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It may surprise some readers to learn that worldwide endeavors to advance scientific knowledge in the domain of agriculture are much better organized and institutionalized than is research in the field of medicine. Six times more money is spent annually on biomedical research than on agricultural research, which could be one reason why agricultural research is more organized, simply because it is smaller.

Probably a more determinant reason is that 80% of agricultural research is funded from public or philanthropic sources, whereas 60% of the expenditures on medical research come from the private sector, creating the centrifugal dynamics of a much larger and more diverse enterprise.[1]

A sector’s research being better organized is not necessarily advantageous for getting innovation accepted. It can be an impediment, as seen in the case of SRI. In the agricultural sector, there has been a long tradition of making the knowledge generated by researchers in government agencies, institutes and universities freely and widely available. Over the past 30 years, however, there has been increasing proprietarization of agricultural technology under an expanding regime of patents and intellectual property rights.[2] SRI had to swim upstream against this current.

Starting sixty years ago when there were fears of large global shortfalls in food production, a number of international agricultural research centers were established. With funding from the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, an international center for rice research was set up in 1960, the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), followed by an international center for the improvement of maize and wheat production (CIMMYT) in 1963.[3]

As additional centers were created to deal with other crops and diverse agroecosystems (tropical agriculture, semi-arid tropics, dryland regions, etc.), a Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research was created. This CGIAR brought together the representatives of governments and donor agencies which supported international agricultural research and development for them to oversee, coordinate and fund a network of autonomous research institutes and centers, with a Management Committee under the chairmanship of the World Bank.

The CGIAR centers, currently 15 in number, of course could not, and should not try to, do all of the research that is needed to advance productivity in the agricultural sector. The centers were mandated to undertake ‘upstream’ research and to provide strategic vision and direction that would materialize through the activities of countries’ respective national agricultural research systems, the NARS. These were closer to the ground than international centers could be, so the role of the NARS was to undertake adaptive research that would meet the diversified needs of their respective national agricultural sectors.

Because IRRI and CIMMYT gave scientific leadership for the Green Revolution of the 1970s and 1980s that accelerated the rate of yield improvement for staple food production, these centers acquired an international preeminence that has been long-lived, even after their rates of yield improvement started declining in the 1990s.[4]

Using the available technologies, even more rapid growth in food production could have been evoked over the past two decades by having higher market prices. But this would have made food more expensive, a hardship especially for the poor. That would have been counter to the mission of the CGIAR, which was to improve food security and reduce poverty, while enhancing human health and nutrition, and ensuring sustainable management of natural resources.

Given this mandate, one might have expected the CGIAR system and its centers to be quite interested in the knowledge and opportunities that SRI experience offered, documented in Part I. But that has not been the case as seen in this chapter. There were surely many misunderstandings and miscommunications that contributed to the lack of cooperation between the CGIAR centers and the emergent SRI community over the past 25 years. But many of the things that happened are a matter of fact and not interpretation, and these are focused on here.

The purpose of this chapter is not to assign or assess blame, but rather to report on the various interactions and missed opportunities as understood from an SRI perspective on what happened, inviting corrections or alternative interpretations from CGIAR actors if they are volunteered, and they will be included in this memoire. Our interest in Part II is more in institutions than in individuals. However, factual reporting needs to be based on names, dates and events that are verifiable. Assessments of what all this means is best left to other persons who have not been so involved in the process.

It is important for readers to know, both generally and specifically, about the actions and decisions of individuals who act and decide on behalf of their institutions and their professions. Decisions and actions taken by persons who are tasked with working toward development goals and for the well-being of others are not just personal matters. Anyone acting in their professional and institutional roles should take responsibility for their actions and decisions.

At present there is little symmetry or equivalence between the consequences of what statisticians call ‘false positives’ and ‘false negatives.’ These terms distinguish between (a) accepting as true a claim that turns out not to be correct, and (b) rejecting as wrong a claim that turns out to be true. In the case of SRI, there have been many more false negatives than false positives. This asymmetry, where (a) is treated more harshly than (b), should be recognized and corrected. Both individuals and institutions should treat the rejection of claims with as much seriousness and sense of accountability as they do the acceptance of new knowledge. The plethora of false negatives with regard to SRI greatly slowed the acceptance of SRI knowledge and practice, and this unfortunately led to avoidable deprivation and losses for many millions of people over the past 20 years.

We start with the history of SRI interaction with IRRI since it has been most involved in the SRI story given its prominent role in rice science and practice. We then consider also how other CGIAR centers and the CGIAR’s secretariat responded to the opportunities that persons working with SRI tried repeatedly to get evaluated, better known, and more widely utilized to the extent that this was warranted by positive results.

As will be seen, there were somewhat different responses from the various centers, and the stories of their responses thus are diverse. These are all institutions that have some formal international responsibility for improving crop productivity and food security in ways that are compatible with the maintenance of robust environmental resources. But they are all human institutions, guided by persons and carried forward by staff who have respective strengths and weaknesses in their professional and personal conduct.  



The staff of IRRI made a huge contribution to food security and economic growth in many countries by developing the ‘miracle rice’ variety known as IR8 in the early 1960s, released in India and the Philippines in 1966, starting what became known as the Green Revolution. This new variety was created by inter-breeding a productive existing variety with a less-productive one that had shorter stalks. Simply put, the resulting cross-breed could be plied with large amounts of inorganic fertilizer without growing very tall and falling over (lodging). Such plants put more of the products of their photosynthesis into grain production rather than into vegetative growth.

Unfortunately, this technical innovation did not show much further improvement over time.[5] A ‘new plant type’ (NPT) was developed by IRRI scientists in the latter 1990s, bred to have fewer tillers with almost all of these forming panicles and producing grain. It was expected that this way more photosynthate would go into the grains and less into the leaves and stalks. However, this effort proved disappointing.[6] Plant breeders seem not to have considered that when rice plants produce fewer tillers, they will also have fewer roots.[7]

In technical terms, the New Plant Type was bred to have more spikelets (floral organs) in its panicles so that it would have more ‘sink’ capacity, becoming more able to receive and utilize photosynthate for filling its nascent grains of rice. However, the NPT also had less ‘source’ capacity to support the plant’s photosynthesis because with fewer roots it was less able to meet the plant’s requirements for nutrients and water. Rice breeders focused on the plants’ above-ground parts without much attention to improving also their root systems, which are the foundation for plant success, as discussed in Chapter 4.

In the early 1990s, a German friend of Fr. Laulanié sent a letter to IRRI’s director-general at the time, Dr. Klaus Lampe. I have seen a response from Dr. Lampe in which he said that this information was very interesting and that IRRI would evaluate it. But there is no record of any follow-up. The SRI approach, which focused on improving crop management, did not mesh with the strategy of IRRI’s plant breeders.

About the same time, I had my first discussion of SRI with IRRI staff through its country-representative in Madagascar, Dr. V. Balasubramanian. As reported in Chapter 3, in 1993 John Dennis and I met with Bala at his office in Antananarivo. He said that IRRI was not very interested in SRI because Madagascar scientists had not been able to replicate in their experiment stations the very high yields that Fr. Laulanié had reported, 10 to 15 tonnes per hectare.

The results that they did achieve in their SRI trials, 5 to 7 tonnes, was two to three times the national average yield. But this could be achieved by using IRRI’s rice varieties grown with chemical fertilizer to compensate for low soil fertility, Bala added. In his view, SRI did not represent any improvement over IRRI’s technology. That SRI methods achieved higher yield without requiring farmers to purchase any external inputs that were expensive and often unavailable was not taken into consideration. (I did not raise this point with Bala at the time because I was not yet persuaded of SRI’s validity.)

I subsequently discussed SRI several times with Bala’s successor as IRRI’s country representative in Madagascar, Mimi Gaudreau. The first reason she gave me for IRRI’s not being interested in SRI was that the results reported by Tefy Saina were not true. Then when we spoke again the next year, she acknowledged that they were probably correctly reported, but she maintained that the methods and insights of SRI represented ‘nothing new.’ IRRI scientists already knew all of this.

Then, a year later she accepted that SRI knowledge and practices were at least somewhat novel. But she insisted that SRI could not bring much improvement to rice production “on a large scale” because it was relevant only for small-scale farmers who had large households and a lot of family labor. In her view, SRI could not be scaled up enough to have a major impact on rice production.

I pointed out that there are hundreds of millions of farmers around the world with small landholdings. I did not know the exact numbers for the rice sector, but I knew that they constituted a large majority of rice-growers.[8] Mimi had no reply to this rejoinder, but still she resisted acknowledging that SRI had any significance for IRRI. When she finally undertook some SRI trials at Marovoay in the north, she reported unimpressive yield results from the trials.

We wondered why, so Glenn Lines made a visit to the research site where IRRI was conducting its SRI trials. He found that no effort had been made to control the water management, so the young SRI seedlings had been submerged from the start and were thus set back by suffocation, a result similar to what occurred in the WARDA trials reported below.

In December 1997, after I was finally fairly certain that SRI effects were real and potentially very important, I drafted a first paper on SRI which I sent to IRRI headquarters for comment.[9] Nine months later, I got a response from IRRI’s deputy director-general for research, Ken Fischer, who was also the rice center’s acting director-general.

Ken acknowledged that there was scientific evidence to support the various elements of SRI – younger seedlings, more soil organic matter, less flooding, etc. – although not for any beneficial effects of planting single seedlings per hill. (It was surprising that this had not been evaluated.) His response ignored entirely the central argument of my paper, however, that there is apparently some synergy (positive feedback) among the practices which accounted in part for SRI’s better performance and which deserved systematic evaluation. Despite a friendly reply to his response, there was no subsequent interest expressed from IRRI in following up my suggestion that we cooperate in evaluating SRI.[10]

This could have been because the IRRI staff in Madagascar took a negative view of SRI, reinforced by some Madagascar rice scientists.[11] A report on SRI sent to IRRI headquarters in 1997 by Mimi Gaudreau was based more on hearsay than on any evidence.[12] The report stated, for example, that SRI methods “require up to 8 weedings” when the recommendation of Tefy Saina and IPNR was to do “at least 2” mechanical weedings, with more weedings recommended if time and field conditions permitted because this would further enhance farmers’ yields (see Chapter 11).[13] As rice plants grow, their canopy usually becomes too closed to do more than 4 weedings. And more weedings than this are not needed because shading of the soil by the leaf canopy prevents further weed growth.

The report also said that SRI spacing should be 35 × 35 cm, and even up to 50 × 50 cm, even though Tefy Saina’s advice to farmers was always to start with 25 × 25 cm spacing. Farmers should evaluate, if they could, whether spacing plants at 20 × 20 cm or 30 × 30 cm would give them higher yield from their particular field and for the variety planted.[14] Starting with spacing that is too wide will assure a lower yield per m2 than possible with optimizing spacing. To recommend starting out with 35 × 35 cm spacing guarantees that the yields from SRI would be lower than they could be.[15] This report was neither well-informed nor friendly.

Conversation about SRI with the leadership of IRRI started in October 1998 when I was able to meet with its newly-appointed director-general, Ron Cantrell, at the World Food Prize symposium in Des Moines, Iowa. I laid out for Ron what we thought we knew about SRI at the time and asked if IRRI could help us evaluate this innovation in proper scientific fashion. He listened politely and suggested that it would be good if I could visit and talk with IRRI’s researchers in Los Baños in the Philippines, to discuss these ideas and this experience with them directly.

Fortuitously, within four months an invitation was received from the Asian Development Bank in Manila to participate in a planned workshop on participatory development. This had been the focus of my applied social science work for several decades before I came to know about SRI. When I informed Ron by email of my plans to visit the Philippines, he immediately invited me to come to IRRI and give a seminar on SRI, offering to send an IRRI car to Manila to bring me to Los Baños, a two-hour drive if the traffic was no more congested than usual.

That presentation and the ensuing discussion are reported in Chapter 4. There was a good turnout and some evident interest. What I took away from that event was that there were no technical grounds for rejecting SRI. The only objection that was raised to what I had said about SRI – that the uptake of water and nutrients by rice plant roots is impeded by continuous flooding of fields because this causes the roots to degrade – turned out to be mistaken according to the agricultural scientist who was cited to contradict my interpretation of some French research results that I reported.[16] The visit to Los Baños gave me some sense for what persons who knew IRRI well had told me about the insularity of its campus and operations.[17]

Ten months later, in December 1999, I received an e-mail from Emil Javier, former vice-chancellor of the University of the Philippines at Los Baños (UPLB) and newly-appointed chair of the CGIAR’s Technical Advisory Committee. This message was presumably sent out to hundreds of other persons who had some acquaintance with how the CGIAR system was performing. Dr. Javier asked for confidential feedback on how well I thought the CG system was meeting expectations, so that he and his committee, known as the TAC, could perform their roles better.

After consulting with two members of CIIFAD’s Advisory Committee about the advisability of giving critical feedback to Dr. Javier on our interaction with the IRRI staff in Madagascar,[18] I prepared a  letter, 7 pages supplemented by a 7-page addendum, going into some detail on SRI and our experience with IRRI personnel.[19] The gist of the message was that IRRI staff had shown little interest in an innovation that was potentially of great benefit to poor and marginal farmers, whom IRRI publicized that it wanted to assist. Having sent the response off to Dr. Javier, I forgot about it.

