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The quest to establish a scientific understanding of SRI’s methods and their effects began with Joeli Barison’s baccalaureate thesis research in Madagascar in 1998, reported in Chapter 3. Much more is now known through the scientific endeavors of dozens of persons whose contributions are reviewed in Chapters 7, 8 and 9, and hundreds more have contributed to an extensive literature on SRI, with more than 1,300 journal articles, theses and reports in 2021.[1]

That there was not more research on SRI sooner is attributable at least in part to the initial dismissal of SRI by some established rice scientists. The first published response to SRI from the International Rice Research Institute began with an assertion that SRI should not even be investigated.[2] Why not? Because three key elements of the SRI strategy “run directly counter to well-established principles of high crop growth. These principles were developed over many years of careful testing and scrutiny by scientists worldwide, and they have stood the test of time.” However, it was soon shown by published research that two of these “well-established principles” put forward to justify not even discussing SRI were empirically discredited, while the third ‘principle’ cited was not really relevant.

“First, SRI uses very low plant densities,” the rebuttal from IRRI stated correctly. “Energy for crop growth results from intercepted sunlight, and the amount of light intercepted translate directly into plant growth.” Also correct. But the next two sentences were simply and demonstrably wrong: “High plant density enhances light interception, growth and yield. SRI suffers from poor light interception because of low plant densities.”

Research at the Indonesian rice research institute at Sukamandi, reported in Chapter 7, found that with dense planting of rice there is mutual shading of plants’ leaves. This means that the amount of sunlight that reaches the lower leaves is not sufficient for them to sustain photosynthesis. So, these lower leaves became in effect parasitic, consuming more of the plants’ pool of photosynthate than they produce and contribute to it.

Measurements done at the ICAR water management institute in Bhubaneswar, India, as reported in Chapter 11, showed that rice plants’ interception of light could be increased by having SRI’s lower plant density. SRI-grown plants had a leaf area index 52% higher than for rice plants of the same genotype grown with usual methods. Further, the tillers and leaves in SRI plant canopies had more favorable angles. These effects together raised the plants’ light interception index to 89%, from 78%. With SRI management, despite its lower plant density, there was a 15% increase in the proportion of light falling on the field that the rice plants were able to capitalize on for photosynthetic purposes.[3]

The IRRI refutation of SRI continued: “Second, SRI replaces paddy flooding by simply maintaining ‘moist’ soil conditions. The physiology and physics of plant water use have been researched for more than 300 years, and the relationship between growth and plant water use is unambiguous. Ample water maximizes rice yields, and flooded paddy fields assure that no water limitations develop.” Note, however, that ‘ample’ water does not require ‘flooding.’[4]

As discussed in Chapter 4, flooding creates hypoxic soil conditions that cause rice plant roots to degrade and die, and it forfeits the benefits from aerobic soil organisms such as nitrogen-fixing bacteria and mycorrhizal fungi which increase plants’ access to phosphorus, as discussed in Chapter 5. A meta-analysis done in 2012 of 29 studies in the published literature evaluated SRI performance across eight countries. Even when not all of the SRI practices were used or used as recommended, they gave higher grain yiels with 22% less total water (irrigation plus rainfall) per hectare, and with 35% less irrigation water.[5]

The third objection raised was that “SRI emphasizes organic nutrient to the exclusion of mineral fertilizer.” This misrepresented SRI’s preference for organic over mineral fertilization as a rejection of any chemical fertilizer use. Sinclair did not understand that SRI does not preclude the use of inorganic fertilizer. In fact, Fr. Laulaniè developed SRI using inorganic fertilizers before he discovered the advantages of organic fertilization.[6]

Preference and exclusion are not the same thing. Chemical fertilizer use is acceptable with SRI but not promoted. Sometimes it is necessary to use synthetic fertilizers when there is not sufficient availability of organically-sourced nutrients, or the financial or labor cost of using the latter is too high to meet the nutrient needs of growing plants and the soil biota which support that growth. But there are solid, scientifically-grounded reasons for favoring organic fertilization to the extent that this is feasible for farmers.

The rejection of SRI by IRRI scientists based on such incorrect assumptions created a Catch-22 situation for SRI. It could not gain acceptance and support from scientists, donor agencies, governments and others until there had been sufficient published research validating it. And funding for such research could not be obtained until the innovation had gained sufficient credence among recognized experts on the subject.

Fortunately, as seen in Part I, a wide range of persons, from senior researchers to students just starting careers, to serious practitioners with no academic credentials, undertook to investigate the methods and claims of SRI systematically, its dismissal by experts notwithstanding. This Part II reports on the protracted efforts by persons in a variety of institutions to gain acceptance for the new knowledge and practical opportunities that SRI created. The story gives unhappy confirmation of the aphorism cited at the end of Chapter 20: “Never underestimate the difficulty of changing false beliefs by facts.’[7] This observation by Henry Rosovsky, based on his observations and experience in the field of economics, has relevance across many domains of knowledge and practice, unfortunately.

Within a few years after SRI ventured beyond Madagascar, two of the most eminent rice scientists in the world, Prof. Yuan Long-ping in China and Dr. M.S. Swaminathan in India, both having done their own evaluations of SRI, reached their own positive conclusions about SRI, which are reviewed in this chapter. Both had their own research institutions because of their previous accomplishments, so they could undertake their own studies as a matter of curiosity and interest, without having to get any external financing or approval.

That both Prof. Yuan and Dr. Swaminathan reported favorable results from their SRI trials gave us initial confidence that SRI would fairly quickly and easily gain wider acceptance. But as seen in the rest of Part II, SRI remained a matter of contention for some time, and some of this is still continuing. SRI did not receive the credence or the objective evaluation that the evidence summarized in Part I would justify. The chapters that follow in Part II show how over time SRI overcame most of the initial resistance.

This part of the SRI story is told to give readers an appreciation of how the processes of innovation and change actually proceeded in this case. It is hard to know how representative was the resistance to accepting and supporting SRI because memoires of this kind are seldom if ever written. But there is no reason to think that this experience is particularly aberrant or atypical. It thus gives us some lessons on how institutions function, or fail to function as their idealizations suggest.

