labour, thus creating a superior management system. ‘Even the farmers themselves were surprised that without much extra labour and expensive inputs compared to their own usual practice, they were able to get much higher rice yields from their land.’ For Rodenburg this was further evidence that the development of effective strategies for marginal farmers in Africa – or anywhere else – must involve the farmers themselves. The results of this study have been submitted for publication in Agricultural Systems, a leading agricultural journal.

Some of the team’s research results are promising and at times even exciting, but silver bullets and one-size-fits-all solutions don’t exist, Rodenburg says. ‘There is enormous pressure from the outside world to come up with such solutions. I try not to give in. Flexibility is vital. We shouldn’t put all our money on just one solution, and at the same time, in the search for global food security we don’t have the luxury of being able to exclude any technology beforehand.’ The approach adopted by Rodenburg and the Africa Rice Center is to reach out to farmers, provide them with new potential technologies and management strategies and to encourage farmers to experiment with them. ‘Especially in view of climate change, it is important that farmers keep all their options open and are able to adapt quickly to new circumstances.’