In June 2000, Cornell faculty organized and hosted an international symposium on rice science in honor of IRRI’s respected first director-general, Robert Chandler, who was associated with Cornell before going to IRRI. He had overseen the early contributions that IRRI scientists made to the Green Revolution. Because improved varieties were the focus of the symposium, my colleagues at Cornell preferred that the event not introduce SRI, which was a different approach to improving rice production and about which our evidence was still limited.

This event was useful for SRI’s acceptance because it led, as discussed in the preceding chapter, to getting ‘the father of hybrid rice,’ Prof. Yuan Longping, involved with and supportive of SRI. It was also the occasion for my conversation with Ken Cassman, discussed in Chapter 7, about evaluating SRI through factorial trials. And it provided an opportunity to speak about SRI with Jim Hill, a UC-Davis professor who was heading IRRI’s research program on lowland irrigated rice. He suggested that IRRI would be willing to cooperate in evaluating SRI – if I could provide it with funding to support a post-doctoral fellow as Los Baños for a year or two. He was not willing to use any of IRRI’s own resources for this purpose. Unfortunately, we had no funds to take up this invitation, so there was no progress on institutional collaboration.[20]

In November 2000 around Thanksgiving time, I sent a long letter to IRRI DG Ron Cantrell, bringing him up to date on various results and again suggesting collaboration on evaluation and explanation of SRI. There was no response, so in April 2001, after visiting the hybrid rice development center in China, I wrote to him again, letting him know that Prof. Yuan Longping, probably the world’s best-known rice scientist, was now evaluating SRI and getting very good results, adding several tonnes per hectare to the already-high yields he could get with his hybrid rice varieties. I thought that this would elicit a positive response from IRRI.

There was a response, but not the kind that I had hoped for. The director-general’s email, copied to all of his senior staff, informed me that this would be his last communication with me. When we had first spoken in Des Moines, he said, he had thought that there was some basis for cooperation. But now he had concluded that my efforts were intended “to discredit IRRI,” so there would be no further communication between us. What a surprise!

This embargo on communication with the DG did not mean that there was no further communication with IRRI as an institution. I already knew many of the staff, some as friends, and most were open to communication if not agreement. But this meant that the director-general was taking himself ‘out of the loop.’

In reflecting on the message, I surmised and a Cornell colleague later confirmed, that what had precipitated the director-general’s negative response was his reading my email response to the new TAC chairman, Dr. Javier, even though the letter had been solicited and submitted on a confidential basis. Actually, I had assumed and indeed even hoped that what I wrote to Dr. Javier would get Dr. Cantrell so that he would give some thought to the issues I raised. So, the letter had been written with IRRI’s DG in mind. But the history that I had recounted in the letter prompted him to view SRI and me in a hostile light.

In January 2002, a Southeast Asia regional symposium on sustainable agriculture and natural resource management was convened in Chiangmai, Thailand by the University of Hohenheim. A member of that university’s faculty who had learned about SRI somehow invited me to make a plenary presentation on SRI, which I prepared with inputs from SRI colleagues in Cambodia, Laos and Thailand. This event, mentioned in the preceding chapter, was our first opportunity to enlist the interest of Dr. M.S. Swaminathan in what SRI could accomplish.

When the presentation on SRI was finished, IRRI’s deputy director-general, Ren Wang, who was attending the symposium, asked for the floor, saying that he wanted to make a comment because other people there would probably be interested to know what IRRI was doing about SRI.[21] “It has been exciting to observe and learn about SRI from various reports, data, etc.,” he said. “There have been different opinions from IRRI scientists [toward SRI], but these do not represent the [CGIAR] system or the Institute [IRRI]. We have been working on different agendas toward the same goal” -- “We” referring to IRRI and CIIFAD. He added that he had himself been “watching SRI very closely” because some of his colleagues in China had reported good results with SRI methods.

“It is not important whether the maximum yield with SRI is 18 or 20 or even 25 tonnes per hectare,” he added. “Let us leave this question aside for now… IRRI is keen to look at the essence of SRI, and it needs to take a positive attitude.” He said in closing that IRRI was evaluating SRI in China with partners there who were already testing the methods at various sites. “I want to congratulate Professor Uphoff for his presentation and his efforts in proposing SRI…We want to work together… There are many scientific questions to be answered. We should look to the essence of this new approach.” This friendly stance toward SRI signaled a desire for cooperation.

And some cooperation on SRI evaluation did start up in several countries. In Laos, IRRI’s country-representative Karl Goeppert, after learning about SRI at the Chiangmai symposium, asked that he and a small delegation of Laotian rice specialists be invited to attend the international conference planned for April 2002 in China. He also offered to set up a national seminar on SRI in Laos if I could visit there.[22]

Karl subsequently arranged for half a dozen field trials to be done in Laos as described in Chapter 7. Unfortunately, these were badly managed.[23] He communicated by email that he did not consider these trials to be a proper evaluation of SRI and said that better-managed trials should be carried out before any conclusions were drawn about SRI’s suitability for Laos. As Karl’s appointment in Laos ended within a year, however, he had to leave Vientiane before a further round of trials could be conducted, and that initiative lapsed.

In Bangladesh, IRRI’s country-representative Noel Magor attended a workshop held in January 2002 at the BRAC office in Dhaka which set up a national SRI steering committee under the auspices of BRAC. This committee included several other NGOs, two government research institutes, and Syngenta Bangladesh Ltd (Chapter 34). Noel suggested that an IRRI project with British funding (PETRRA) could support a thorough evaluation of SRI, and committee members proceeded to design a two-year evaluation, discussed in Chapter 7.[24]

When the first international conference on SRI was held in Sanya, China in April 2002, IRRI sent one of its most senior scientists, Shaobing Peng, to participate. So, there was some growing collaboration despite the director-general’s decision to withdraw himself from any communication with me. When IRRI held its 1st International Rice Congress in September 2002 in Beijing, I was not able to get a presentation on SRI included in the official program, but I was given a place on the schedule for a noontime lunch presentation.[25]

The week after the SRI conference in China in April 2002, there was an international seminar on ‘water-wise’ rice production, organized by the Wageningen University project discussed in Chapter 8. The seminar was held at IRRI’s headquarters in Los Baños, with IRRI as a co-sponsor. The two events dovetailed nicely, and half a dozen Sanya participants traveled from the conference directly to Los Baños. Five papers on SRI were presented, from China, India, Indonesia and Madagascar.[26] The most detailed and conclusive SRI paper was a report on the results of the factorial trials that were reported in the first section of Chapter 7.

Those proceedings of the seminar were subsequently co-published by IRRI and Wageningen, the papers peer-reviewed by some of IRRI’s senior scientists. Yet even so, IRRI staff for years thereafter kept stating that there was ‘no scientific evidence’ to back up SRI claims. We thought that until our data and analysis were contradicted by equally well-constructed field trials, with hundreds of replications using random block design for the distribution of test plots, this work we reported provided a credible scientific case for SRI, warranting support for further testing and evaluation. But apparently baccalaureate thesis research done in Madagascar and written up in French rather than English could not get much respect from international scientists, even if the work had been carefully supervised and was done by the top students in the national university.


A year later, I made another visit to the Philippines and to Los Baños in March 2003.[27] IRRI had by this time done some of its own SRI trials on-station, with pretty abysmal results that the IRRI farm manager Joe Rickman and other staff were eager to discuss with me. According to their first season of trials, the SRI plots had yielded only 1.44 tonnes per hectare, about the poorest SRI result that I had ever heard of. The IRRI laborers, it was reported, had invested 2.7 times more labor on the SRI plots than on the plots that demonstrated and evaluated IRRI’s preferred practices, which was surprising and discrediting. The low SRI yield was partially compensated for by a reduction of 89% in seed inputs and by using 27% less water.[28]

The next season, IRRI had compared SRI with its own preferred practices and with some other variations in rice crop management (dry-seeding, broadcasting, raised beds, and zero-tillage). The SRI results were better this time, 3 tonnes per hectare, but this was still only half the yield that dozens of farmers in the Philippines had gotten when they used SRI methods. This time the labor input for SRI was only 1.14 times more than required for IRRI’s methods, and the water saving was 57%. So, SRI methods looked somewhat more attractive than before. But the SRI yield was still 25% less than the yield of 4 tonnes per hectare that was harvested from the plots where IRRI’s own preferred methods were used.[29]

I remember well an intense lunchtime discussion during this visit to IRRI, sitting together with Joe, Balasubramanian (now back from Madagascar), and Shaobing Peng and reviewing the results of the respective trials. Balasubramanian lamented that the yield achieved with IRRI’s methods had been only 4 tonnes per hectare, no more than the national average yield in the Philippines. How, Bala asked, could IRRI justify its existence if with all of its expertise and resources, it did not produce a higher yield than a typical Philippine farmer? A very good question.

Joe asked me: “Why do you think that IRRI’s on-station results with SRI methods are so much lower than what Philippine farmers are reporting from their use of these new methods on their own fields?” I said that this was a very good question. Although I had no soil biological evidence to support my conjecture, I suggested that, after decades of applying chemical fertilizers, often heavily, and using so many kinds of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, etc., “Maybe IRRI’s soils are almost dead.” By that time we were pretty sure that the soil biota played a substantial role in SRI performance. There were no data available from IRRI’s test plots to confirm this suspicion, but this hypothesis seemed to make sense.

That afternoon, I gave a seminar to IRRI staff, reporting on SRI results in various countries and possible explanations. Since Ron Cantrell was traveling, Shaobing Peng chaired the session. As soon as I finished, one of the senior staff, John Sheehy, with whom I had talked for an hour that morning, stood up, red-faced and furious. He said that I should never have been permitted to give such a scandalous seminar at a respectable scientific institution like IRRI. He insisted that my presentation was no better than alchemy or astrology, having no scientific foundation. He claimed that I had misquoted people and that I had misstated statistics, which I was quite certain that I had not done.

“Everyone knows that the way to establish scientific truth is through falsification,” Sheehy asserted, advocating a rather doctrinaire epistemology for science. Peng, taken aback like everyone else by the intensity of this attack, suggested that perhaps John and I could talk out our disagreements over dinner that evening. But John stalked out of the seminar hall without another word.[30] That evening Shaobing and I had a long friendly discussion over dinner at his home on the IRRI campus. He said that despite the exchange with John Sheehy, he hoped that the visit had showed me that there was now more positive interest in SRI at IRRI.

That evening back at my hotel in Quezon City I sent a long email to John Sheehy, citing references and data to support what I had reported in the seminar, to show that the presentation had not lacked scientific foundation. John’s responded a few days later, saying that he didn’t have time to go into all of the points that I had raised, but instead he was going to write a journal article on the scientific bases for ‘yield ceilings,’ which he thought the reports on SRI results were violating. He said that he would send me a copy of the article when it was published.[31]

What I did not know at the time was that Sheehy was heading up IRRI’s effort to genetically modify the pathway for photosynthesis in rice, changing its C3 pathway to a less common but more productive C4 pathway.[32] Evidently he regarded SRI as a competitor for research funding to carry out this IRRI project. If SRI methods could achieve what we were reporting, donors might see less justification for putting tens of millions of dollars into IRRI’s research program for C3/C4 transformation. This perceived conflict is clearer now than it was at the time. SRI proponents, perhaps naively, did not see themselves as being in competition for research funding. We were trying to understand how the resources involved in rice production could be used more productively and to disseminate such knowledge more widely.[33]

At the initiative of FAO and IRRI, 2004 was designated by the United Nations as the first ‘International Year of Rice.’ There was a big inaugural event held in February at FAO headquarters in Rome to formally launch the International Year. We tried to get a presentation on SRI onto the agenda for the event, but were told the agenda was already set. I was, however, given an opportunity to put up a poster and to make a presentation on SRI during the first noon lunchtime.

Two of the speakers in the opening plenary session made favorable references to SRI in their remarks: Peter Kenmore, head of FAO’s Integrated Pest Management Program, and Daniel Renault, a rice scientist with FAO. There was no reference to SRI in the keynote remarks by IRRI’s director-general, Ron Cantrell, however. His remarks focused on IRRI’s research for a ‘new plant type,’ the C3/C4 transformation, and molecular breeding methods, proclaiming what he called “the genomics era” for rice R&D.[34] The eight things that he listed as the major needs for the rice sector in the 21st century were all things that could already be achieved by SRI methods with little R&D cost, and with multiple economic and environmental benefits.[35] But mention for SRI was avoided in favor of emphasizing genetic improvement.

The lunchtime presentation on SRI got delayed because the preceding talk ran far over its allotted time. My scheduled 45-minute presentation thus had to be cut back to 20 minutes. But an unexpected assist came from the audience and made the much-shortened presentation quite effective nevertheless.

