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A New Farming Revolution in the Works?

A “miracle village” in India is harvesting world-record yields of potatoes and rice, and its success is drawing the attention of development experts and the scrutiny of scientists. The villagers credit a planting process called “System of Root Intensification” (SRI):

Instead of planting three-week-old rice seedlings in clumps of three or four in waterlogged fields, as rice farmers around the world traditionally do, the Darveshpura farmers carefully nurture only half as many seeds, and then transplant the young plants into fields, one by one, when much younger. Additionally, they space them at 25cm intervals in a grid pattern, keep the soil much drier and carefully weed around the plants to allow air to their roots.

Does SRI work? As usual, this will be a question for further research. The method has been criticized as labor-intensive and unscalable. So while it might work for small villages, it doesn’t fit well into an industrialized agriculture framework. Machines struggle to plant individual rice seedlings, a key step in SRI farming.

In the Guardian story quoted above, Cornell University professor Norman Uphoff, one of SRI’s biggest promoters, seems to see these limitations as benefits, not costs. Uphoff adds an anti-GMO, anti-fertilizer angle to the story, contrasting SRI favorably with the “green revolution [of the 60s] which said that you had to change the genes and the soil nutrients to improve yields.” Greens will no doubt agree with this take, but we think this is misguided. This does not have to be an either/or choice; it should be both/and. Farmers should be free to use the methods that work best in their particular circumstances.

This story is also further evidence that Malthusianism is nonsense. Human ingenuity keeps finding new methods in agriculture and other fields of endeavor. There are no signs that this process is nearing an end.

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