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Seeking ‘Life’ within Life and Opening Up To Various Possibilities And Dimensions of the very Nature of Human Existence

Abha Mishra
Asian Institute of Technology

When invited to write about my engagement with System of Rice Intensification (SRI), I happened to have been thinking about what it was about SRI that first intrigued me. Apart from the challenge and opportunity of its agronomic management practices and the purportedly ‘miraculous’ performances reported and debated widely in the last 15 years, for me the most engaging aspect of SRI was the often-repeated qualification that “it’s a work in progress.”

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Going back to childhood memories, to when I was in middle school in grade 8, I remember being asked by my teacher, "What do you want to become in life?" I remember having written in response, "I want to experience all the colors of life". My teacher was not expecting this answer, so he asked: “How would you do that?” I didn’t have an answer, but I said that I would accept whatever came to me and would never cease to explore the various possibilities that might be offered in the process of exploring to see all the different colors of life.

This was an ‘abstract’ answer for many, and partly for me as well. I said those words without understanding them to the hilt (and frankly, I still don’t understand them fully). But that basic framework of my mind was shaped up by my father. He was a senior officer, Chief of Operations, in the Bihar State Road Transport Corporation. He was a highly-committed and well-respected person in society. But I never saw him enjoying his social position. Instead, I saw him practicing attachment when he was doing office work and then detachment when he was at home. He was a spiritual seeker, a very good listener, and a person who could heal anybody. As a kind of hobby, he was engaged in homeopathy, mostly on the psychosomatic study, and used to give his services free of cost to anyone.

“What you think is what you become” he always used to tell me. The mind has infinite capacity and therefore, keep yourself open to explore the various possibilities with positivity, to evolve and learn the fundamentals of human existence because you are on a higher stage of the ladder of evolution compared to other creatures of the universe.

This ‘positivity’ was a mystery to me, as it has different meanings in different contexts. He said, "The positivity in your context means it should make you happy and keep your surroundings happy. Never pollute your mind and your ‘environment’ through your action. Because you do not exist, you co-exist. Be good to yourself and be good to others."

Over the years when I was in school and later in college, these very basic precepts that I had received from my father were existing within me as a theory, something that you have in your heart or mind but don't always know how to apply. Although I realized that having this theory in mind had made me start to be curious about things that were beyond classical, rational explanation. The analytical mind was co-existing there too, and it was further developed as I studied science, but in parallel there was a ‘seeker’ in me, willing to explore things that were apparently beyond explanation, at least for now.

I got the opportunity to do agricultural research for the first time when I was doing my master’s degree in Plant Breeding and Genetics at the Rajendra Agricultural University, Pusa, India in 1998-99. The jump from studying science to ‘doing’ science in a real field situation was exciting. As a part of the thesis research work, I was involved in the All-India Coordinated Rice Research project of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) on boro (winter-season) rice.

The Bihar state government was exploring various possibilities to increase rice yield. Boro rice was claimed to give higher yields, 6 to 7 t/ha, than kharif (rainy-season) rice crop. The objective for my thesis was to identify suitable genotypes for boro rice cultivation in Bihar. The findings of the study were good and promising in terms of identifying suitable genotypes for higher yields in the state. The research was well received at the university department level because it had good statistical analysis backed up with concise scientific explanations.

Seeing success at the university farm level, since I was able to explain things scientifically, I was invited to give a speech and to speak on various radio programs to promote boro rice cultivation in Bihar. I was then asked to visit the Krishi Vikas Kendra (the agriculture resource center at the district level) to further promote these findings at the farmer level. When I went there and discussed my research with farmers, they asked me what was the frequency of irrigation in my research plots. I calmly said that it was 24-25 times. They smiled and said, "We cannot do that because we don’t have any irrigation facility."

This was a feeling that registered with me for the first time:  I was doing research knowing the ‘why’ without giving proper thought to ‘for whom’ and ‘how.’ This realization made me a bit shaky about my own research findings and rendered me more tentative in my approach and thinking. Eventually, whenever I was visiting and speaking with farming communities, I learned to be cautious, realizing that I knew very little about their resources and about the actual conditions that they operate in.