When I finished the accelerate powerpoint presentation, a listener in the back of the room stood up and introduced himself as Philibert Rakotoson, director-general of agriculture for Madagascar. He said that he had known and worked with Father Laulanié during the priest’s last years in Madagascar, and that everything which I had reported about SRI was correct. Those who attended the noontime event returned to the plenary hall for the start of the afternoon session having heard a strong endorsement of SRI from someone in a position to speak authoritatively.[36]

In November of that year as part of the International Year of Rice observance, IRRI convened a World Rice Research Congress in Tsukuba, Japan, to showcase rice research from many countries. I proposed that a panel on SRI be included in the program but was told that the program was already set. However, if I was able and willing to pay for the rental of a meeting room, a special session on SRI could be scheduled for Sunday morning.

This turned out to be a well-attended event despite its timing, with a number of IRRI staff attending.[37] The presentations on SRI results were from Bangladesh China, India (both Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu), Indonesia and Philippines. Unfortunately, a planned presentation by the director of Cuba’s rice research institute who had become a supporter of SRI could not be given because of a missed airplane connection in Osaka.[38]

While 2004 saw some progress made toward international acceptance of SRI, it was also the year in which resistance to SRI became more vocal and hardened. We saw in Chapter 1 how a rebuttal invited by IRRI and published in its magazine Rice Today that year asserted that SRI should not even be considered, let alone evaluated. “Discussion of the system of rice intensification (SRI) is unfortunate because it implies [that] SRI merits serious consideration. SRI does not deserve such attention.”[39] Several articles were published in leading agronomic journals that year by scientists at or associated with IRRI. So, pushback from ‘mainstream’ institutions and professionals against SRI stepped up in 2004.

In December of that year, Ron Cantrell stepped down as director-general of IRRI for health and family reasons, and a successor, Robert Zeigler, took up the position in March 2005.[40] As it happened, I had planned visits to Cambodia and the Philippines for that month, so I asked the new DG by email whether he could meet with me while I was in Manila. This was his first week on the job at IRRI, so he was very busy, so I appreciated all the more his accommodating my schedule. He gave me an hour and a quarter of his much-in-demand time. Our amicable conversation was summarized in my trip report as follows:

Dr. Zeigler … indicated that IRRI is open to beneficial innovations in rice production no matter where they come from, mentioning as one possible source “even a Jesuit priest,” courteously referring to Fr. Laulanié, the developer of SRI in Madagascar. We discussed many technical issues with SRI, and I think he was satisfied that we have been serious in seeking scientific evaluations and explanations, and that a preponderance of evidence is building up confirming SRI results.

I left with him a 2-inch thick notebook of evaluations, pictures and newspaper reports taken off the web. It led off with the evaluation of SRI done by four organizations in Bangladesh funded through IRRI’s program in that country, with over 1,200 farmers participating. Even with less than complete adoption of the recommended methods, their average yields increased by 26% and profitability by 59% in the two seasons evaluated.[41]

When we met again six months later at an international rice conference in Bali, Indonesia, Zeigler’s tone was still friendly, although more guarded, and the anticipated interest in collegial cooperation to advance a scientific understanding of SRI never materialized.

The Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) was at this time collaborating with the CGIAR system in a ‘dialogue project on water for food and environment,’ reported on in Chapter 8. This joint project had embarked on a systematic evaluation of SRI as a strategy for both producing more food and reducing the agricultural sector’s consumption of water, seeking to minimize the sector’s competition with and adverse impacts upon natural ecosystems.

To draw IRRI’s attention to the results that were accumulating from its research program with ICRISAT in India and elsewhere, the dialogue project’s director Biksham Gujja arranged with IRRI and the Philippines national institute for rice, PhilRice, to convene an international workshop on ‘Rice and Water: Exploring Options for Food Security and Sustainable Environments’ during March 2006 at Los Baños in the Philippines.[42]

The workshop was well-attended by PhilRice scientists, including its director, but few scientists from the IRRI staff attended. None of those who were skeptical about SRI made time to participate and listen to empirical reports on SRI. Their response to the presentations and discussion was to circulate “as an independent evaluation of SRI” an article dismissing SRI which had recently been published in the journal Field Crops Research. As seen in Chapter 28, both the article’s data base and its methodology had easily-identifiable flaws, pointed out by two senior CGIAR scientists.[43] These were shortcomings so evident that they should not have been overlooked by peer review.

The event at IRRI was useful for its participants who came from half a dozen countries, but it had no ascertainable impact on thinking or attitudes at IRRI. Below are pictures of the building and banner where the workshop was held and of some of the workshop participants. Biksham is sitting in the center in the red shirt, with Obet Verzola, the coordinator for SRI-Pilipinas, sitting behind him.[44]

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Seven months later, in October 2006, the Second International Rice Congress, organized by IRRI, was convened in New Delhi, India. We learned about this event only after the deadline for submitting abstracts for papers had passed, but a message to M.S. Swaminathan, who was chairing the program committee for the event, got SRI a place on one of the scientific panels. As it happened, my presentation was preceded by one from Pakistan, by the director-general for water management of the Punjab’s Provincial Department of Agriculture, Mushtaq Gil. He spoke approvingly of SRI based on the initial trials conducted in the Punjab.[45]

About 20 SRI colleagues had come from India, Nepal, Bhutan and Thailand to attend the Congress. They presented 15 posters on SRI, also meeting and talking among themselves. Below is a picture of a number of SRI colleagues who came to an impromptu meeting hosted at ICAR’s National Center for Agricultural Economics near the congress site by Bhuban Barah. This was a useful event for sharing SRI knowledge.[46]

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In January 2007, I received an email from a colleague at the Institute of Development Studies at Sussex in the UK, John Thompson, who had just attended the annual meetings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) held in Seattle. John wrote that a molecular biologist at IRRI who had been on a panel with him, John Bennett, when he was asked about SRI had stated categorically that SRI “has been discredited” and “is not worth studying.” My friend John wanted to know how I would respond to this assertion.

I sent back to him, and also to John Bennett and Bob Zeigler, IRRI’s director-general, a report just received from Indonesia with extensive data that I thought would rebut any categorical dismissal of SRI. The report had been sent by Shuichi Sato, leader of a Japanese technical assistance team helping with an irrigation project in Eastern Indonesia.

Sato-san provided data from over 9,000 on-farm comparison trials conducted over six seasons. SRI methods had increased rice yields by 78% on average, while reducing irrigation water requirements by 40%, fertilizer use by 50%, and costs per hectare by 20%.[47] As discussed in Chapter 8, this email exchange led to an agreement between Bob Zeigler and myself to undertake a joint IRRI-Cornell evaluation of SRI. Bob did not offer to contribute to the costs of such an evaluation, however, assuming that I should find the financial support to fund such a collaborative effort.[48]

The initial agreement was for Achim Dobermann, IRRI’s deputy director-general for research, and myself to serve as the co-principal investigators. However, later that year this arrangement was superseded (and improved upon) by bringing Wageningen University into the evaluation project as a neutral third party. Prof. Herman van Keulen agreed to be Wageningen’s principal investigator and leader of the evaluation, with Bas Bouman taking over as IRRI’s principal investigator and with Cornell colleagues John Duxbury and Janice Thies becoming Cornell’s PIs. This meant that the study would be managed by persons who were less identified with either side in the SRI ‘controversy’ than Achim and I were.

In March 2008, Wageningen University hosted a planning meeting for this evaluation at its campus in the Netherlands. Wanting to see this effort well-planned and successful, WWF covered some of the travel costs. In the planning discussions, it was anomalous that the IRRI team was most interested in studying SRI as ‘a movement,’ while Cornell participants wanted to pursue a research-based scientific understanding of SRI agronomic effects. The Wageningen faculty involved were interested in understanding both SRI’s effectiveness and its spread, so the research team was well-balanced overall.

We were surprised that IRRI was not more interested in examining the scientific issues associated with SRI. Its staff seemed to believe that SRI was either ‘not as good as reported’ or it was simply a matter of ‘good extension work.’ IRRI colleagues showed little concern with the subjects addressed in Part I, taking more interest instead in what is covered in Part III of this memoire. There was no acceptance that SRI experience or research had anything to offer of scientific significance beyond what its scientists already knew.[49]

The plan and budget put together by the principal investigators for a multi-country, five-year study came to almost $10 million. This did not seem like an unreasonable amount given SRI’s potential for improving agriculture and for benefiting the natural environment if the evaluation confirmed the claims made for SRI.

The results of such a study should put an end to ‘the rice wars,’ and if the study confirmed SRI’s merits, this should break the logjam blocking governmental and foundation support for SRI. The proposal was submitted to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, with which I already had a tentative agreement to fund the research.[50]

The foundation responded quickly that this amount was more than it was prepared to support, suggesting that it would be receptive to a request between $3 and 4 million. So, the number of years and number of countries were scaled back to arrive at a budget just under $4 million.

Five months after the proposal was re-submitted, I got a call in November 2008 saying that the foundation would not be able to make a grant for this project as had been previously discussed and informally agreed upon. Why? Because the foundation was experiencing cash-flow constraints caused by the collapse of the American stock market.[51]

The foundation said that it would, however, consider the proposal again in a year’s time. This did not happen, however. Instead in mid-2009, the Gates Foundation made a grant to Wageningen University to study the spread of SRI. Within the foundation and probably at IRRI there was interest in knowing how what IRRI characterized as ‘the SRI movement’ had come into being, and how it had been able to disseminate SRI methods so quickly and widely at such low cost. Questions of whether and why SRI ‘worked’ were of no apparent interest to IRRI or the foundation.

After 2008, there was little interaction or communication with IRRI about SRI as both IRRI and SRI-Rice continued to do their respective things. IRRI did post several pages on its website about SRI, but the first posting was quite dismissive, citing Thomas Sinclair’s 2004 rejection of SRI as a ‘good source of information’ on SRI -- even though most of the assertions that Sinclair had made as to why SRI did not deserve even to be considered were, in fact, empirically untenable. When SRI-Rice pointed this out, the link to Sinclair’s essay was removed from the SRI page on IRRI’s website. The website subsequently presented a more balanced review of SRI, although it still offered the dismissal of SRI by McDonald et al. (2006) as a scientifically-valid assessment, when this was demonstrably incorrect (see Chapter 28).[52]

From the text of IRRI’s webpage on SRI, it was evident that IRRI scientists were still bothered by the flexibility and adaptability of SRI methods, complaining that variability in the application of SRI principles made it difficult to evaluate SRI in scientific terms. IRRI scientists wanted to deal with SRI as if it were just one more technology, even though it had several times been explained to them that this would be pouring the ‘new wine’ of SRI into the ‘old bottles’ of the Green Revolution, and it would not be helpful for comprehending SRI as a methodology for raising the productivity of all the resources invested in rice production.

In November 2011, Bob Zeigler visited Cornell University and gave a seminar on ‘Global Food Security, International Rice Research, and Cornell.’ In his presentation, there was one inference that prompted a question from me after the talk was finished. One of Bob’s slides had showed two parallel upward curves accelerating and then decelerating. The first curve represented total expenditures for the funding of rice research (adjusted for purchasing power), and the other showed the annual rates of increase in rice yield around the world.

The graph implied that the slow-down in rice productivity gains was a consequence of there being relatively less expenditure globally on rice research. With more spending on rice research, it was expected that the rate of yield improvement would rise as rapidly as before yield gains started slowing in the 1990s, and that if there were more investment in research, increases in yield would again rise in a direct linear manner.

My question to Bob was whether the declining growth of expenditure on rice research was really the cause for a slowing rate of growth in rice yield? Economic theory and experience tell us that when more and more resources are expended on any particular activity, there are likely to be diminishing returns to such expenditure. Might it be that continuing to adhere to the current paradigm for rice research – which focused mostly on breeding new varieties and relying heavily on agrochemical inputs -- was responsible for the diminishing returns observed?

Perhaps for these curves to regain their upward momentum, I suggested without naming SRI, there was need for some change in the paradigm for rice research, not just continuing to do more of the same. There is no simple answer to this question, I said, but some thought should be given to this alternative interpretation of the graph. My asking this question fortunately did not prevent our having an amicable discussion afterwards.

The current IRRI website posting on SRI is reasonably friendly, but it makes clear that IRRI is not interested in working on SRI.

SRI as a movement is a strong force to bring together farmers, extension and development agents, scientists, and other stakeholders in a participatory manner to adopt and integrate technologies such as best management practices that can increase yield, resource-use efficiencies, and income. IRRI is not currently conducting any research to compare SRI to current best management practices given the inherent challenges of evaluating SRI.[53]

There has been some indirect indication, however, that IRRI now accepts the value of most if not all of the SRI practices. In November 2018, an Australian student, Racheal Wood, reported in a blog on her experience of participating in an IRRI short course at Los Baños on ‘Rice Research to Production.’[54] She wrote that on the second day of the course, participants had to guide a water buffalo in plowing a rice paddy, and then the next day they got hands-on experience in crop establishment. Rachael’s wrote:

Other field work included hand transplanting week-old rice seedlings into thick mud. Gaining an understanding of traditional methods in rice production made me appreciate how hard-working Filipino and other Asia farmers are.