This story thus is relevant for more than just rice and agriculture. In more general terms, it sheds light on the dialectical relationships between institutions and the individuals who operate within them, and on the relationships between ideas and interests, as well as on the tensions that exist between societal interests and vested interests.

The course of events is shaped by a complex set of forces and currents as well as obstacles. One can hope that future innovations can be received and evaluated with more openness and fairness than SRI encountered, but this remains to be seen. Part II of the SRI saga begins with stories about two eminent individuals that are encouraging, but that did not result in similarly encouraging sequels.



Professor Yuan is well known and widely applauded around the world as ‘the father of hybrid rice’ for having persevered and succeeded in his belief that rice, although a self-pollinating crop, could have its yields improved through a technology known as hybridization.[8] This process interbreeds two different genetic lines to produce seeds that have hybrid vigor, combining traits from both of the inbred varieties being crossed. This vigor, known as heterosis, is expected to enhance the yields of rice by 15-20% over the productivity of either parent line.[9]

There is no need to go into details of this because it is fairly well recognized that creating hybrid varieties has advantages even if not everyone understands the specifics. Obtaining hybrid crosses of rice varieties was widely thought to be impossible until the early 1970s when Prof. Yuan showed that rice, like maize and wheat which are open-pollinated crops, could also be hybridized.[10]

It took almost two decades for hybrid rice to gain acceptance in China, but by 2003, the year before Prof. Yuan was awarded the World Food Prize for his invention and promotion of hybrid rice, about half of China’s total rice production, and an estimated 20% of rice production worldwide, came from hybrid varieties.[11] Perhaps he was more receptive to SRI as an innovation because he had himself gone through a long period of disbelief and resistance in bringing his innovation forward.

How Yuan became acquainted with SRI is itself a tale of serendipity. In June 2000, faculty at Cornell organized an international symposium in honor of IRRI’s first director-general, Robert Chandler, who had been a teacher at Cornell in the 1930s and who had died a year previously. As director of CIIFAD, I had a role in organizing the symposium, but SRI was given no place on the program because my Cornell colleagues insisted that this event was intended to commemorate the Green Revolution work of Dr. Chandler, not to draw attention to something new.

During a coffee break I was able to talk with Henry (Hank) Beachell, a World Food Prize laureate in 1996 for his pioneering work in breeding IR8, IRRI’s original high-yielding rice variety. He expressed some curiosity about SRI, so I sent him an early paper on this innovation. This he shared with a young Chinese colleague, Fangming Xie, who also worked in the biotech firm RiceTech in Texas where Hank was working part-time in his post-IRRI retirement. Fangming in turn sent the paper to his mentor in China, Prof. Yuan, who was director of the China National Hybrid Rice Research and Development Center. Such are the ways that scientific information can travel.

On returning from Christmas vacation in 2000, I found the faxed letter from Prof. Yuan that is reproduced in an endnote.[12] He wrote that he had started SRI trials at his winter research station in Hainan province and said that the trials were proceeding nicely. (Unfortunately, I had not received the previous fax he had sent me enquiring about making a visit to Madagascar to see SRI for himself.) In our ensuing correspondence, I mentioned that I would be visiting China in April with Robert Randriamiharisoa from Madagascar for a Wageningen University workshop (Chapter 8) being held in Nanjing. Prof. Yuan quickly invited us to visit his station in Sanya after the workshop.

By April 2001, his SRI trials were all growing nicely, and Robert and I received a warm welcome when we arrived in Sanya. A picture below shows Yuan Longping standing in front of one of his SRI plots, whose growth he could assess better than I could, and a picture from the 2000-01 CIIFAD Annual Report that shows Robert and Fangming with myself and Yuan inspecting an SRI plot.

By coincidence, the Hybrid Rice Center was hosting a training program that week for over 50 rice specialists from all over China. Yuan asked if we could make a presentation on SRI to them, on the spur of the moment. We agreed, although Robert preferred that I give the lecture because he was not very comfortable speaking in English.

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Prof. Yuan introduced me to the assembled specialists, saying that this would be a special lecture in the course, and making some apparently favorable statements about SRI that neither Robert nor I could understand. A few minutes into the presentation, Yuan interrupted his staff translator to correct the fellow’s translation of what I had said. After a few more interruptions, he began doing the translation himself because his understanding of English was better than that of the translator.

Prof. Yuan listened to every word that I said, and in his translation every so often he would take a minute or two extra to interject his own thinking and elaboration on the subject, comments that Robert and I unfortunately could not understand. These interpolations slowed the presentation considerably, but surely made it more useful to the audience. After more than an hour’s presentation, there were half a dozen questions from the attendees to answer before we had to break for lunch.

As we walked to lunch, I thanked Yuan Longping for his translating the lecture personally and asked him if there was anything that he thought I had said incorrectly, or anything that I should change in my presentation of SRI? I prefaced my question by reminding him that I was not myself a rice scientist as knowledgeable as he on these subjects.

To my pleasant surprise, Prof. Yuan said that he had no corrections to suggest. Everything that I had said made good sense, he commented, except the yield results that I reported were hard to accept. Possibly he was just being polite, but I had asked him privately, in such a way that he could easily have given me some corrective feedback. He suggested nothing to be changed. Shortly after our visit to Sanya, he published an article (in Chinese) on SRI that brought SRI to the attention of rice scientists all over the country.[13]

The following August when I was able to visit China again, Yuan invited me, my wife and her sister to visit his National Hybrid Rice Center headquarters in Changsha in central China, and to make another presentation on SRI to all of his staff there. Because of unforeseen delays in our travel, we arrived about two hours later than scheduled.

We were met at the airport and driven rapidly to the Center, ushered into a hot auditorium where almost 100 staff members were assembled, fanning themselves and waiting for the talk. Again, within a few minutes, Yuan dismissed his official translator and took over the translation duties himself. The session went on for almost two hours. Whether it lasted that long because of the staff’s interest or that of Yuan was not clear, possibly both.