In 2002 November, I moved from India to Thailand, along with my two daughters, one 6 years and the other 6 months old, to rejoin my husband, Dr. Prabhat, who was doing his Ph.D. degree in horticulture. Although enrolled for the degree at Hannover University in Germany, his work was based at the Asian Institute of Technology (AIT) outside Bangkok. AIT and Hannover University had a bilateral project on protected cultivation, specifically on the protected cultivation of tomatoes.

Dr. Prabhat was working on the control of whitefly. I was entering a new phase of learning. In India, I had a family support system to take care of our two girls, but in Thailand, I had to manage everything by myself. I was trying to define myself as a wife and a mother, and trying to be perfect with my duties while learning the ropes. Dr. Prabhat, who had been my senior in the agriculture college where we both did our bachelor’s degrees, was witnessing and experiencing these new dimensions in me. I was becoming more confined with my duties; somewhere, fixation was taking place in me, the so-called ‘personality’ with fixed roles and responsibilities.

One day while we were sipping our cups of tea, he told me, “If you have to become water from ice, what do you need? You are not meant to define yourself by given responsibilities, as you are more than that. Be conscious and be aware of yourself, and create a definition of yourself that goes beyond defining you. I am always with you and for you." His inspiring and caring words made me fearless, fueled me with the energy that I wanted to have to get into and fulfill the multiple roles in my life.

His support gave me insight into the sub-conscious quest that I was looking to explore the ‘why,’ ‘for whom,’ and ‘how’ in my research, all as a totality. He was my second guru after my father. So, I started exploring opportunities for further learning. I got a PhD scholarship and research support to work in the National Wine and Grape Industry Centre at the Charles Stuart University (CSU) in Australia. It was a difficult decision, however. The kids were now staying in India with our family, and I was in Australia while Kumar was in Thailand. So, it was an arrangement that I was pursuing without much enthusiasm. But then there was a reason why I was there, I realized belatedly.

Fortunately, I encountered in Australia Dr. Maxwell Whitten, former team leader and senior advisor for the UN FAO’S Vegetable Regional IPM Programme, who happened to have been the first supervisor for Prabhat Kumar when he joined the FAO after getting his master’s degree and was working for the Vegetable IPM Programme as a regional consultant for several years before starting his PhD studies.

As Dr. Max’s daughter was studying at Charles Stuart University and was graduating that year in 2004, Max came to CSU to join in the graduation ceremony of his daughter and came to see me as well. He was carrying a couple of articles on SRI with him, articles written on the SRI controversy (the Nature article “Feast or Famine…”; Thomas Sinclair’s article on “…Unidentified UFOs…”; the Stoop et al. article in Agricultural Systems trying to provide a scientific base for the empirical evidence of SRI), and also a few SRI field visit reports that had been prepared for the FAO IPM Programme.

Max shared with me his experience from the field and handed over all the articles and reports. This was the first theoretical acquaintance I had with SRI. Going through all the articles and reading the definition of SRI, I got it immediately that there is an immense opportunity here to explore and to expand upon the incomplete learning that I had from the boro rice research experience back in India.

What I liked the most was that the boundaries of science were respected as much as possible, but also challenged. Learning from farmers was appreciated even if this learning went beyond scientific explanations. The ‘how’ and ‘for whom’ was given the driver’s seat in SRI promotion, and therefore I decided to explore SRI.

Fortunately, I was able to get an Institute fellowship at AIT for PhD study, and hence I resigned from the program in Australia and came back to Thailand. This was a good arrangement for me because our daughters could join us in Thailand, and I was able to fulfill my responsibilities as a mother. I was interested to do my PhD on SRI, but due to a lack of published scientific research articles on SRI at that time, my PhD advisory committee was not accepting of this proposal. This prompted me to review the rice research articles, all the old and new ones available at that time.

This led to the preparation of a review article and to the crystallization of my hypothesis: why SRI practices give higher yields. This scientific review article, co-authored with Max Whitten, my AIT advisor V.M. Salokhe, and Jan Ketelaar, chief technical advisor of the FAO Regional IPM Programme at that time, was published in 2006 in International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability, explaining the science accounting for the physiological processes that produced more productive SRI plants. The article also provided some insights for linking science with society, and giving farmers a driver's seat for the development of location-specific practices.