Below is a picture of Rachael and fellow students transplanting seedlings in the muddy plot that she posted on her blog:

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Transplanting single young seedlings in a square pattern with no standing water, as seen in the picture, looks a lot like SRI methodology. If these methods were presented by IRRI to trainees as “traditional methods” for growing rice, there has been a tremendous acceleration of time. But it is welcome that SRI methods were being taught to trainees who come to Los Baños, no matter what the designation. As Shakespeare wrote in Romeo and Juliet, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

Research comparing the results of SRI vs. ‘best management practices’ is probably not very useful or very necessary any more. But research into SRI methods to understand why they are more productive than the methods still used by most farmers around the world is still worthwhile.


International Rice Congresses

One of the important avenues for gaining acceptance of SRI has been the quadrennial International Rice Congresses that IRRI has been organizing and convening since 2002. The first and second IRCs, held in Beijing in 2002 and in New Delhi in 2006, have been referred to above.

When the third IRC was held in Hanoi, Vietnam, in 2010, its program committee invited me to be a member of a panel planned for the first plenary session of the congress. The committee had decided to have a panel in place the traditional opening keynote address, expecting that it would be livelier than most keynotes are. Along with Hans Herren, I was expected to provide some new perspectives for rice research, while the other two panel members would present and support more mainstream views.[55]

Before the third IRC, SRI-Rice and Oxfam America in cooperation with the Plant Protection Division of Vietnam’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development organized a day of presentations and discussions on SRI as a pre-congress event. At the congress itself, several scientific papers were presented on panels along with posters on SRI effects and results. There was thus quite an evident SRI presence at this third congress.[56]

The fourth IRC was held in Bangkok, Thailand in 2014. Again, an SRI pre-congress meeting was convened with the support of Oxfam America. And there was a three-day, post-congress workshop on equipment and implements appropriate for SRI, held at the Asian Institute for Technology near Bangkok.[57]

Below is a picture of the SRI booth set up at the 5th IRC which was held in Singapore in October 2018. This picture shows a representative group of SRI colleagues who attended the Congress: Debashish Sen (India), Diddier Moreira (IICA, Latin America), Le Minh (Oxfam, Vietnam), Bancy Mati (Kenya), Khidhir Hameed (Iraq), and Amod Thakur (ICAR, India).

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There was also a special workshop on SRI research that was organized by Lucy Fisher on behalf of SRI-Rice and was attended by some 50 congress attendees from some 12 countries.[58] Below is a picture of the post-IRC meeting attendees. After the Congress, the Malaysian network SRI-Mas hosted a two-day meeting at Johor across the border from Singapore, where accommodations are less expensive.

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The International Rice Congresses and associated events have thus been quite valuable for communicating knowledge about SRI to a wider audience as well as for strengthening ties and exchange among the SRI colleagues who attended these gatherings from all around the world. The IRCs have thus been a significant service to SRI from the International Rice Research Institute which should be noted.



This research institution founded in 1971 was known as WARDA, the West Africa Rice Development Association, until 2009, when its name was changed with a new mandate to deal with rice development for the whole continent. Within the CGIAR system, WARDA has thus functioned as a kind of IRRI for Africa.

In early 1998, WARDA’s newly-appointed director-general Kanayo Nwanze, a Nigerian entomologist who had previously worked at two other CGIAR centers, IITA and ICRISAT, learned about SRI from reading CIIFAD’s 1996-97 Annual Report, which featured SRI in Madagascar on its cover, as shown in Chapter 3. Kanayo suggested to WARDA’s interim director of research, Willem Stoop, that he get touch with CIIFAD at Cornell University because it appeared to be doing interesting work on rice in Madagascar. This publication of SRI information in the CIIFAD annual report thus turned out ultimately to have more impact than was recognized at the time.

Willem forwarded to Kanayo a paper on SRI that I had sent to him, the one that had been sent also to IRRI in January 1998. Shortly thereafter I received a cordial letter from Kanayo, saying that once he got settled in at WARDA’s center in the Ivory Coast, he would like to see SRI methods evaluated there. He wrote subsequently that he had found in his own millet research in India that reducing irrigation could increase crop yield, in this particular instance by reducing the crop’s susceptibility to disease.[59] He was very interested in SRI’s proposition that crop production could be improved by reducing inputs.

About the same time, Amir Kassam took leave from the CGIAR’s Technical Assistance Committee secretariat at FAO in Rome, where he was a senior scientific officer, to come to WARDA for two years to serve as its deputy director for research. Amir was also interested to doing SRI evaluations. As the initial response from WARDA scientists was negative, Amir and Willem had to do considerable negotiation and improvisation with Kanayo’s support to get trials undertaken.[60] On the history of this, see the mini-memoires of Kassam and Stoop.

The first trials were conducted in the 1999-2000 season with some unhappiness and resistance from most of the resident rice scientists. As seen in the figure below, unfortunately the first SRI results were very disappointing.[61] Using two different rice varieties, SRI methods in these trials produced yields that were 36% to 46% below those achieved by standard practices.

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These were pretty dismaying differences. I immediately sent an email to Kanayo and Amir apologizing that the results of these trials had not been better with SRI. I remember commenting that because of their complexity, one has to be prepared for unexpected outcomes in any biological relationships, which is why in-situ evaluations are necessary.[62]

Two and a half weeks later, responses from both Kanayo and Amir arrived in my email inbox within six minutes of each other. Kanayo wrote:

We deeply regret distorted information about the WARDA SRI trials that was passed to Cornell and to Rockefeller [Foundation]. It is unfortunate that scientists remain unscientific in their judgment, especially on matters they know little about and pass on such misinformation to others. The WARDA SRI trial had two planting dates, and the results from the second planting date are quite informative and in line with what one would expect SRI to perform. Unfortunately, the results from the first planting dates are not reliable because of the way the water regime was managed in the first nine weeks…. We feel it should now be possible to show the benefits of SRI in the next set of trials this season.[63]

The first trials had been conducted without maintaining any water control during the first part of the plants’ growth cycle. So, the young SRI seedlings had struggled at the outset, much like the IRRI trials in Marovoay, Madagascar. The plants could not achieve their potential for growth when they started out submerged. Also, the plants had no benefit from the services of aerobic soil organisms.[64]

Most of the scientists at WARDA were involved in making genetic advances for rice production in West Africa, having developed a variety of inter-specific hybrid rice called NERICA (New Rice for Africa). This new variety, which combined genes from Asian and African species of rice, had become WARDA’s proudest accomplishment.[65] To these scientists, obtaining similar or better crop performance just by changing management practices was neither plausible nor welcome.

An evaluation of both SRI and NERICA in The Gambia during 2001 and 2002 done by a Gambian agronomist (later with FAO) found that SRI practices produced more benefits for farmers than adopting a NERICA variety.[66] However, this information did not make WARDA scientists any more interested in SRI than before. After Kanayo Nwanze left WARDA in 2006 to take up an executive position with the International Fund for Agricultural Development in Rome (Chapter 30), and without Willem Stoop or Amir Kassam at the Africa Rice Center, there was little further interest in SRI within that CGIAR center.

At the initiative of Tim Krupnik, who had developed a strong interest in SRI while a graduate student at the University of California-Santa Cruz (and who introduced SRI methods in Burkina Faso while doing pre-dissertation fieldwork there), there was some evaluation of SRI done in Senegal under WARDA auspices. Tim’s comparisons of SRI methods with prevailing practices found no significant differences in yield. However, the saving of water under SRI management ranged from 16 to 48%, which is an important effect in the dry Sahelian region.[67] Tim’s results did not spark interest within WARDA for any further evaluation.

When the World Bank-supported West African Agricultural Productivity Program (WAAPP) launched an initiative in 2014 for disseminating SRI within the West African region (Chapter 8), the Africa Rice Center was invited to join in the program, but it declined to get involved with the effort. It was left to other national and regional institutions in West Africa to carry out this program, for which SRI-Rice provided training and technical backstopping. The results that the WAAPP initiative achieved with SRI methods all across West Africa were very positive and consequential. With over 1,000 sites across 13 countries, the average increase in irrigated rice yields with SRI methods was 56%. With rainfed rice production, SRI methods raised yields by an average of 86%.[68] The Africa Rice Center, however, remained aloof.



Before it was understood that SRI ideas and methods had relevance for wheat and maize as well as for rice (Chapter 14), some research conducted at this international center in Mexico, known by its Spanish acronym as CIMMYT, gave an important boost for our understanding of SRI at an opportune time. The recommendation of Fr. Laulanié to reduce plant density and thus seed requirements by 80 to 90% was hard to believe and accept. How could very small amounts of seed produce as much or even more grain than much larger amounts of seed?

A monograph published in 1997 by CIMMYT researchers Ken Sayre and Oscar Moreno reported that when wheat was grown on raised beds with no-till methods, there was no significant difference in the resulting yield between the seeding rates of 15-25 kg per hectare and sowing 200 kg per hectare -- 10 times more![69] These researchers documented that when more space is provided between the plants, their roots and canopies grew enough larger so that the plants become much more productive, as we were seeing with SRI methods for rice.

Once we had some evidence that SRI methods could be applied to wheat as well as to rice (Chapter 14), we began trying to get CIMMYT administrators and researchers interested in what SRI knowledge and practice could do to improve this crop’s productivity too, but with little success.[70]

In 2010, I spoke about SWI with CIMMYT’s director-general, Thomas Lumpkin, at the International Rice Conference in Hanoi, and then again in 2012 (twice) at a global food security forum convened in Morocco. Erika Styger and I spent an hour talking about SRI and SWI opportunities with CIMMYT’s deputy director-general for research, Hans-Joachim Braun, when he visited Cornell in 2014. But none of these conversations with CIMMYT leadership elicited any interest in engaging with SWI as we had hoped. So SWI remains an opportunity for CIMMYT researchers to pursue.



The ‘dialogue project on water for food and environment’ which the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) entered into with the CGIAR system in 2002 (Chapter 8) was referred to in the section on IRRI above. This unique project, set up to address the growing worldwide water crisis by finding ways to reduce the freshwater consumed by major irrigated crops, was based at the CGIAR center known as ICRISAT in Hyderabad, India.

After the project became involved with evaluating and then disseminating SRI in India, there was a suggestion made from IRRI that ICRISAT should not become involved with SRI because rice is the domain of IRRI within the CGIAR system. To his credit, ICRISAT’s director-general at the time, Willy Dar (appointed as Secretary of Agriculture for the Philippines in 2019), did not accede to the pressure. He pointed out that water-saving methods, which SRI introduced, are clearly within the mandate of ICRISAT, so the project proceeded.

The WWF-funded evaluation research on SRI was done jointly by ICRISAT scientists and researchers at the Directorate of Rice Research of the Indian Council for Agricultural Research[71] and the Andhra Pradesh state agricultural university, ANGRAU. It was fortuitous that all three institutions were located in Hyderabad. Their research findings have been summarized in a important article by the researchers and published in the journal Paddy and Water Environment.[72]

In this collaborative effort, leadership on the microbiological aspects of SRI was provided by ICRISAT’s senior soil biologist, Om Rupela, who contributed to everyone’s understanding of this dimension of SRI.[73] Below is a picture of Om standing, with a village boy, in front of a prolific field of SMI mustard during a field trip in Bihar state in 2011. Sadly and unfortunately for us, Om passed away rather prematurely in 2015. He was a good example of a CGIAR scientist who was open to the new ideas of SRI, being prepared to examine it and contributing to explaining it.

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Recognizing that simply promoting more production of cereal grains and other food crops would not reduce hunger and poverty without having a supportive policy environment, the CGIAR system established this center in 1976. Its founding director-general John Mellor was a well-known agricultural economist on the faculty at Cornell. He served as IFPRI’s DG from 1976 until 1990, and was succeeded by another Cornell faculty member, Per Pinstrup-Andersen, IFPRI DG from 1992 to 2002.[74] Thus I knew both very well and talked with them about SRI as number of times.

A German economist Joachin von Braun served as IFPRI’s DG for seven years following Per, 2002-2009, and then Chinese economist Shenggen Fan was DG until 2019. I talked also with both of them several times about SRI. But all of the DGs kept their distance from this innovation, deferring to IRRI’s opinion about SRI because within the CGIAR, rice was the responsibility of IRRI.

One might have expected economists to be interested in SRI because it could reduce farmers’ costs of production while raising yield, so that their net income from rice could rise by more than their increase in output. However, this benefit from SRI seemed to have the opposite effect as economists in general have exhibited less interest in SRI as an innovation than have agronomists.

SRI appears to violate one of the most cherished tenets of the economics profession: There is no free lunch. Every benefit must have some accompanying cost, and there are always tradeoffs to be weighed between benefits and cost, economists insist. Anything that reduces costs while raising production and income appears to contradict this firmly-held belief.

SRI is not costless, to be sure. There is invariably some initial added cost, at least in terms of labor time while the new methods are being learned, as discussed in Chapter 7. How much cost taking up SRI management imposes depends on how steep farmers’ learning curve. New practices also appear to entail some risk, moving from the known to the unknown, from the familiar to the unfamiliar. However, studies by GTZ and IWMI based on large random samples of SRI and non-SRI farmers have shown that using SRI methods actually reduces farmers’ risks.