At the festive dinner that followed that evening, with ganbei toasts (“Cheers”) from continually replenished glasses of a formidable liquor (moutai), I asked Prof. Yuan again as before, quietly and privately, whether there was anything that I had said in my presentation which he thought I should change or say differently. Again, he responded that the results that I was reporting were hard to believe, but the statements themselves had all been reasonable. This was reassuring, coming from someone as knowledgeable about rice as Prof. Yuan.

When I began working on plans for a first international SRI conference to be held the next year, discussed in Chapter 8, Prof. Yuan offered to host the event in China and to make local arrangements in Sanya, a lovely coastal resort city on Hainan island, sometimes compared favorably to Honolulu.

Prof. Yuan was a very gracious host and gave an opening keynote address.[14] In it, he explained that his first SRI trials at Sanya in the winter season 2000-01 had given about a 10% increase over his usual methods, which with hybrid varieties gave the best yield in China.[15] In the next growing season at Changsha, two of his super-rice varieties produced yields of 12 tonnes per ha under SRI management, and one had given a record yield for his research center, 12.9 tonnes per ha. With SRI methods, paddy production was thus 10-20% above that with conventional practices.

Next, Prof. Yuan reported that in the following season with trials at eight locations, yields over 12 tonnes per hectare had been achieved with SRI methods at five of them. At the Meishan Seed Company farm in Sichuan province, SRI yields of 15.6 and 16 tonnes per ha had been achieved, a record for his hybrid varieties, and 35% higher than the yield from the same hybrid variety when conventional modern methods were used. Such evidence in the scientific keynote that opened the conference helped get the event off to a good start.

The ‘preliminary evaluations’ that Prof. Yuan reported to the conference were:

  1. SRI is a promising way to increase rice yield and to realize the yield potential of any variety regardless whether high-yielding variety (HYV) or local variety; HYVs can be expected to give higher absolute yield with SRI methods. 

  2. SRI methods can promote more vigorous growth of rice plants, especially the development of their tillering and root systems.

  3. Less insect and disease problems are observed during the vegetative growth stage.

  4. There are definite varietal differences in response to SRI practices. Varieties with strong tillering ability and good plant type are more favorable for SRI cultivation.

  5. SRI gives higher output with less input, but it requires very laborious manual work which makes it more suitable for small farms in developing countries that are well endowed with labor but have limited cropland.

  6. SRI should be modified and wherever possible improved to be most suitable for local conditions.[16]

In 2004, Prof. Yuan invited me to attend an international conference on hybrid rice that he was planning at Changsha, and I was fortunate to be able to attend. During the conference’s field trip, he told me that the practices that he was now recommending for growing his hybrid rice varieties were to start with young single seedlings (11 days old), spaced 30 × 30 cm. This reduction in plant density by 80%, from 50 to 10 plants per m2, not only enhanced rice crop yield, but also made farmers more willing to adopt hybrid seeds because these are much more expensive than those for HYVs, and high seed cost is an economic barrier to the adoption of Yuan’s hybrids.[17]

Alternate wetting and drying continued to be recommended, Yuan said; however, both chemical fertilizers and herbicides for weed control were part of the recommended package of practices for his hybrids. In China, he believed, labor costs are too high (and organic material too scarce) for compost-making to be economic. Labor costs were also, he thought, too high for soil-aerating mechanical weed control to be accepted by farmers.

This idea was held so firmly that Prof. Yuan was not interested in my suggestion that his center conduct some trials to evaluate the productivity of compost amendments vs. chemical fertilizer, and of mechanical weeding vs. chemical weed control. As discussed in Chapter 10, we knew that both compost and mechanical weeding could boost yield, and with some inventiveness, it should be possible to make motorized weeders so as to reduce the labor cost for soil-aerating weeding. We had reason to believe that these SRI practices could be made cost-effective, even with China’s higher labor costs. But it was good to know in any case that moving even two-thirds of the way toward full SRI management was adding several tonnes to Yuan’s already-high hybrid yields.[18]

Before the conference in Changsha, I was able to visit a hybrid seed company farm in Sichuan province that was associated with Prof. Yuan’s hybrid rice development. There I met the farm manager, Liu Zhubin, who had attended the Sanya conference. Liu started the visit by showing me how his SRI trial plots had withstood wind and rain damage from a tropical storm that had passed over his farm three days before. He also showed me what was probably the first conservation-agriculture SRI, practicing no-till crop establishment on raised beds. These beds were alternately cropped with potatoes, the same rotation that Ralalarison had used for his super-yield at Soatanana in Madagascar (Chapter 10) and that was being developed by SRi colleagues in Vietnam. The picture below shows Liu standing in a CA-SRI plot from which he obtained a paddy yield calculated to be 13.4 tonnes per ha.[19]

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The picture also shows Liu’s ‘triangular method’ of SRI crop establishment, reported in Chapter 9. This version of SRI, as Prof. Yuan reported in his keynote address, was initially established with a 30 × 30 cm grid to have hills spaced widely, but then the hills were planted only at alternating intersections in the grid, so that there were only about one-third as many hills per m² as with standard SRI hill spacing of 25 × 25 cm, i.e., 5 hills per m² instead of 16.