This article gave some insights on the ‘how’ and ‘for whom’ parts of the research, although these were still incomplete. The article paved the way for me to pursue research on SRI as the thesis part of my PhD work. I subsequently received a grant from the Asia Rice Foundation based in the US to work on the agronomy of SRI in a controlled environment (with greenhouse experiments), and I also got an opportunity to get engaged in the FAO IPM Programme-led pilot initiative on SRI evaluation and adaptation on farmers’ fields in Cambodia. The SRI initiative was being implemented by the National IPM Programme of the Cambodian Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries, and Forestry (MAFF), and Jan Ketelaar was leading that initiative from the FAO side.

By that time, I was introduced to Prof. Norman Uphoff, who appreciated and gave feedback on our SRI review article. We began exchanging emails regularly and discussing our views on SRI. What I liked in his writing and response that he was quite open in his approach, very positive, constructive, and flexible enough to welcome any new ideas. Embracing pluralism and philosophy of co-existence was ingrained in his writing, and so I felt that I was on the right track.

When he was visiting Cambodia for a seminar/workshop in 2005, he suggested that we could meet in Cambodia. I remember how Jan, who had become an external advisor for my PhD thesis committee at AIT, had given me a book authored by Norman -- Learning from Gal Oya: Possibilities for Participatory Development and Post-Newtonian Social Science. The first page of that book had a quote from George Bernard Shaw: “You see things, and you say ‘Why?’ But I dreamt of things that never were, and I say ‘Why not?’”  These were the most fascinating lines I had ever read.

The book related his experiences helping to improve the management of an irrigation project in Sri Lanka, turning conflictual situations into mutually-beneficial collective action involving water users and other stakeholders through participatory processes. I spent a couple of days with him in Cambodia, attended his seminar on empowerment, and learned his views on human development, the intellectual and social aspects of the development, and the contribution of knowledge and learning in achieving them.

What I felt after listening to his talks was that these aspects were ingrained in the definition and promotion of SRI, although poorly understood, explored, and addressed, especially in the scientific domain and even in the development fields. Often there was a tendency to put SRI in a priori defined terms. This is to some extent needed to start the journey from what is known to what is unknown, but it is not the way to conduct the whole exploration.

I always felt that some openness of thinking and definition was how to explore unknown regions, to fuel innovation, and to bring in new knowledge and enhance skills among practitioners. This is what I understood at that time and wanted to explore. Although it was not easy to start a journey with terms somewhat loosely defined, there is no point of walking along a strictly- or narrowly-defined path if you are a seeker and in exploration mode.

I remember the very first field experience with farmers doing SRI in Cambodia. The field experiments were set up at the Porlos Rice Research Station in Prey Veng Province, involving farmers from three neighboring districts, also government trainers, officials, and FAO country colleagues. The experiment was comparing the effects of conventional practices and SRI practices. With what I had put forward in the review article, I designed and set up the field trials in the same way.

The fields were taken care of by the Porlos research station staff, and I used to visit once in a month from Thailand. We (farmers, trainers, and all staff) used to meet once in a month to observe the fields, collect data, discuss the data, and set up a few mini-experiments in parallel, if need be, to explore some new dimensions such as learning more about rice roots, ‘the hidden half’ in the SRI and conventional fields.

One morning, I received an email from our focal point of contact in Cambodia, Mr. Kong Kea, at the that time coordinator of the National IPM Programme, and now Deputy Director-General of the Rice Department in the General Directorate of Agriculture for Cambodia. He emailed that the field experiments had been attacked by brown plant hoppers (BPH), and we had lost everything.

Since this was the part of my PhD study, I was very upset after hearing this news. I discussed this with my PhD advisor. He was also unhappy, and so was Jan. We decided to visit Cambodia the same week to get an idea of the situation. When we reached there and observed the fields, we were surprised to see the striking difference between the SRI plots and the conventional plots.

The conventional plots had been heavily attacked by the BPH pests, whereas the SRI plots and plants were standing healthy (see pictures below). This was a kind of validation of the scientific explanation of ‘why SRI’ and ‘how SRI.’ SRI principles made sense: transplanting younger, healthy seedlings with wider spacing, giving individual plants enough space and resources to realize their maximum potential; keeping the soil intermittently wetted and dried but never inundated, to benefit the plants’ roots and rhizospheres; applying compost as much as possible to nurture the soil’s biological, physical and chemical properties so that a mutually-beneficial relationship between plants and microbes is established. This was all about co-existing with surroundings, with mutualism as the key.