In some cases, there are some higher costs for labor, to manage the seedlings and water and to weed more carefully even after mastering the new methods. But additional yield almost always more than compensates for the extra cost. In evaluation after evaluation, it has been shown that the productivity of all resources involved -- land, labor, water, capital, and certainly seeds -- was enhanced by SRI’s agroecologically-based methods of crop management.

As scientists and farmers developed a better understanding of SRI, as recounted in Part I, it was made clear that there is no magic or mystery in SRI’s productivity gains, which appear as a kind of windfall. SRI methods capitalize upon productive potentials that already exist in soil biology and ecology and within the genetic potentials in plants and their microbial symbionts.

The productive processes that SRI taps are driven, one might say ‘fueled,’ by the renewable and inexhaustible (at least for billions more years) supply of free energy that emanates from the sun. The current paradigm of economics is based essentially on concepts of engineering and mechanics rather than upon a comprehension of biology and renewability. The principles of economics are oriented to zero-sum or even negative-sum relationships, seeing friction and leakages everywhere.

The realm of biology does encompass examples of both zero-sum and negative-sum relationships. However, fundamentally it functions within a framework of positive-sum dynamics that is not in sync with the preconceptions of the discipline of economics. Economics in its preoccupation with rigor and precision has a preference for dealing with closed systems. Open systems are not very attractive to economists because these are inherently unpredictable, even messy, with many unmeasurable influences and feedbacks. And the perpetual infusion of free energy into biological systems makes them essentially different from mechanical systems.[75]

These thoughts on why economists have shown so little interest in SRI is, however, speculative, and here we want to focus on factual matters. It is, however, a fact is that IFPRI as an institution has shunned SRI when one might have expected its directors-general and its staff to want to know more about it.

Joachim von Braun became acquainted with SRI a few months before he was appointed as IFPRI’s director-general. We met and talked in January 2002 at the Chiangmai conference on sustainable agriculture in Southeast Asia mentioned above. We met and talked again in 2005 at the German Tropentag conference held at Hohenheim where we were both invited keynote speakers. Both times, Joachim heard and saw my summary presentation on what was known about SRI, and both times there was polite interest expressed, but nothing more. When I offered to give a seminar on SRI at IFPRI in 2004, when I was going to be in Washington for a World Bank meeting, the offer was declined because, his assistant said, not enough staff would be around on the available date.

In 2010, the IFPRI director-general’s chief of staff, Rahul Pandya-Lorch and I were both on a panel for a session honoring Norman Borlaug, father of the Green Revolution, at the Biovision conference held that year in Alexandria, Egypt. After my presentation, Rahul said that what I had said was very interesting and that I should make a similar presentation to the IFPRI staff the next time that I visited Washington. I agreed. But when I suggested a date during a planned trip to Washington shortly thereafter, the offer to give a talk on SRI at IFPRI was declined -- because its seminar room was being renovated.

In October 2010, IFPRI did finally agree to host a brown-bag lunch seminar on SRI for its staff when Oxfam America, WWF and Africare were bringing SRI farmers from India, Vietnam and Mali to visit Washington, after they had made presentations at a side-event at the World Food Prize symposium in Des Moines, Iowa. The seminar was fairly well-attended by IFPRI staff and seemed well-received. Afterwards, Rahul again suggested that I should make a presentation to the whole IFPRI staff addressing the economics of SRI. Again, I agreed, but there was no follow-up.

During Shenggen Fan’s tenure as director-general, I offered again to make a presentation on SRI to IFPRI staff during a visit to Washington. This was probably in 2014, but I do not have a record of the exact date. This time Rahul told me when I spoke to her by phone that IFPRI would first have to get permission for such a seminar from the CGIAR secretariat, which was based at the World Bank in Washington DC.

I emailed the CGIAR’s CEO Frank van Rijsberman twice to get his green light for holding a seminar on SRI at IFPRI. But he never responded to either email. So that opportunity for informing IFPRI about SRI and discussing any questions, doubts or misgivings that its staff might have also fell through. Why permission was needed from the CGIAR secretariat to give a seminar on SRI at IFPRI was never evident. All of these interactions showed that IFPRI leadership preferred to keep its distance from an innovation that had huge implications for food security and food policy.[76]



The water-saving effects of SRI should have made it of great interest to this CGIAR center, and indeed there were more collegial interactions concerning SRI with staff of this institute, known as IWMI, than with those of any other CG center. The evaluation of SRI done in Sri Lanka by an IWMI team there in 2003 was discussed in Chapter 7. That study was based on a two-district study of 120 randomly-selected Sri Lankan farmers, half using SRI methods (but not necessarily using all of them fully or well), and the other half following their usual practices.

The study’s findings, reviewed in Chapter 7, were mostly positive, but the report’s conclusion was ambivalent: “Whether or not to pursue these avenues [to make SRI more attractive to farmers] and to promote SRI remains an open question.”[77] Such indecisiveness was incongruous, divorced from the study’s data, since these showed a water saving (reduction) of 24% per hectare, accompanied by 44% higher average grain yield. This almost doubled the ‘crop per drop,’ which was IIWI’s succinct objective.

SRI water savings were discounted in the report by saying that these savings would not aggregate up to the irrigation system level unless all farmers adopted the new methods. So, there was no interest in figuring out how to make SRI more attractive to farmers. No consideration was given to how, for example, an adoption rate of 50%, if not universal adoption, would cumulate to produce substantial benefits for farmers and for the country.

During visit to Pakistan in 2006, I happened to learn why the IWMI evaluation had been so indifferent toward SRI. A traveling companion on a field trip, Dr. Intizar Hussain, executive director of the International Network for Participatory Irrigation Management (INPIM) based at the World Bank, had previously been a visiting fellow at IWMI headquarters in Sri Lanka. He knew something about how the 2003 SRI report had been produced and confirmed my suspicion that the report had been altered by IWMI’s director for social science, M.A. Samad, who I knew was personally very negative toward SRI for no apparent reason.[78]

A draft of the 2003 report had been sent to me for comment before publication because IWMI staff knew that I was generally quite knowledgeable about SRI. In my reply, I commented that the text and tables in the report seemed to be strangely out of sync. The data reported from the field study warranted a more positive assessment of SRI than was conveyed by the wording in the report. Even though I called this to IWMI’s attention, few changes were made in the final publication. Intizar told me that Samad had edited the whole document after the team completed it, toning down positive statements and strengthening negative wordings in the manuscript. Overall, the text of the report discounted SRI’S value for IWMI’s mission.

Five years later, two of the study’s three authors joined with two other colleagues to publish in the Quarterly Journal of International Agriculture a journal article based on these findings. This time there was no editing or censoring from the IWMI administration. The picture of SRI that was presented in this article was based on the same data used in the 2003 research report, but the tone and conclusions were much more positive. Indeed, the article was so much more favorable that one had to reread the original IWMI report to be sure that it and the journal article were based upon the same set of data.[79]

IWMI’s program in India took an interest in SRI after its director Tushaar Shah learned about the NGO PRADAN’s experience introducing SRI into Purulia district of West Bengal state (Chapter 7). Only four farmers had used SRI methods in the first year, but the following year, 150 farmers took up the new methods. This seemed worth investigating, even though this was rainfed rice production, not with irrigation. Producing more rice with a smaller amount of water was itself of interest to Tushaar and his associates in the program.

The IWMI team found that even in a season where drought severely affected the rainfed rice crop, the average yield increase with SRI methods (adapted to unirrigated production) was 32%; the increase was 12% in the more seriously drought-affected village, and 50% in the village with more normal rainfall. The one farmer (of 100 surveyed) who had done four mechanical-hoe weedings had a yield of 9 tonnes per hectare.

Net income per hectare was raised by 67%, with an 8% reduction in the amount of labor required per hectare.[80] Despite such findings, the IWMI-India program undertook no further work on SRI until it supported an ambitious economic evaluation of SRI in cooperation with researchers at the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University.

This study of the economics of SRI, published in 2013,[81] gathered detailed data on the experience of 2,234 farmers who were sampled randomly in the 13 major rice-growing states of India. The data showed an average yield increase with SRI methods in irrigated production of 22%, not as great as reported elsewhere; however, the study reported that only 20% of the farmers surveyed were actually following all of the SRI recommendations. Most were using only some of the recommended practices. The data showed that those farmers who used all of the practices, as we expected, had considerably greater yield improvements.

As significant for economists and for farmers was the researchers’ calculation that farmers’ costs per kg of rice produced were reduced on average by 29% under SRI management. This accounted for increases in net income which were greater than the yield improvement alone. This was the kind of study that we had hoped IFPRI researchers would do. It was fortunate that IWMI’s India program undertook such a broad and thorough economic evaluation. However, even such remarkable information did not prompt IWMI or any other CG center to take more evident interest in SRI.[82]



There were some other ways in which centers within the CG system assisted or ignored SRI over the years. The second public presentation that I made on SRI was in May 1998 in Kenya at the International Center for Research on Agro-Forestry (ICRAF), now the World Agroforestry Center, at the invitation of its director-general, Pedro Sanchez.  ICRAF’s director of research Peter Cooper made the helpful suggestion that we conduct factorial trials, as reported on in Chapter 7. Other CG centers apparently saw less relevance in SRI or had less interest in it.[83]

For many years, the Secretariat for the CGIAR was based at the World Bank in Washington, DC (now relocated to Montpellier, France). I was able to meet with Ren Wang in Washington after he took over the position of executive director of the Secretariat after leaving his post as deputy director-general of IRRI.[84] We had a very cordial discussion, but there was no interest in exploring how our growing knowledge about SRI could be used within the CG system, or even just in having it properly evaluated. As noted above, when I tried to share SRI experience with IFPRI staff, the CG secretariat which was at the time headed by Frank Rijsberman as its CEO gave no approval.

This was a long-standing disinterest. Dr. Ismail Serageldin served as chair of the CGIAR system from 1992 to 1998 while he was vice-president of the World Bank for environmentally-sustainable development. He once confided to me that after I first told him about SRI in 1998, he had suggested at a meeting of the CGIAR management committee that the CG centers look into SRI and its possibilities. This suggestion evoked no interest or response from either the center directors or the donor agencies present.

In addition to a CGIAR secretariat at the World Bank, the CGIAR had a Science Council composed of eminent scientists appointed to advise the system’s various bodies.[85] From 2003 to 2006, one of my Cornell faculty colleagues, Per Pinstrup-Andersen, noted above, served as chair of the Science Council after stepping down as IFPRI’s director-general. After several articles critical of SRI were published in 2004 by personnel or associates of the CGIAR system, I visited Per in his office at Cornell to discuss with him what looked like a kind of impasse where were two different and contending sets of scientific claims being made with no appropriate, authoritative forum in which to weigh evidence and sort out disagreements.

I hoped that Per would agree that it did not serve the interests of either the CGIAR or the emergent SRI community to be in conflict, and that the Science Council which he chaired could act as a kind of jury. The opposition of some IRRI scientists to even evaluating SRI was keeping us from mobilizing the resources and interest needed to do more systematic studies of SRI. And if and when our contention that SRI represented a scientific and practical advance for agriculture was proven to be correct in spite of CGIAR opposition, this would be a black mark against the CG system and would discredit its claim to be advancing agricultural science and the interests of small farmers and the environment.

I suggested to Per that the Science Council convene a forum with a panel of respected scientists who had no stake in the controversy, before which both sides, supportive or opposed to SRI, would be able to present their respective cases. Speaking on behalf of SRI, I suggested myself, Amir Kassam and Willem Stoop, the latter two being respected CGIAR scientists; and as critics who would undertake to refute our claims, I suggested Achim Doberman, John Sheehy and Ken Cassman, scientists who had recently published articles rejecting SRI.

Give both sides an equal opportunity to make their arguments for or against SRI, I suggested’ let them present whatever evidence and scientific reasoning they think is strongest. The independent scientific panel should consider the data and arguments from both sides and would reach a judgment that would be published under the aegis of the Science Council. We were quite confident that the controversy could be resolved in an open and fair court of scientific opinion and that we could make the stronger evidence-based case.

This seemed to be the kind of issue that an institution like the CGIAR’s Science Council should be addressing. The CG system would have an opportunity either to ‘stamp out the heresy’ of SRI, or to save itself the embarrassment of eventually losing credibility for being on the wrong side of a scientific debate that affects millions of people. It would be better for everyone if the SRI dispute were brought into the open and resolved sooner rather than later. While the format would be reminiscent of a medieval inquisition, we wanted a chance to put our evidence before agricultural experts, so long as there were equitable ground rules and fair-minded judges.

This suggestion did not interest Per, however. He genereally preferred to avoid controversy. Any airing of SRI arguments would be a contentious matter within the CGIAR system, and also it might generate some unfavorable publicity for CG. So, no initiative was taken to ‘clear the air.’ Instead, the controversy was left to simmer for many more years.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *

This did not mean that all is well within the CGIAR system. Over the past two decades there have been many task forces, consultant reports, meetings, and recommendations for reorganizing or reorienting the system so as to make it more effective and more cost-effective.[86] The purpose of this chapter is not to evaluate and then to justify or critique the CGIAR system itself. That would be an immense task, and it is an ongoing one.