As each of these ‘triangular method’ hills was planted with three seedlings, the number of plants per m² was practically the same as with usual SRI. Liu’s innovation was to transplant within each hill three plants in a triangular pattern with the plants being 7-10 cm apart. This configuration followed the SRI principle of wider spacing to promote more vigorous growth of roots and more profuse tillering.[20]

An evaluation done by researchers at the Sichuan Academy of Agricultural Sciences found that SRI methods with single plants per hill at 25 × 25 cm spacing increased grain yield by 20% over an already-high baseline yield of 8.65 tonnes per ha with usual methods. Liu’s triangular method for SRI transplanting, however, produced a yield of 13.4 tonnes per ha, which was 55% above the baseline.[21]

While triangular transplanting was a little more difficult than the single seedling per hill method, it was a cost-effective variation and has spread rather widely in Sichuan province. The Provincial Department of Agriculture has reported that SRI use in Sichuan went from 1,133 ha in 2004 to 383,533 ha within eight years, much of this with the triangular version of SRI. This spread would not have been achieved without Professor Yuan’s initiative to introduce SRI in Sichuan province.[22]

Beyond 2004, Prof. Yuan seemed to disengage from SRI, however. He did not respond when I reported to him in 2006 that farmers in Bali, Indonesia when using SRI methods with his hybrid rice varieties were adding 5 tonnes of yield per hectare.[23] In August 2006 when coming to China again, I made arrangements by email with the rice center’s deputy director to visit Changsha for a day. However, when I was not met at the airport as had been agreed by email and I had no contact telephone number to call, I returned to Beijing.

In 2011, Liu Zhibin invited me to revisit Prof. Yuan’s hybrid rice center in Sanya to observe and discuss the excellent harvest that was expected. Unfortunately, I was not able to travel to China at the time scheduled, and there was no further contact.[24]

Possibly Prof. Yuan’s disengagement from SRI may have come from a feeling that there was competition between SRI methods and his hybrid rice development. We had always reported, whenever the subject of varieties came up, that all of the highest SRI yields achieved had been with either hybrid varieties or with HYVs. But we talked also about the high yields and profitability with ‘unimproved’ varieties that SRI management made possible.

Also, it is possible that proponents of hybrid rice became concerned that our demonstrating how much improvement in yield could be achieved just by modifying the management of plants, soil, water and nutrients somehow detracted from the credit that could be claimed for the benefits being achieved from their making further improvement in genetic potentials.[25]

We heard nothing more from Prof. Yuan regarding SRI until it was reported in 2013 from Bihar state of India that an SRI farmer had produced a yield of 22.4 tonnes per ha (Chapter 10).[26] Yuan quickly rejected this as “120% fake” even though he had no knowledge about how the yield had been measured.[27] At the time, he was credited with the world record yield of 19.4 tonnes per ha, so it seemed that he was defending his claim to this distinction.[28]

For those who have worked with SRI methods, setting world records had never been of as much interest as raising average yields (Chapter 10). It is average yields, not highest-yield outliers, that feed people and make them better off. Within the SRI community, super-yields were of interest mostly because they show how much unexploited yield potential is available within existing rice genomes, which could be accessed by optimizing above- and below-ground growing conditions.

In any case, it was very important for the history of SRI that Yuan Longping took an early interest in this innovation, and after validating its merits to his own satisfaction, he gave SRI attention and endorsement within China, and to some extent beyond. The Sanya conference in 2002 would not have been as successful and influential with any other venue and hospitality.

After the conference, Prof. Yuan’s deputy director Peng Jiming introduced SRI in Guinea with positive results in 2003. With SRI management, one of the six hybrid varieties tested there gave a yield over 9 tonnes per ha, and four of the varieties yielded more than 7.5 tonnes per ha. The sixth yield was over 5 tonnes. At that time, average paddy rice yields in Guinea were less than 2 tonnes per ha.[29] Working with Yuan Longping and his China National Hybrid Rice Research and Development Center was an important chapter in the history of SRI. Sadly, Yuan Longping passed away in May, 2021 as this chapter was being finalized.



An equally important chapter was the association of Dr. Swaminathan with SRI since 2002. Our first opportunity to present SRI to an international forum came at a Southeast Asian regional symposium in January that year held in Chiangmai, Thailand. Dr. Swaminathan was also invited to the forum, and I had opportunities there to talk with him about SRI, having gotten to know him previously at Cornell some 10 years before.[30]

M.S. Swaminathan is well-known and widely respected as ‘the father of the Indian Green Revolution,’ and in 1987 he was the first recipient of the World Food Prize, regarded as the Nobel prize for agriculture.[31] He also served from 1982 to 1988 as director-general of the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines.

When I visited India in May 2002, Dr. Swaminathan invited me to make a presentation on SRI to the staff of his M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation established in Chennai with the funds that he received from the World Food Prize. There was a good turnout, and afterwards, he took me to the Madras Gymkhana Club in the city, where we had an enjoyable lunch.

As I had asked Prof. Yuan, I inquired of Dr. Swaminathan whether there was anything that I had said in the seminar, where he had listened I thought very intently in the front row, that should be changed?. Was there anything that he considered mistaken or that should be stated differently? After all, he was a very eminent plant scientist with many years of experience working on rice, which I was not.

In almost identical words as Prof. Yuan, Swaminathan responded that while the results I reported were difficult to believe, what I had described and explained was reasonable. He invited me to attend a conference at his Foundation the following December when I was planning to be in India again.

At this conference, I made a 45-minute presentation to participants and to his institute staff on what we thought we knew about SRI up to that time. And again, we had lunch together afterwards. And again, I asked him if there was anything that I had said which did not make sense to him or that he thought should be revised or reconsidered. And again, he answered the same way as six months before.

This was a tremendous encouragement to have both Prof. Yuan and Dr. Swaminathan find nothing to take issue with in my presentations on SRI. Both were successful rice scientists, while I was really an amateur. Yet both expressed satisfaction with my reporting and my nascent understanding of SRI.

After my visits, Dr. Swaminathan had researchers with his foundation try out SRI methods on their experimental farms in 2004-2005 in Puducherry and Chidambaram. Subsequently the methods were field-tested and demonstrated in Dindigul district in Tamil Nadu and at Kendrapara in Odisha. Their results confirmed what had been reported from other evaluations. SRI yields averaged 6 tonnes per hectare compared to 4.5 tonnes per hectare produced with the usual methods. Below is a picture of Dr. Swaminathan speaking with women rice farmers in Dindigul who were advised to try out SRI methods for themselves.