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In the following season, Kong Kea who had initially rejected SRI ideas set up another SRI experiment and got positive results. He was now quite supportive of SRI, and later when an SRI Secretariat was established within the Agriculture Ministry in Cambodia, he became the coordinator of the secretariat. I was happy to see this development, but the questions remained: Can we replicate the same practices in all fields? Can all farmers take up SRI? And if they do, what would they get at the end of the day? As an agronomist I was happy; the science for SRI was explainable, and SRI effects were visible. But as a seeker, I was not yet satisfied.

Later the same year, when farmers were setting up SRI experiments in their fields, I was visiting their fields and providing them technical support, but also learning a lot from them. Farmers of Cambodia are very poor. We were working with farmers having less than 2 ha lands, smallholders. At the farmer’s fields, I used to get a warm reception, mostly from women farmers, who were residing in the village with their kids and old-aged members, most of their male counterparts now working in cities. I remember their smiles, their courteous behavior, their extending support to make my stay comfortable, all this done affectionately and confidently. I have many good memories from those field experiences, but I remember one which compelled me to think differently.

One day at one farmer’s house, we were in the middle of discussions. It was lunchtime, and there was no restaurant nearby. The woman farmer offered us to have lunch at her home. We agreed. She offered us rice and roasted chicken (from her poultry that she had in her backyard) and some homemade sauce. We were four members. I asked her to join the lunch with her three kids who were also hungry. But she replied that she would eat later with her kids once we had finished our lunch. We were not able to finish all the food that she had given us, so we left some food on the plate. I remember, she collected all the left-over food (rice and chicken) and offered it to her kids with the same grace and smile the way she had served us. After seeing this, I was thinking who is poor, is it she or me?

Her economic poverty might be a different story, maybe coming during and after the Pol Pot regime, but culturally and spiritually she was far ahead of us. I was then struggling with the definition of ‘development.’ How should it be defined? Is there any consideration of the human dimension in our thoughts and consciousness when we debate on agricultural development? The agronomy of SRI was now in the back of my mind. Anyways, farmers in Cambodia were able to adapt SRI practices to suit their conditions and achieve higher yields which reduced the constraints on their lives. (Most rice growers in Cambodia have rainfed fields, lacking irrigation facilities.)

Later, we extended similar kinds of work (but not the same) in Thailand, and we also supported some work in Vietnam, all in adapted forms and with different ways of doing SRI. This was appreciated by a few but challenged by many because they wanted the ‘personality’ of SRI to be defined universally. Our idea, however, was to support the ‘how’ and ‘for whom’ aspects of research, rather than just the ‘why.’ And the ‘how’ aspect was being shaped and reshaped by the users, by the farmers themselves.

From 2013 to 2018, we implemented an EU-funded regional program on SRI in the Lower Mekong River Basin countries (Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand), involving more than 15,000 rainfed smallholder farmers directly and another 30,000 indirectly (Chapter 8). All four countries have different food security issues, differences in their farmers' situation and status, existing/non-existing markets, and the diverse capacities to deal with the emerging and ongoing agriculture development issues and sustainable development agenda in the region.

Agricultural ministries in all four countries were involved in the implementation of the program at the country level while FAO, Oxfam America, SRI-Rice at Cornell University in the USA, and Max Whitten at the University of Queensland in Australia, joined this collaborative effort, linking stakeholders from the local to the international levels. This was tremendous work from all stakeholders.

As the project manager, I had an omnipresent tension to do justice to the existing science while addressing the location-specific development issues, and then creating plausible opportunities for stakeholders to contribute and get the benefits of SRI learning, all in a mutual learning environment.

The development institutions had their priorities; the governments had their country-specific interests; and so did the academic institutions and the organizations that were in advocacy business. All were right in their respective contexts, including the working of market forces.

I remember in 2015 being invited by FAO to be the voice for academic institutions in a regional consultation meeting on agroecology. I was asked to deliver a talk on how innovation can be fueled. I opted to talk on working with ‘outliers’ for innovation. Indeed, working with outliers is not a convention in most agricultural research, which is concerned with averages and prefers minimum deviations from the mode. But how can we push the boundaries in agriculture? Not by preoccupation with our current means. Can we create room to discuss the record yield of rice, 24t/ha, that was achieved in Bihar by a farmer in 2011? How did that happen and why? (Chapter 10).