What has been presented here is an account of the various roles that CGIAR centers and their leadership and the system itself have played in dealing with the new ideas and growing experience what the innovation of SRI presented once it became known outside of Madagascar some 20 years ago. There were, of course, many other institutions and actors involved in the process of SRI’s gaining recognition and acceptance, and these are discussed in the following chapters of Part II.

This is a complicated story, with many interactions that cannot be contained within a single chapter. And as seen here, one cannot and should not generalize about whole categories of institutions as there are within each category both positive, proactive actors and others less open to change in the status quo. This kind of dialectical interaction is not unique, but SRI as an example of innovation is instructive for being documentable and for having implications for so many people’s lives.



[1] Such information is highly dispersed and thus difficult to assemble and to report. These figures come from a global analysis of agricultural and medical research investments by researchers at the University of Washington: C. Leigh Anderson, Travis W. Reynolds, Pierre Biscaye, and Matthew Fowle, ‘Policy and Economic Considerations for Global Public Goods Provision: Agricultural and Health R&D Funding from Private, Public and Philanthropic Sectors’ (2017).

     This study reported that research on rice, about 7% of total agricultural research, was less than research expenditure on corn (maize), soybean, vegetables and fruits, and wheat. However, the number of researchers in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa who were working on rice was greater than for any other crop.

[2] This process is reviewed by D.P. Delmer, C. Nottenburg, G.D. Graff and A.B. Bennett in ‘Intellectual property rights for international development in agriculture,’ Plant Physiology 133: 1666-1670 (2003).

[3] The establishment of CIMMYT involved upgrading of a crop breeding program that had been set up by the Rockefeller Foundation in 1943 with Mexican government support, so it was not an entirely new center.

[4] In an address to an international rice conference in Indonesia in 2005, IRRI’s director of social sciences Mahabub Hossain reported that the annual rate of rice yield growth between 1970 and 1990 was 2.7%, but from 1990 to 2004, it had been only 1.l%.

[5] S. Peng, K.G. Cassman, S.S. Virmani, R. Gerpacio, J. Sheehy and G.S. Khush, ‘Yield potential trends of tropical rice since the release of IR8 and the challenge of increasing yield potentials,’ Crop Science 39: 1552-1559 (1999).

[6] W. Yang, S. Peng, R.C. Laza, R.M. Visperas and M. Dionisio-Sese, ‘Grain yield and yield attributes of new plant type and hybrid rice,’ Crop Science 47: 1393-1400 (2006).

[7] This issue was discussed with IRRI and Indonesian rice researchers at an international rice conference held in Bali in September 2005. The researchers acknowledged that roots had been given little attention in development of the NPT (see page 15 of my trip report).

[8] A recent breakdown of farm sizes in Asia, Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa has reported that smallholding farms (with less than 5 hectares of land) make up 85% of farming units. While these farms utilize 30% of the total farming area in their countries, they produce 70% of their countries’ food calories. Very small landholdings, i.e., less than 2 hectares, make up three-fourths of this smallholder category. L.H. Samberg, J.S. Gerber, N. Ramankutty, M. Herrero and P.C. West, ‘Subnational distribution of average farm size and smallholder contributions to global food production,’ Environmental Research Letters 11: 124010 (2016). 1748-9326/11/12/124010/pdf  About half of the more than 280 million smallholding farms in these three regions of the world would be growing at least some rice.

[9] Although this paper titled ‘The System of Rice Intensification in Madagascar: A Study in Synergy,’ dated January 18, 1998, is now more than 20 years old, in retrospect it can be seen a surprisingly complete, if tentative, explanation of SRI.

[10] See my response to Ken Fischer, August 1998.

[11]  Prof. René Rabezandrina, head of the agronomy department at the University of Antananarivo and an IRRI advisor in Madagascar, was an outspoken opponent of SRI (Chapter 23). He criticized particularly the SRI practice of mechanical weeding, recommending instead the use of herbicides for their labor-saving. He never acknowledged that while a professor at the university he was also a paid consultant for the German agrochemical firm Hoechst, a major supplier of herbicides in Madagascar.

[12] ‘Observations on SRI and Increased Rice Production in Madagascar,’ from the Madagascar-IRRI Technical Assistance Team, written by Dr. M. Gaudreau with comments from Dr. V. Balasubramaniam and Dr. S. Almy, typescript (1997).

[13] IPNR, the Institut de Promotion de la Nouvelle Riziculture, was set up by a French expatriate Patrick Vallois after he had learned SRI methods from Tefy Saina, while enjoying their room and board for several months. For a while, IPNR became a competitor with Tefy Saina within Madagascar, but it never gained much traction and no longer has any internet presence. In the late 1990s, IRRI’s representative in Madagascar preferred to talk with IPNR’s Vallois about SRI, rather than with Tefy Saina officers.

[14] Evaluations on farmers’ fields in Madagascar had shown that higher yields would be obtained with spacing wider than 25 x 25 cm where the soil was considerably more fertile than usual. When the soil was substantially less fertile than average, it was more advantageous to have more plants per m2 rather than fewer.

[15] The IRRI report noted above started: “In the early days, [SRI] took on a dogmatic and religious fervor because the results were very promising – even spectacular in some instances.” This would seem to argue in favor of IRRI doing some systematic investigation on SRI even if there was some personal aversion to the NGO leadership promoting SRI. But most of the paper focused on reasons for not taking SRI seriously as an innovation.

     In October 1997, after I had made my first public presentation on SRI (to Indonesian rice scientists associated with its main rice research station at Sukamandi), IRRI’s country representative in Indonesia at the time, Dr. Shyam Mahanuddin (coincidentally a Cornell alumnus, it turned out) came up to me and told me that he had heard about SRI before, from his counterpart in Madagascar. Shyam said that he had once heard Balasubramanian discuss SRI and dismiss it with the comment that “that priest (Fr. Laulanié) must be sprinkling holy water on his seeds to get the results he is reporting.” Bala later told me that he had no recollection of making this remark, but the statement was so specific and so graphic that it seemed unlikely to have been invented by Shyam, who had no reason to want to embarrass his counterpart.

[16] This session and its denouement are discussed in Chapter 4. My interpretation of ORSTOM research, cited in endnote 8 for that chapter, was challenged by an IRRI scientist Guy Kirk, who among other things had studied rice roots’ functioning. As noted in Chapter 4, the US researcher whose work Kirk cited as contradicting my statement, Prof. Malcolm Drew at Texas A&M University, subsequently said that my understanding of the negative effects of aerenchyma formation in rice roots was correct. I subsequently learned that Kirk had written and published an article on roots’ functioning six years earlier with a Cornell colleague. The article stated almost verbatim what I had said in my talk to IRRI staff (endnote 28, Chapter 4).

[17] As soon as my visit to IRRI at Los Baños had been arranged, I contacted the chair of the agronomy department of the University of the Philippines at Los Baños, Dr. Oscar Zamora. Since this university was adjacent to the IRRI campus, I asked Oscar whether he and some of the students and faculty in his department might like to attend my talk on SRI at IRRI.

     His response surprised me. He said that his department’s faculty and students were no longer going (half a mile) to attend IRRI seminars because of their objections to IRI’s approach to rice improvement, focusing on genetic improvement and agrochemicals. So, Oscar arranged for me to give the same seminar to his department’s Sustainable Agriculture Group in the afternoon following my presentation at IRRI in the morning.

     In a private conversation with Ron Cantrell after I arrived in Los Baños that morning, I told him about the negative attitude toward IRRI that I had encountered from UPLB. He brushed this aside, saying that there were no problems between IRRI and UPLB. “I meet at least once a month with UPLB’s vice-chancellor,” he said, showing no interest in knowing anything about my discussion with the head of UPLB’s agronomy department.

[18] Both had long histories of involvement with the CGIAR system: Dr. Robert Havener, chair of CIIFAD’s Advisory Committee, was president of Winrock International at the time and had been director-general or interim DG for three CGIAR centers: CIMMYT, CIAT and IRRI; and Robert Herdt, another member of the CIIFAD Advisory Committee, was the Rockefeller Foundation’s vice-president for agricultural sciences who he been as IRRI’s agricultural economist from 1973 to 1983. They saw no reason not to share our SRI experience with Dr. Javier confidentially.

[19] As candid assessments were being solicited, the letter closed with these two paragraphs: “Whether SRI will prove to have wide application remains to be tested. I think that the principles underlying the success of SRI in Madagascar have potentially broad generality, although their application needs, as always, to be adapted and modified to local conditions.  Perhaps there are still some new things to be learned about rice -- and other plants? -- from the work of Fr. de Laulanie -- and others like him who are not part of the present scientific establishment.

     “SRI could also be of some significance for the CGIAR system as a kind of wake-up call.  It suggests that there is still new knowledge to be gained by being good observers and experimenters, thinking boldly as well as rigorously, not just working on narrow questions within the existing paradigm. It also suggests that the mission of benefiting the poor through agricultural research is a realistic and feasible one as well as being urgent and required.”

[20] An anthropologist on the IRRI staff in Los Baños, Steve Morin, took it upon himself to include some SRI trials in a project on Double Cropping using Modern and Traditional Rice Varieties with which he was involved in 1999-2000. We never learned what his results were, but I learned that he was reprimanded by a superior for undertaking these trials ‘without permission.’ He left IRRI shortly thereafter.

[21] The following is written from notes that I made while Dr. Wang was speaking.

[22] At the Chiangmai symposium, Karl responded to Ren Wang’s remarks with a question: “It is fine for IRRI to take this attitude, but how long will it take for IRRI to adjust its approach to global needs? We [in IRRI] need to work more on innovative than on adaptive research, to examine new approaches.” He gave examples of improved agronomic practice from his own experience of growing up on his family’s vineyard in Germany. They found, he said, that the kinds of methods involved in SRI, like wider spacing and soil aeration, were very beneficial for their plants, so SRI made sense to him.

[23] See his report reproduced in endnote 20 in Chapter 7.

[24] Final Evaluation Report on Verification and Refinement of the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) in Selected Areas of Bangladesh (SP 36 02), to the Poverty Elimination through Rice Research Assistance (PETRRA) project, IRRI, Dhaka, Bangladesh (2004).

[25] My request for SRI to be put on the program for the 1st Rice Congress was turned down. But then, Robert Chambers of the Institute for Development Studies at Sussex in the UK, whom the organizers had invited to give a noontime presentation, when declining their invitation suggested that they instead ask me to talk about SRI, in which Robert had taken an active interest. There was little time left to find another noon speaker, so I was invited to give a talk on SRI in that time slot in Robert’s stead.

[26] See Water-Wise Rice Production: Proceedings of the International Workshop on Water-Wise Rice Production, 8-11 April 2002, Los Baños, Philippines, IRRI, Los Baños (2002).

[27] This trip report was posted on the internet to make it widely available.

[28] J.F. Rickman, ‘Preliminary Results: Rice Production and the System of Rice Intensification (SRI),’ unpublished paper (2003).

[29] One result which intrigued the IRRI scientists was SRI’s resistance to weed intrusion. They left unweeded strips on the plots for all five of the methods being evaluated. The SRI yield was reduced by only 20% with no weeding, while the yields with the other four methods were reduced by half or even two-thirds when not weeded.

[30] My seminar presentation and this unexpected challenge were recorded on videotape by our SRI colleague Obet Verzola, coordinator for the national SRI-Pilipinas network, who had come down from Manila to Los Baños with me. Unfortunately, Obet’s video cassettes got subsequently mixed up, so that he was never able to find his video recording of the event. It was so emotionally charged that my memories of it are quite vivid.

     One particularly strong memory is of the angry but plaintive assertion by Sheehy that it was “not fair” that I should have been allowed to make such unorthodox statements about rice when I had not invested years in study and training on the subject (as he and others had). The implication was that I needed to have spent decades of work on rice before I should be permitted to speak on this subject at IRRI. He offered no explanation of how this idea of ‘fairness’ should have a bearing on whether or not my statements were true. I presumed that their truth should be resolved on the basis of evidence, not credentials.

[31] I thought that John Sheehy would say that he would send the paper to me when it was drafted, for comment. But he said that it would go straight to publication. My response was to ask him in an email whether this was how scientific disagreements should be resolved? By competing manifestos? Shouldn’t we be discussing and trying to reconcile the differences in our respective understandings by considering evidence and by parsing the logic of the alternative contentions? There was no further response from him. He wrote and published an article in Field Crops Research in 2004 that critiqued SRI, referenced already in Chapter 2, endnote 8, and discussed in some detail in Chapter 28.

[32] The C4 pathway also requires more energy from the plant, so it is not a free improvement. C4 plants perform better at higher temperatures, i.e., accomplish more photosynthesis, so this transformation could be beneficial in future decades as global warming increases -- if this technical feat can ever be achieved.

     The technical feasibility of this modification is not agreed on among experts. This work has received tens of millions of dollars of funding from various foundations and donor agencies. A good discussion of the issues involved has been written by Sarah Covshoff and Julian M. Hibberd, ‘Integrating C4 photosynthesis into C3 crops to increase yield potential,’ Current Opinion in Biotechnology 23: 209-214 (2012).