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The MSSRF staff found that the costs of production were reduced by 18% per hectare, and with higher yield, the cost-benefit ratio with SRI was 1:1.92 compared to a ratio 1:1.17 for conventional practices. Production costs were lower mainly because of reduced cost for nursery-raising and for weeding, coupled with a 75% reduction in the seed rate. With the higher yield and lower costs, the cost for producing a kilogram of SRI rice was 3 rupees vs. 5 rupees using usual methods.[32] Following MSSRF researchers’ experimentation and demonstration, farmers in Odisha state who adopted the new methods recorded 26 to 68% higher grain yields than with their conventional methods of paddy cultivation.[33]

When I was putting together the book Biological Approaches to Sustainable Soil Systems discussed in Chapter 5, I invited Dr. Swaminathan to write the Foreword for the book, which he readily agreed to do. It was a pleasant surprise that he put into the Foreword a paragraph endorsing SRI. This had not been expected, but it expressed welcome support.[34]

Also in 2006, Swaminathan was asked by the Ministry of Water Resources to chair a subcommittee on achieving more crop and income per drop of water, focusing on ways to reduce irrigation water demand and requirements. The subcommittee report listed SRI as its first recommendation and devoted five pages of detailed description to its methods and results.[35]

When he published an inaugural article on agricultural research in an era of climate change in 2012, Dr. Swaminathan included SRI as one of the elements of an agricultural strategy for coping with adverse climate shifts.[36] In 2013, he visited Thanjavur in Tamil Nau state, known as the ‘rice bowl’ of South India, where rice cultivation is completely dependent on canal water from the Cauvery River supplemented with groundwater. The area was facing severe water scarcity due to poor rainfall that season. Dr. Swaminathan recommended to farmers the adoption of SRI methods of cultivation as they could substantially reduce the water requirement for paddy.[37] In 2014, when SRI was passed over by the World Food Prize selection committee for a third year, Swaminathan requested that the nomination be kept under consideration for a fourth year, and it was, although it was not successful that year either (Chapter 33).

While M.S. Swaminathan did not play an outspoken role on behalf of SRI in India, we have reason to think that he gave considerable quiet support in important circles, both in India and abroad. He was and remains a controversial figure in the eyes of many in the NGO community in India for his role in promoting high-yielding varieties in India’s Green Revolution, which led to an eclipsing of indigenous varieties.[38]

However, in his Foreword to Biological Approaches to Sustainable Soil Systems, he cited his own early warning about the dangers of the Green Revolution paradigm, including loss of rice genetic biodiversity. In a 1968 address to the Indian Science Congress, several months before the term ‘Green Revolution’ was coined, Dr. Swaminathan observed: 

Exploitative agriculture offers great dangers if carried out with only an immediate profit or production motive. The emerging exploitative farming community in India should become aware of this. Intensive cultivation of land without conservation of soil fertility and soil structure would lead, ultimately, to the springing up of deserts.

Irrigation without arrangements for drainage would result in soils getting alkaline or saline. Indiscriminate use of pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides could cause adverse changes in biological balance as well as lead to an increase in the incidence of cancer and other diseases, through the toxic residues present in the grains or other edible parts. Unscientific tapping of underground water will lead to the rapid exhaustion of this wonderful capital resource left to us through ages of natural farming.

The rapid replacement of numerous locally-adapted varieties with one or two high-yielding strains in large contiguous areas would result in the spread of serious diseases capable of wiping out entire crops, as happened prior to the Irish potato famine of 1854 and the Bengal rice famine in 1942. (page iii)

This statement, both visionary and cautionary, remains as relevant today as when Dr. Swaminathan made it 50 years ago. It helped me understand why, despite his close association with the Green Revolution, he was supportive of SRI even while moving in the high-tech and biotech circles of ‘modern agriculture.’[39]

*   *   *   *   *   *   *

This chapter has described how SRI in its first years of international presence was favorably evaluated by two of the most prominent and respected rice scientists in the world. There was reason to believe that although farmers might be slow to accept SRI’s dramatic changes in their age-old practices, we should be able to obtain support from various institutions and funding sources to further evaluate and refine its methods and to communicate these methods and the explanations behind them to farmers around the world. Farmers should at least know about SRI opportunities so that they could choose how to make the best use of their available resources, for feeding themselves, their families, and the rest of the population.

What was not anticipated was how much resistance there would be from various institutions and individuals to the new opportunities being created by the knowledge and experience of SRI. This Part II tells the story of how SRI came to be slowly but increasingly accepted over the two decades after CIIFAD had concluded that SRI’s new thinking could make all of the resources eing devoted to rice-growing – land, labor, capital and seed -- more productive.

Part II is thus the central portion of the SRI memoire. It shows how, why and where effective leverage and traction for innovation were gained through the efforts of many individuals and some organizations. It also points out how, if not why, various institutions that should have been favorable and supportive toward SRI did not play the kind of constructive roles that one would have expected from them. Insights can hopefully be gained from this account on how we can better prepare ourselves and our world for coping with the serious environmental, economic and other challenges that confront us.

The take-home message from Part II is, unfortunately, less positive than the conclusion from Part I, which was that despite the many constraints which restrain the agricultural sector, there are some simple, very beneficial opportunities available for dealing with our problems of food and nutrition. In Part II, we see that many of our institutions are not performing in their respective assigned roles very admirably. The focus in Part II thus shifts from agriculture to institutions. This part is more descriptive than evaluative, reserving the latter considerations for Part IV.

The following chapters are written as factually as possible, blending etic and emic ‘takes’ on what happened to give a more complete view of how SRI has come to be fairly widely accepted than provided by either perspective in itself. Skeptics and critics were and are invited to add their own perspectives and to make any factual corrections that are substantiable. Gaining official acceptance for SRI was not a prerequisite for a great variety of efforts to try out SRI methods in dozens of countries, which are reported in Part III. These initiatives proceeded in country after country once SRI methods and their results became known.