The ASEAN Food Security Plan of Action for 2015-2020 included SRI as one of the options to benefit smallholders; but in reality, not much has been done to promote SRI knowledge and opportunities. Why? Because SRI needs to be done differently, and doing business differently is not consistent with conventional agricultural development work.

It was much easier to bring mutualism in plant-soil-water relationships through SRI principles with different degrees of success to farmers than to succeed in creating mutualism at multiple stakeholder levels where a lot of work and innovative thinking needs to be done. Space, both institutional and cultural, needs to be created for this.

Some flexibility needs to be built into the social, political and economic systems as it is built into SRI. Boundaries need to be stretched. Otherwise, there is a tendency to ‘stay close to home’ and be safe within our ‘comfort zones.’ The questions come, however: Are we really safe? Are we doing our business mindfully?? We are made up of matter and consciousness. There is a lot of work done on the matter. What exploring and re-considering of our consciousness is going on while we are doing our work?

Often, we have seen that when research articles report that it is due to beneficial interactions with microbes that SRI plants can give higher yields, there is a tendency for scientists to disregard this claim as it does not fit into their realm of ‘what we know’! But what about the catastrophe that a single-stranded RNA of the SARS-CoV-2 virus has created and threatened the whole world through antagonism? If a single-stranded genome can bring disaster to human beings, can it not happen in plants that a genome can change and enhance the photosynthetic efficiency of plants? Obviously, I am writing this memoir while the world is going through a vast lockdown period due to the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic situation.

In this lockdown period, when the same situation has been imposed upon the whole world, I am witnessing both sides of human beings. One is positive, trying to innovate, contribute and support the human existence with whatever capacities we respectively have. On the other side are those who are afraid of the situation, reacting negatively, and bringing disaster for themselves and others.

This goes back to the fundamental frameworks of our minds and consciousness. The intention, the approach, and our way of doing things can make a lot of difference. We have witnessed this and have seen the outcomes while working with SRI in different setups in many countries. Users who have taken the SRI ideas positively have invariably come up with positive results either at the field level or in their research. They have redefined the boundaries of knowledge and practice and have contributed new knowledge for enhancing our understanding. That’s a very fundamental part of human development.

No doubt, agriculture has witnessed tremendous gains in yield achievement with the currently dominant mode of input-dependent production, but at considerable cost to the environment and with economic and other costs to humans, especially farmers. The negative consequences have been widely witnessed. Even farmers and their families who are growing food are not yet food-secure, and they do not have a decent life. Therefore, many are giving up farming and are migrating to the cities for greater economic gains.

In this SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, we are witnessing that millions and millions of migrant laborers have lost their jobs and are trying to go back to their villages. No food, no shelter, and they don’t know whether they will be able to generate livelihoods in their villages. Governments are trying to provide temporary solutions, but for how long can they do this? That’s a huge question. If we take the example of India, this problem affects at least 60% of the population. This huge number can rejoin agriculture if there is efficient input use and an equitable marketing system. If their management of scarce resources is done well, as enabled by SRI thinking and practice, farmers have the capacity to turn mud into food.

What we need is to create leadership at the societal level so that efforts and thinking become society-driven, people-driven, by the people and for the people, indeed for the rest of the world. The marginalized 60% of the people in India could feed themselves nicely and the rest of the world as well if productive mutualism is created at all levels, as with SRI and its extension, the System of Crop Intensification (SCI). It has to be ecologically-driven and eco-friendly, and it needs to be economically-efficient, leading to sustainability and prosperity at all levels. SRI can be an entry point for all these developments.

Indeed, development and sustainability need to be redefined in this context. I would like to close with one of the meditative chants of India that always inspires me to see things that are beyond what I can see. Bhumi-Mangalam, Udaka-Mangalam, Agni-Mangalam, Vayu-Mangalam, Gagana-Mangalam, Surya-Mangalam, Chandra-Mangalam, Atma-Mangalam, Sarva-Mangalam-Bhavatu-Bhavatu-Bhavatu… “May there be peace in earth, water, fire, and air, the sun, moon, and planet, in all living beings, in body, mind, and heart. May that peace be everywhere and in everyone.” My quest is incomplete, but I trust that I am progressing. The learning continues.

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