     An assessment of the likely costs for developing this innovation has projected a range from $50 million to $10 billion over 20 years, with most estimates between $100 million and $1 billion. R.F. Sage and X.G.  Zhu, ‘Exploiting the engine of C4 photosynthesis,’ Journal of Experimental Biology 62: 2989-3000 (2011). In 2018, IRRI announced a three-year program with $14 million of support from the Gates Foundation and the UK government. Under this program, 2039 was the target date for when C4 rice would become available. S. van Cammerer, W.P. Quick and R.T. Furbank, ‘The development of C4 rice: Current progress and future challenges,’ Science 336: 1671-1672 (2012).

[33] An article by Achim Dobermann, IRRI’s deputy director-general, and David Dawe, a senior FAO economist, ‘Can organic agriculture feed Asia?’ published in IRRI’s Rice Today magazine (Oct-Dec. 2008, page 42) was originally longer and titled: ‘Can organic agriculture and SRI feed Asia.’

     When I was invited to review a draft of that initial article, I pointed out the fallacy of such either/or thinking. We were not presenting SRI to the exclusion of all other systems of production. We agreed with the authors that it should be up to farmers to decide among systems, but they should have a range of options, not just the Green Revolution approach of new varieties plus agrochemical inputs. And farmers should have enough good information to be able to make informed choices.

     Dobermann and Dawe prepared a two-page paper at the same time that focused just on SRI, ‘Can the System of Rice Intensification feed Asia?’ This paper, circulated but never published, had as a prefatory footnote: “The opinions stated in this paper are those of the authors and do not represent a position stated by IRRI and FAO.” The paper which dismissed SRI as a ‘standard package’ of practices showed no understanding that SRI represents a rethinking of how best to achieve production objectives, taking economic, social and environmental considerations into account. There was no engagement with the evidence and issues that are presented in Chapters 4, 5 and 6, some of which had been presented to IRRI. The conception of a ‘standard package’ was a stereotype of IRRI’s construction.

     The article’s conclusion was: “In the evolutionary sequence of crop management technologies, SRI represents a step back toward labor-intensive technologies that increase drudgery in rice farming, particularly for women, who often do these tasks.” This ignored the mechanization of SRI tasks that was already occurring (Chapter 19) and evidence that SRI methods in fact reduced the time and drudgery of women’s rice work (Chapter 15). These things could have been easily known by the authors if they had been willing to work with the SRI community that was emerging around the world, rather than against it.

[34] Cantrell’s keynote address is available on-line from the FAO website.

[35] The eight main rice sector needs which Dr. Cantrell listed in his powerpoint presentation were, in fact, all being met by SRI already:

  • Increased land productivity -- higher yield

  • Higher water productivity – ‘more crop per drop’

  • Technology that is accessible for poor farmers and also

  • Environmentally-friendly -- reduced adverse impacts

  • More pest- and disease-resistance

  • More tolerance of abiotic stresses – drought, storms

  • Higher grain quality – meeting consumer preferences

  • More profitability for farmers, to raise their incomes


[36] At the reception that evening, as I circulated in the main FAO hall, I came across Ron Cantrell talking with Prof. Yuan Longping from China (Chapter 20). Prof. Yuan greeted me so heartily that Ron had to enter into our friendly conversation, subverting his intent to have no further communication with me.


[37] After receiving an initial turndown from rice research conference organizers regarding scheduling a panel on SRI, I learned that the conference coordinator was Kazunobu Toriyama, on the staff of JIRCAS, the Japanese agricultural research center. Kazu had visited me at Cornell the previous February, conducting a survey for JIRCAS on the current thinking of American social scientists who were conducting research on development issues. We had had a long cordial discussion which included the topic of SRI.

     When I contacted Kazu about somehow getting SRI on the conference program, he suggested that we apply to hold a ‘side-event’ on SRI at the congress, informing me of the terms and conditions. Appreciating what SRI could do for rice development, after the Congress was over Kazu simply waived the room-rental charge.


[38] Seven of the eight presentations are posted on the SRI-Rice website. During discussion after the presentations, IRRI’s deputy director-general Ren Wang expressed appreciation for what had been reported, and said that if this was all borne out, I should be given the World Food Prize.

     This embarrassed me since our efforts were not undertaken for personal benefit or recognition. I explained that I had already nominated for this honor Sebastian Rafaralahy and Justin Rabenandrasana, the president and secretary of Tefy Saina, and that the worldwide SRI community had supported this nomination with strong letters of endorsement.

      One of the most useful conversations at the research conference was with Dr. Takeshi Horie, a senior Japanese rice scientist on the WARDA board of trustees. Dr. Horie took an interest in SRI and sent one of his PhD students to Madagascar to do thesis research there. Twice he invited me to the University of Kyoto to discuss SRI with him and his colleagues there. Subsequently while he was director-general of Japan’s National Agricultural Research Organization in Tsukuba, he invited Shuichi Sato and me to make presentations on SRI to the NARO staff.


[39] Thomas Sinclair, ‘Agronomic UFOs waste valuable scientific resources,’ Rice Today 3:43 (2004).


[40] Zeigler, who had received his PhD from Cornell University in 1982, in plant pathology, had spent 20 years within the CGIAR system in various capacities, plus five years at Kansas State University.

I could not tell if he was joking, but when speaking by telephone with Prof. Pedro Sanchez at Columbia University’s Earth Institute (we were working at the time on the soil biology book described in Chapter 5) in early 2005, Pedro suggested that I should apply for the open position of IRRI director-general. I thought about this: Pedro had been on the IRRI staff as an agronomist early in his career, and he had himself served for 10 years as the DG of a CGIAR center (ICRAF). So, he knew IRRI, the role of DG, and me all quite well. If he was willing to be a reference for me (he said he was), why not apply? I was already planning to step down as director of CIIFAD in July 2005, so I made a formal application for the position of DG.

     My other references for the position were Dr. Zhao Huqu, president of the China Academy of Agricultural Sciences whom I had gotten to know while he was president of Nanjing Agricultural University, and Prof. Vernon Ruttan, a Regent’s Professor at the University of Minnesota, who had been the first agricultural economist at IRRI. Vern went on to serve as president of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund’s Agricultural Development Council, 1973-78 so he was well known and highly respected within the development community. Vern and I knew each other from having served together on USAID’s Research Advisory Committee for six years, and he knew about SRI from having participated in the conference on agroecological innovations held at Bellagio in Italy in 1999.

     With such references, and with 15 years of experience as CIIFAD director, I thought that my application should be at least credible. It passed through the first round of screening, I later learned, but it was set aside in the second round of screening, on the grounds of my age. I was still a few months under the age limit of 65 set by the Board of Trustees. But the selection committee could avoid getting embroiled in controversy by simply culling out my application at that stage. My becoming DG of IRRI would have been something like the Catholic Church installing a Protestant as its next Pope, so it may have been best that the committee selected Bob Zeigler. We will never know how different the SRI story would have been if my application had been accepted.

[41] The trip report from that visit is posted on-line. The section of the report on my visit to IRRI concluded: “That afternoon [after meeting with Ron Zeigler in the morning], I met also with Dr. Shaobing Peng, senior crop physiologist, and Dr. Ren Wang, deputy director-general of IRRI. These discussions were continued that evening as Dr. Wang invited me to his home for dinner with Dr. Peng. Because this was Easter week, almost all other IRRI staff were away from Los Baños ….

     “IRRI provided wonderful hospitality for the visit, including a fine room in its guest house, so I think it fair to say that we can look forward to a more cooperative relationship with IRRI in the future. SRI will gain its acceptance or rejection based on empirical results, not on preconceptions or antagonisms. The SRI network has never regarded itself as competing with IRRI, but rather as a potential partner in advancing rice production and resource productivity.” This turned out to be an overly optimistic view, unfortunately.

[42] My overview paper for the workshop was posted on-line, as was Shuichi Sato’s paper on Indonesian results from >1,800 on-farm comparison trials conducted by farmers on >1,300 hectares. Analysis of Sato’s data set through early 2006 showed an average yield of 7.23 tonnes per hectare with SRI methods, compared to 3.92 tonnes with farmers’ usual methods, achieved with 40% less irrigation and 50% less chemical fertilizer. These results aroused no evident interest from the few IRRI staff who attended the workshop.

[43] W.A. Stoop and A.H. Kassam, ‘The SRI controversy: A response,’ Field Crops Research 91: 357-360 (2005). Preceding this response, the journal published an endorsement of the Sheehy et al. article that had been written by J.H. Sheehy, T.R. Sinclair and K.G. Cassman, titled ‘Curiosities, nonsense, non-science, and SRI,’ Field Crops Research 91:355-356 (2005). This was rather unusual, to publish a rebuttal to a rebuttal before the rebuttal itself. The title of this preemptive rebuttal of Stoop and Kassam’s critique of the Sheehy et al. article employed unusually emotional language, not consistent with canonical expectations of detached debate.

[44] A report from this workshop is available on-line in my 2006 trip report, pages 21-29.

[45] Mushtaq and I were acquainted from our previous involvement with participatory irrigation management, he in Pakistan, I in Sri Lanka. In 2005 he emailed me before making a visit to Sri Lanka to ask whether I could arrange for him to observe SRI in the field. An email to our SRI colleague in Sri Lanka, Gamini Batuwitage, at the time Additional Secretary of Agriculture, led to the two of them getting together during Mushtaq’s visit, and Mushtaq got some first-hand acquaintance with SRI. When he returned to Pakistan, he started evaluating SRI with field trials, and I was able to visit them in 2006 after the International Rice Congress in New Delhi when visiting Mushtaq in Lahore (Chapter 42). Gamini’s hosting Mushtaq was one of many examples of how individual initiatives helped to disseminate SRI.

[46] A report on discussions at the Congress and abstracts of the posters is available on the SRI-Rice website. During one break, I spoke with Dr. Takeshi Horie, one of Japan’s leading rice scientists whom I had met at the World Rice Research Congress in Tsukuba in 2004 (endnote 38 above), about the recent article by IRRI scientists which had dismissed SRI as having “no major role in improving rice production generally.”

     Takeshi dismissed the crop-production model that the article had drawn on to support its conclusion that the top reported yields with SRI management were ‘biologically impossible.’ Takeshi said that he had himself helped to construct the crop model that the authors had used, and he knew its many limitations. He suggested that we should not take Dobermann’s conclusion very seriously.

     Dr. Mahabub Hossain, IRRI’s head of social sciences, suggested in a private conversation during the Congress that the opposition to SRI at IRRI came mostly from its plant breeders, rather than from its social scientists who had more contact with the field.

     A poster brought to the Congress and put up by Dr. S. Ramasamy from Tamil Nadu Agricultural University was particularly interesting. It confirmed the time-saving and productivity benefits from establishing an SRI crop by broadcasting pre-germinated seed and then weeding (thinning) the emerging young seedlings to approximate a spacing of 25 × 25 cm between hills, and innovation from Sri Lanka that is reported on in Chapter 19.

[47] These data with two more seasons of results were subsequently published in S. Sato and N. Uphoff, ‘A review of on-farm evaluations of system of rice intensification methods in Eastern Indonesia,’ CAB Reviews, 2:54 (2007).

[48] The email from Bob Zeigler proposing a joint evaluation included a suggestion that when the evaluation was completed, he and I would hold a joint press conference to report out the results, and also that he and I should write a joint article for a scientific journal like Field Crop Research summarizing the findings. He thought that this would put an end to the controversy over SRI with some conclusive scientific results. We were more than eager to agree with his proposal, having sought this since 1998 with Zeigler’s predecessor, Ron Cantrell. The only impedance was to mobilize the necessary funding.

[49] While we were learning more and more about how important root systems (Chapter 4) and the soil biota (Chapter 5) are for increasing rice plant’s productivity and robustness, IRRI reduced its research capacity for studying roots and soil biology/ecology. IRRI’s expertise in these two areas was greatly diminished when it released Reiner Wassman and Guy Kirk from its staff in 1999 and 2003, respectively, expanding its research capacity in genetics and plant breeding instead of replacing them.

[50] As noted in Chapter 35, one of the senior agricultural advisors for the Gates Foundation was a friend and former student of mine, Roy Steiner, with whom I had written a book on irrigation management in the early 1990s. We were thus on very good terms, and after a phoe conversation with Roy, he got an indication of interest in supporting this joint study from  his superiors in the Foundation.

[51] The Foundation’s total grant-making in 2009 was increased to $677 million, from $459 million in 2008. However, possibly the Foundation’s internal budget allocation of resources for supporting agricultural initiatives to reduce poverty and improve health was reduced between the two years.

[52] See discussion in Chapter 28; and N. Uphoff, W.A. Stoop and A.H. Kassam, ‘A critical assessment of a desk study comparing crop production systems: The ‘system of rice intensification’ vs. ‘best management practices,’’ Field Crops Research 108: 109-114 (2008).