That this innovation originated from the field, rather than from scientific centers, probably accounts for some of the resistance encountered. A challenge in the years ahead will be how to get diverse institutions, functioning at various levels, to work congruently and cumulatively in complementary ways to solve problems not only in the agricultural sector but across the board. The challenges facing humankind in the 21st century will require all hands on deck and working cooperatively if we are to keep our human ‘ship’ from floundering.


[1] SRI-Rice has maintained on its website a listing of this literature, as best it could with the resources available. In addition to the listing of over 1,300 journal articles in 2021, there were 75 theses posted plus several hundred other documents with data and analysis.

[2] When in 2004 I submitted a short piece on SRI to IRRI’s quarterly magazine Rice Today (‘System of Rice Intensification responds to 21st century needs’), its editor agreed to publish it if I would agree to his publishing a rebuttal at the same time. I said that there was no objection to this since we welcome debate. The rebuttal written on behalf of IRRI began with this statement: “Discussion of the system of rice intensification (SRI) is unfortunate because this implies [that] SRI merits serious consideration. SRI does not deserve such attention.” Thomas Sinclair, ‘Agronomic UFOs waste valuable scientific resources,’ Rice Today, 3: 43 (2004).

    The rebuttal’s title and its closing argument made clear that what motivated the rejection of SRI was perceived competition for research funding. The words implied that IRRI viewed SRI as possibly redirecting funding from itself. Sinclair, who was chosen to write the rebuttal, was at the time based at the University of Florida, working for the Agricultural Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Full disclosure: Sinclair got his PhD from Cornell in crop and soil sciences with a focus on crop modeling.

[3] Anischan Gani’s findings, unfortunately never published, are posted on-line: Report on SRI experiments at Sukamandi, 2002. Any reduction in photosynthesis by the plant’s lower leaves is made more serious by the fact that it is these leaves that furnish much of the plants’ supply of carbohydrates to their roots. S. Yoshida, Fundamentals of Rice Crop Science, IRRI, 1981. The roots’ metabolism is thus impeded by reduced photosynthetic activity in the lower canopy. The findings reported here from Indian research were published by Amod Thakur et al., ‘An assessment of physiological effects of system of rice intensification (SRI) practices compared with recommended rice cultivation practices in India,’ Experimental Agriculture, 46: 78-90 (2009).

[4] This second “well-established principle” reflected the doctrine at IRRI about the benefits of continuously flooding rice paddies (until it began promoting ‘alternate wetting and drying’ after learning about SRI). In an endnote to Chapter 4, we quoted the categorical statements of S.K. De Datta, long-time senior agronomist at IRRI, that rice “thrives on land that is water-saturated and even submerged, during part or all of its growth cycle” (page 43), and that “Most varieties maintain better growth and produce higher grain yields when grown in flooded soil than when grown in unflooded soil” (pages 297-298). S.K. De Datta, Principles and Practices of Rice Production, Robert Krieger, Malabar, FL (1987). This statement ignored any middle ground between a water surplus, on one hand, and water stress, on the other.

[5] With higher grain yields, SRI’s water use efficiency, i.e., kg of rice produced per liter of water, was 52% higher with respect to total water consumption, including rainfall, and 78% higher in terms of the irrigation water consumed. ‘Meta-analysis evaluating water use, water saving, and water productivity in irrigated production of rice with SRI vs. standard management methods,’ Taiwan Water Conservancy 61: 14-49 (2013).

[6] Fr. Laulanié began recommending the use of compost as an alternative to fertilizer only after the Madagascar government revoked fertilizer subsidies in the late 1980s, making fertilizer too expensive for peasant farmers to use. Only when the farmers working with him began using compost, made from any and all vegetative biomass available, did Laulanié come to appreciate the advantages, economic as well as agronomic, of organic fertilization.

     In some evaluations, the highest yields with SRI methods have been achieved with what is now called ‘integrated nutrient management.’ INM seeks to optimize the combined use of organic and inorganic soil nutrient amendments. However, as seen from the factorial trials reported in Chapter 7, organic fertilization can out-yield synthetic sources if all the other SRI practices are used -- but only if all the other practices are also used so as to achieve their synergistic effects. Such results pointed to the contribution that the soil biota make to crop nutrition. The promotion of mineral fertilizer use usually overlooks the fact that such fertilizer application, and especially heavy use, can inhibit and even suppress the soil’s beneficial biota.

[7] An additional Catch-22 dilemma arose when most mainstream scientists skeptical toward SRI discounted or dismissed the evidence being produced and published by researchers who supported SRI claims because their conclusions (based on their studies) made them ‘biased’ in favor of SRI. Such evidence was considered suspect because of skeptics’ preconceptions that SRI itself must be false or exaggerated.

[8] Jiming Li and Yeyun Xin, ‘Dedication: Longping Yuan – Rice breeder and hunger fighter, Plant Breeding Reviews 17: 1-158 (2000).

[9] FAO, Hybrid Rice for Food Security (2004).

[10] This required finding a rice variety in which the male organs were sterile, i.e., producing sterile pollen. This could then be used to obtain crosses similar to what could be achieved more easily with an open-pollinated crop like maize or wheat, as explained in this IRRI posting. Prof. Yuan was able to locate such a variety in Hainan province of China and began producing hybrid rice in the 1970s. His innovation was, however, resisted for many years by rice scientists in China who were devoted to conventional plant breeding with which they had developed inbred hybrid varieties.

     An advantage of hybrid varieties was that these can give higher yield thanks to heterosis, but their disadvantage was that their seeds (the next generation) do not give grain yields as high, so to maintain higher yields farmers need to keep buying new (hybrid) seeds each season, rather than replant the seeds from their hybrid crop. Views on the merits of developing and spreading hybrid rice range from highly favorable to quite critical.

[11] In 2004, Professor Yuan was a co-recipient of the World Food Prize, a year proclaimed by FAO as ‘the international year of rice.’

