Nepali Times
Growing much more rice


NICE RICE: Farmers transplant rice seedlings in a paddy field in Morang earlier this year using the improved method that could double their harvests while using less seed and water.
Nepal's food shortage is now approaching crisis proportions. Increasing population density, stagnant or falling productivity and fragmentation of land-holdings mean the gap between demand and supply of food grains is growing.

More than half the country's 75 districts now have moderate to acute food shortages, and the government is spending precious resources to fly grain to remote airfields. Malnutrition is now a national calamity as fewer people can afford to buy food.

Rice is grown on 1.5 million hectares across Nepal, and even though much of this is irrigated, rice production has not been able to exceed 4.2 million tons. Nepal's rice productivity of 2.6 tons per hectare is the lowest in South Asia.

Because we have been so spectacularly unsuccessful in raising paddy productivity, we are spending an average of Rs 5 billion to import 500,000 tons of rice a year. Because of the rise in grain prices worldwide, we will spend more this year.

But there is now good news. For the past five years, we have been testing a new way of cultivating rice that nearly doubles harvests but uses 40 percent less seed and needs much less water to flood the fields. This method also uses less fertiliser, pesticides and improved seeds.

It sounds like science fiction, but it is true. Field trials in Morang and 24 sites across the country have shown that the new method could be the miracle that we've been waiting for to boost agriculture production in this country.

Called System of Rice Intensification (SRI), the method was developed by a Jesuit priest in Madagascar in 1983. Since then, it has been adopted nationally by India and China, and has boosted rice yields in major producer nations like Cambodia, Vietnam and Indonesia.

Another farmer tests a new Nepali-made weeder.
Farmers using the SRI method grow normal mansuli rice seedlings. Instead of waiting six weeks as with normal rice, seedlings are transplanted at two weeks. The field doesn't have to be flooded. In fact it needs to be drained of excess water. The seeds are planted further apart so that while a normal paddy field needs 50 kg of seed per hectare, the new method uses less than 10 kg.

The only catch is that since flooded fields control weeds in normal paddy fields, SRI fields need to be regularly weeded.

SRI also demands skilful farming and good preparation, conscientious planting, good timing and careful drainage.

But the benefits far outweigh these obstacles and farmers who have adopted SRI can't imagine going back to the traditional method. When one farmer tries it, others want to learn the method too, and the practice is spreading.

Pilot projects in Nepal have shown that SRI could easily increase our rice harvest to as much as six tons per hectare. Despite this, there is no political will and an apparent reluctance to push SRI as a national campaign. If the government gave SRI priority and coordinated the various ministries and departments to push the method, Nepal could easily become self-sufficient in rice.

So far, the Poverty Reduction Fund, DFID, Surya Nepal, ICIMOD and Care Nepal have been promoting SRI in pilot schemes in various parts of the country. Much more needs to be done to replicate this on a national scale.

Rajendra Uprety is an SRI pioneer and works at the District Development Office in Morang

See also:
'The miracle is, it's no miracle', Nepali Times #256

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)