[12] 国家杂交水稻工程技术研究中心


China National Hybrid Rice Research & Development Center


To:  Dr. N. Uphoff

Director, Cornell International Institute for Food,

Agriculture and Development

Cornell University

Fax: 001-607-255-1005

                                                                                                                                                     Dec. 25, 2000

Dear Dr. Uphoff: 

Merry Xmas! I returned home yesterday from Hainan Island where we have an experiment station for growing rice during winter season. Following SRI methods, a total of 13 rice hybrids had been carefully transplanted on 23ʳᵈ Dec. with spacing 33×33 cm when their seedlings only have two tiny leaves. The area under trial is one are for each hybrid variety and the amount of compost made out of buffalo and pig wastes and straws is 45 t/ha which were put into the field just two days before transplanting. In short, everything we have done and will be done is strictly under the guidance of SRI as described in your papers. Now we are waiting for, or more exact, hoping a very good result.

Another thing we concerned is that whether you have received my letter dated Dec. 7, 2000 regarding the possibility of our visit to Madagascar to witness the super yield of rice on the spot in due time.

We still looking forward to your response and especially your kind help in this affair is highly appreciated.

Best regards.

Sincerely yours

Prof. L.P. Yuan

Director General, CNHRRDC

[13] ‘The system of rice intensification,’ Hybrid Rice 16:1-3 (2001), in Chinese. In a letter after our visit, Prof. Yuan described my presentation as “wonderful” and said that their initial results at Sanya had shown SRI giving “a 10% yield increase over the existing cultivation methods” (faxed letter, April 20, 2001). About this same time, Dr. Lu Shihua and colleagues at the Sichuan Academy of Agricultural Scientists published the results from their SRI evaluation, ‘The growth and yield characteristics of high-quality hybrid rice Xiangyou 1 under the system of rice intensification (SRI),’ Southwest Journal of Agricultural Sciences (2001), also in Chinese.

    Hybrid rice has been much promoted in China, but it has not gained the widespread acceptance expected. Currently, only about 8% of China’s rice area is planted to Prof. Yuan’s super-hybrid rice. For a variety of reasons, the rice cultivated area under hybrid varieties peaked in 1995. Min Huang and Yingbin Zou, ‘Integrating mechanization with agronomy and breeding to ensure food security in China,’ Field Crops Research 224:22-27 (2018).

[14] “A scientist’s perspective on experience with SRI in China for raising the yields of super hybrid rice.”

[15] According to the keynote, the practices being used for hybrid rice included “heavy application of chemical fertilizers, transplanting strong seedlings with many tillers, two seedlings per hill and with relatively dense spacing (20 x 20 cm); keeping the soil wet and flooding alternately; and using herbicides to kill weeds.” This meant that there were 50 plants per m² instead of just 16, with no enhancement of soil organic matter and no active soil aeration. However, continuous flooding was not recommended for hybrid rice, and plant density was less than with conventional practice, which was 100-150 plants per m². Prof. Yuan commented in his keynote that “old traditional Chinese cultivation methods were similar to SRI in some important aspects, such as the application of organic fertilizers, wide spacing of plants, manual weeding instead of herbicide use, and keeping soil wet and flooded alternately.”

[16] These evaluations concluded his keynote address (endnote 14).

[17] An evaluation by IRRI and the NGO BRAC in Bangladesh reported that the 16% average higher yield attained with hybrid varieties over inbred high-yielding varieties was largely offsete by a tripling of seed costs and by the lower price that farmers received for hybrid grain because of quality differences. A. M. Muazzam Husain, Mahabub Hossain and Aldas Janiah, Hybrid Rice Adoption in Bangladesh: A Socio-Economic Assessment of Farmers Experiences, BRAC Research Monograph No. 18, BRAC and IRRI, Dhaka (2001).

[18] Participation in that conference provided excellent opportunities for SRI networking. As seen in Chapter 27, acquaintance made there with Dr. Khidhir Abbas Hameed from Al-Mishkhab rice research station in Iraq led to the introduction of SRI in that country. And sharing a train compartment with Dr. Bui Ba Bong, Deputy Minister of Agriculture for Vietnam, on our overnight return to Beijing by rail developed a connection that lent support to SRI initiatives in his country.

[19] My trip report from the visit also noted: “Liu also showed me a certificate for a SRI yield in Yunnan province of 20.4 t/ha, attested to by the Science and Technology Department and a professor from Sichuan Agricultural University. Two rice scientists with whom I talked reported 18 t/ha yields certified in Yunnan province this year. Yunnan is considered to have the most favorable climate in China for high-yield rice production, so this cannot be a norm for China, but it shows the high potential that can be evoked from rice genomes.”

[20] On this, see Prof. Yuan’s keynote address (endnote 14); also M. Fan, S.H. Lu, R. Jiang, X. Liu and F.S. Zhang, ‘Triangular transplanting pattern and split nitrogen fertilizer application increase rice yield and nitrogen fertilizer recovery,’ Agronomy Journal, 101: 1421-1425 (2019).

[21] This evaluation was reported in a poster presented the 4th International Agronomy Congress in Brisbane, Australia, August (2004).

[22] The poster that Dr. Zheng Jiaguo and his colleagues at the Sichuan Academy of Agricultural Sciences prepared for the Congress in Australia reported substantial phenotypical differences with SRI management over the controls grown with best management practices, e.g., average leaf length was increased by 16%, and leaf width by 13%. They reported subsequently that even better results could be obtained with oblong spacing rather than square spacing, i.e., 35 × 40 cm, with 18 plants per m2. These data are reported in ‘Agricultural water savings possible through SRI for water management in Sichuan, China,’ Taiwan Water Conservancy 61: 50-62.

[23] In 2006, as part of a larger evaluation of SRI methods under a Japanese-funded project being implemented by Nippon Koei, farmers who used SRI methods with Longping hybrid seed on an area of 42 ha in Bali averaged 13.3 tonnes per ha, while with these same varieties and standard management the yield wed 8.4 tonnes. S. Sato and N. Uphoff,’ A review of on-farm evaluations of system of rice intensification methods in Eastern Indonesia,’ CAB Reviews, 2, 054:1-12 (2007).

[24] From: 胡杨 []
Sent: Sunday, January 09, 2011 10:00 AM
To: Norman Thomas Uphoff <>
Subject: Zhibin Liu

Dear Professor Norman Uphoff:

Please excuse me for not contacting you for so long. Recently I have cultivated a batch of super-high-yield varieties which can reach an output of 15-20 tons per hectare, using three-seedling triangular cultivation in Sanya, Hainan. I would like to invite you to visit our base in Sanya in mid-March 2011 so that you can give us some on-site guidances and join the Expert Acceptance Group. I am looking forward to your presence in Sanya, Hainan.

Best regards, Yours, Zhibin Liu

[25] Sorting out the relative contributions of ‘nature’ (genetic potential) vs. ‘nurture’ (environment and management) is difficult, as seen from IRRI’s efforts to develop a ‘new plant type’ by breeding an ideotype that would have fewer tillers but all of them fertile! It was claimed that the NPT would raise rice plants’ yield potential by 25%. But the trials that assessed NPT plants were done with 14-day-old seedlings, planted singly, and at 25 × 25 cm spacing. Gurdev Khush, ‘Breaking the yield frontier of rice,’ GeoJournal 35: 329-332 (1995).

     How much of the yield gain reported from IRRI’s on-station trials was due to greater genetic potential of the NPT, and how much was due to IRRI’s using 50% practices cannot be sorted out. Similarly, as further gains were made with hybrid rice varieties, how much of the advance was due to there being more inherent potential in the new hybrid genotypes, and how much was attributable to more optimal agronomic practices? This was hard to determine.


[26] John Vidal, ‘India’s rice revolution,’ The Guardian, February 16, 2013. This yield was attained with a hybrid variety (Arize 6444) produced by Bayer, a pharmaceutical conglomerate based in Germany.

[27] ‘China’s ‘father of hybrid rice’ terms Indian farmer’s world record ‘fake,’ Financial Express, February 21, 2013. How the Bihar yield was measured was reported in Chapter 10, and in M.C. Diwakar et al., ‘SRI yields in the kharif season 2011 in Nalanda district, Bihar state, India,’ Agriculture Today, New Delhi, June, pages 54-56 (2012). The measurements were made by Agriculture Department staff who had no interest in or knowledge of world records. They threshed and weighed the grain yield from a 50-m2 plot randomly marked off in the center of a 1-acre field, a better way to calculate yield than with a few1-m2 samples taken randomly from a field.

[28] In November 2016, Professor Yuan was reported to have reached a yield of 22 tonnes per ha with his hybrid varieties, presumably using all or mostly SRI practices.

[29] See report by Dr. Peng Jiming on these trials in Guinea.

[30] This symposium on ‘Sustaining Food Security and Managing Natural Resources in Southeast Asia: Challenges for the 21st Century’ was organized by the University of Hohenheim in Germany. My conversation with Swaminathan began, literally, as ‘an elevator talk.’ He had previously been a visiting professor-at-large at Cornell, making biannual visits. Shortly after I became director of the Cornell International Institute for Food, Agriculture and Development, Dr. Swaminathan and his wife had dinner at our home in Ithaca, NY.

[31] See posting on the World Food Prize website.

[32] See page 76 of the MSSRF Annual Report, 2005-2006, published by the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, Chennai (2006). It reported that “The ratio of seed used for transplanting compared to the paddy harvested was 1:814 for SRI, whereas with conventional practices, the ratio was 1:36.” In other words, with SRI management, 22 times more grains were produced per seed planted, a huge benefit especially for poor farmers.

[33] MSSRF Annual Report, 2004-05, page 77, MSSRF, Chennai (2005). The yields of paddy obtained in different fields are given in Table 4.3. Farmers compared the results when using SRI methods with single seedlings vs. two seedlings per hill. With single seedlings, average grain yield was 3,833 to 6,944 kg per ha vs. 4,000 to 6,666 kg per ha in double-seedling SRI plots, using local and improved varieties. However, not much yield increase was observed in two of the fields.

[34] “Water is becoming a very serious constraint in many countries and of growing concern. This is where Norman Uphoff has rendered very valuable service by promoting the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) method adapted from agronomic practices developed in Madagascar (Chapter 28). Experience in India has shown that this methodology leads to nearly 40% saving in water without affecting the yield of the crop, indeed, as a rule, increasing crop yields with reduced external inputs. As decisions on land use are invariably water-use decisions, land and water use will in the future have to be dealt with in a more integrated manner. I hope that this ambitious and timely book will be read and used widely in order to ensure the long-term viability and sufficiency of food production systems around the world.” (page iv)

[35]  Report of the Sub-Commission on More Crop and Income per Drop of Water, for the Ministry of Water Resources’ Advisory Council on Artificial Recharge of Groundwater, Government of India, October, 2006.

[36] M.S. Swaminathan and P.S. Kesavan, ‘Agricultural research in an era of climate change,’ Agricultural Research 1: 3-11 (2012). In this article, more attention was given to crop breeding for climate resilience than to SRI, however.


[38] Swaminathan’s support for genetically-modified crops is fairly controversial in India. On indigenous varieties, see his interview with Dr. Richharia in the Illustrated Weekly of India (1986).

[39] In October 2014, Dr. Swaminathan and I were both invited to be keynote speakers at a symposium on food security in New Delhi, organized by the Indian National Association of the Club of Rome, and featuring SRI thanks to the contacts of Biksham Gujja. In a short personal discussion during the symposium dinner, Swaminathan three times expressed his admiration for what I and others had been doing on behalf of the science and dissemination of SRI. When writing on ‘Marching towards Sustainable Agriculture’ in Business Today, August 16, 2015, Dr. Swaminathan again gave a commendation of SRI. See also the report mentioned in endnote 35 above. Such support contributed to diffuse acceptance of the innovation even if it did not evoke specific actions.


PICTURE CREDITS: Norman Uphoff; 2000-01 CIIFAD Annual Report; Norman Uphoff; M.S. Swaminathan.

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