[53] This is the link to IRRI’s website page on SRI. At a meeting in India in 2018, T.M. Thiyagarajan met a current IRRI staff member whom he had known when working with IRRI 20 years previously. After seeing TMT’s institutional affiliation on his name tag, the IRRI staff member “asked me what was my [current] specialization. I told him that basically I am still a soil scientist, but now my interest is in SRI. He suddenly turned his head away!!!” (personal communication). In January 2020, Vasilia Fasoula, one of the few plant breeders who has taken an active interest in SRI, reported in an email: “In one of our recent annual Agronomy Meetings, I had a discussion with IRRI researchers, and they clearly were against SRI. When I explained to them where they are wrong, they seemed to agree (that is, they did not offer any counter arguments to my points), but were still not willing to do any experiments.”

[54] ‘News: Getting stuck into rice research and production, November 2018,’ The Crawford Fund blog.

[55] Hans Herren, a former director-general of the International Center for Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE) and a World Food Prize laureate, had co-chaired the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) working group, which published a controversial report in 2009. The group was assembled under the sponsorship of FAO, the World Bank and other international institutions. Speaking for more established approaches were Dr. Prabhu Pingali with experience at IRRI, CIMMYT, FAO and the Gates Foundation, and Dr. Michael Mack, CEO of Syngenta, who turned out to be quite helpful for SRI (Chapter 34).

[56] A listing of oral presentations and posters on SRI at the 3th International Rice Congress in Hanoi is posted on the SRI-Rice website. One of the outcomes of this Congress was that at a pre-Congress dinner hosted by the Swiss ambassador as his residence, Biksham Gujja and I were seated with the CEO of Syngenta, Michael Mack. We got well-acquainted with him, and we acquainted him with SRI. This turned out to be helpful for protecting the SSI methods that Biksham developed for sugarcane, as reported in Chapter 34.

[57] The pre-Congress workshop had participation from 15 countries with a thorough report of the discussions posted on the web. At the Congress, six oral presentations and 36 posters on SRI were presented, and a joint Oxfam America/SRI-Rice booth attracted hundreds of visitors. Handouts that were prepared especially for this IRC are posted on the SRI-Rice website. The equipment workshop which followed had 60 participants from 12 countries.

[58] Ten of the powerpoint presentations to the SRI research side-event, from India, Indonesia, Iraq, Malaysia, Nepal, Thailand, US, and Vietnam, are posted on the web.

[59] Kanayo wrote in a letter August 10, 1998: “… When I visited Madagascar in March of this year, one of FOFIFA’s staff spoke briefly of Fr. Laulanié and SRI. I wish I had known more then about Tefy Saina. SRI sounds so logical: the processes involved, the plant mechanisms at work, the G x E interactions, and the responses are all a logical sequence.

     “The initial reaction here [at WARDA] was of course expected: ‘scientists know better,’ and I recall Willem Stoop’s disappointment [at this reaction]. Now we are getting them to at least accept to try it on an experimental basis. I am yet to see a trial protocol in place. We have an NGO partner who is more likely to experiment on SRI.

     “Reading your paper reminded me of studies I conducted at ICRISAT, India, in the early 90s: using controlled irrigation to manage shoot fly incidence and damage on sorghum. Reduced irrigation during early seedling stage resulted in reduced deadhearts, higher plant biomass, higher overall grain yield, and reduced costs associated with irrigation requirement and insecticide application…”

[60] Several of the WARDA senior scientists, who coincidentally had been previously posted at IRRI, refused to conduct any SRI evaluations when first asked to do so by the deputy director-general for research. Finally, another senior rice scientist, Monty Jones, made a WARDA farm manager available to conduct the trials. The controversy within WARDA is referred to in a paper that Robert Chambers presented to an international conference on Impacts of Agricultural Research and Development, held in Costa Rica in 2002: ‘Professional error, critical awareness, and good science.’

     In 2018, I learned from a personal communication with Klaus Lampe, who had served as IRRI’s director-general in the early 90s, that when SRI first became known to scientists at IRRI, their response was similar to that which Kanayo Nwanze and Amir Kassam encountered at WARDA.

[61] This bar graph prepared by WARDA scientists reached me in a roundabout way, going first to Joe De Vries with the Rockefeller Foundation in Nairobi, who forwarded it to Dr. Gary Thoennissen, agricultural advisor to the Rockefeller Foundation in New York, who then shared it with Bob Herdt, vice-president of the Foundation for agricultural sciences, who was also an advisor to CIIFAD and who passed the information on to me as our offices at Cornell were adjacent at the time.

[62] De Vries noted in his letter to Thoennissen, March 1, 2000: “Of course it is possible that WARDA did not follow the instructions, or that SRI simply doesn’t work under West African conditions.’

[63] Amir who also wrote on April 11 said: “Yesterday Kanayo shared with me a copy of your letter of 24 March in which you mention about the poor performance of SRI… I regret this because it is simply not true, as you will see below … The factorial experiment we conducted had two planting dates. Preliminary quick examination of the results and the way we managed the trials leads us to conclude that the results of the first planting date cannot be accepted simply because the SRI conditions during the important first few weeks were not met [i.e., there was continuous flooding of young seedlings].”

     “However, the results from the second planting date are interesting and clearly show the SRI effects when compared to the ‘modern’ package [of practices]…. As for the future, I am fully convinced that WARDA needs to undertake strategic and applied research on SRI to fully understand how it works and how we can pass on the benefits to the farmers in our mandate area [Africa].”

[64] For an analysis and critique of the SRI trials at WARDA, see Willem Stoop’s 2002 paper on this.

[65]  Hybridization between indigenous African rice varieties (Oryza glaberrima) and Japonica varieties of Oryza sativa can produce yield increases of 1 to 5 tonnes per hectare, as well as greater weed competitiveness, drought tolerance, disease resistance, and higher protein content of grains. A WARDA summation of NERICA experience and advantages is posted on the internet. NERICA rice is not without its critics, however, who are concerned about the commercial operations associated with its spread as well as with its agronomic limitations.

[66] Mustapha Ceesay, Management of Rice Production Systems to Increase Productivity in The Gambia, PhD thesis, Department of Crop and Soil Sciences, Cornell University (2004). The Jameel Poverty Action Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology published an evaluation of NERICA in 2018 based on a controlled experiment in neighboring Sierra Leone that covered farmers in 260 villages. It found that ‘proper use’ of the new variety had positive effects on rice production and child nutrition, raising yields on average by 15%. However, it found also that if the seeds were grown without proper training, just being distributed to farmers, the resulting rice yields were actually 14% lower. In this experiment, the training cost of $600 per farmer was more than the increase in the value of farmers’ output ($179). So, the innovation was not cost-effective unless training costs could be greatly lowered while still achieving the yield increases possible. R. Glennerster and T. Suri, The Impact of New Rice Varieties on Health in Sierra Leone (2018).

[67] Tim J. Krupnik, Carol Shennan and Jonne Rodenburg, ‘Yield, water productivity and nutrient balances under the system of rice intensification and recommended management practices in the Sahel,’ Field Crops Research 130: 155-167 (2012).

[68] See Erika Styger and Gaoussou Traoré, 50,000 Farmers in 13 Countries: Results from Scaling Up the System of Rice Intensification in West Africa, SRI-WAAPP, Project Summary Report, West and Central African Council for Agricultural Research, Dakar (2018).

[69] K.D. Sayre and O. H. Moreno Ramos, Applications of Raised-Bed Planting Systems to Wheat, Wheat Program Special Report No. 31, CIMMYT, Mexico City, D.F. (1997).

[70] I spoke with previous as well as incumbent directors-general of CIMMYT. Robert Havener, who served as the director-general from 1978 to 1985, was subsequently the chair of CIIFAD’s advisory committee. He learned about SRI in this capacity and visited Madagascar for five days in 2000 to observe SRI in the field and to talk with SRI farmers. Although he said that he was very impressed by what he saw and heard, he was not able to evoke any interest at CIMMYT, probably because he was no longer its DG.

     I also knew Don Winkelman, CIMMYT’s DG from 1985 to 1994, from numerous interactions that we had in USAID activities during the 1970s and 1980s. When he visited Cornell in the early 2000s, I spoke about what was being learned in Madagascar and elsewhere; but nothing came from those discussions. I never met or communicated with his successors, Tim Reeves and Masa Iwanaga, who served as CIMMYT’s DGs between 1995 and 2008. Long after he had left CIMMYT, Reeves became a helpful supporter of SRI (Chapter 30, endnote 4).

[71] Now renamed the ICAR-Indian Institute of Rice Research, still based in Hyderabad.

[72] S. Gopalakrishnan, R.M. Kumar, P. Humayun, V. Srinivas, B.R. Kumari, R. Vijayabharathi , A. Singh, K. Surekha, Ch. Padmavathi, N. Somashekar, P. Raghuveer Rao, P. C. Latha, L. V. Subba Rao, V. R. Babu, B.C. Viraktamath, V. Vinod Goud, N. Loganandhan, B. Gujja and Om P. Rupela, ‘Assessment of different methods of rice (Oryza sativa. L) cultivation affecting growth parameters, soil chemical, biological, and microbiological properties, water saving, and grain yield in rice-rice system,’ Paddy and Water Environment 12: 79-87 (2014).

[73] O.P. Rupela, S.P. Wani, M. Kranthi, A. Satyanarayana, V. Goud, B. Gujja, P. Punnarao, V. Shashibhushan, D.G. Raju and P.C. Reddy, ‘Comparing soil properties of farmers’ fields growing rice by SRI and conventional methods,’ paper presented to 1st National Symposium on SRI, 17-18 November, 2006, ANGRAU, Hyderabad, India (2006).

[74] Until he left Cornell to move to Washington, Mellor had served on the multidisciplinary Rural Development Committee that I chaired at Cornell from 1971 to 1990. Pinstrup-Andersen served on CIIFAD’s Program Committee for its first two years, 1990-1992, which I also chaired, before he took up the IFPRI position in Washington.

[75] A question that I have asked my students to think about is this: How different would the discipline of economics be if it had assumed from the outset that economies were more like rivers than like machines? The language of economics is full of mechanical metaphors – acceleration, steering, braking, etc. – all implying at least the possibility of control. If economies were viewed in a more hydraulic way, as continuous flows, faster or slower, sometimes becalmed, and at other times passing over rapids or waterfalls, how different would economic ‘science’ be? We do our best to make everything predictable as we steer our humble crafts on the water, but we have to accommodate the currents, eddies and hazards as they present themselves in a never-ending succession. Metaphor is ingrained in all of the disciplines as suggested by D.N. McCloskey in The Rhetoric of Economics, University of Wisconsin Press, Madison WI (1998).

[76] In 2016, an IFPRI staff member wrote a paper with two Vietnamese researchers who were doing studies of SRI with regard to countering climate change. Dao The Anh, Nguyen Ngoc Ma, and Claudia Ringler, ‘A research on crop mitigation potential for rice and policy-institution to support it in Vietnam.’ The paper concluded that “The SRI practice is a potential solution for low-emission rice cultivation to be promoted.” This paper was never published, but it did strengthen the evidential basis for the Vietnam government’s decision to make SRI a key component of its agriculture sector strategy for reducing the country’s GHG emissions. In 2002, during the 1st International Rice Congress in Beijing, a senior IFPRI staff member, Howarth (Howdie) Bouis, learned about SRI over beers with a mutual Chinese friend. Howdie offered to (and did) introduce SRI and me by email to the deputy minister of agriculture, Bui Ba Bong, his personal friend. As with IRRI, there were some IFPRI staff who were receptive to SRI.

[77] See R.E. Namara, P. Weligamage, and R. Barker, Prospects for Adopting System of Rice Intensification in Sri Lanka: A Socioeconomic Assessment, Research Report 75, page vi, International Water Management Institute, Colombo, Sri Lanka (2003). The avenues referred to were: (1) improving the efficiency of or mechanizing the transplanting and weeding operations; (2) research into alternative [organic] sources or methods of soil fertility management; and (3) improving the reliability of irrigation supply. These were all good ideas worth pursuing, and not just for SRI. However, the report did not recommend that IWMI pursue any of these.

[78] During my sabbatical year as a visiting fellow at the Agrarian Research and Training Institute in Colombo (1978-79), Samad and I had become nominally befriended, although we never had as close a relationship that I had with many other ARTI staff members, and that could have been a source of animus.

[79] Regassa Namara, Deborah Bossio, Parakrama Weligamage, and Indika Herath, ‘The practice and effects of the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) in Sri Lanka,’ Quarterly Journal of International Agriculture, 47: 5-23 (2008).

[80] S.K. Sinha and J. Talati, ‘Productivity impacts of the system of rice intensification (SRI): A case study in West Bengal, India,’ Agricultural Water Management, 87: 55-60 (2007), a shorter version of their research report for the IWMI-Tata water policy program, Impact of the System of System of Rice Intensification (SRI) on Rice Yields: Results of a New Sample Survey in Purulia District, India (2005).

     The team leader, S.K. Sinha, told me at an IWMI-Tata meeting in Ahmedabad, India in 2005 that he had approached the evaluation very skeptically. But farmers’ experience and his data had thoroughly convinced him of SRI merits. He offered to assist in any way that he could. He said that he himself had measured the yield in one farmer’s rainfed SRI field and calculated it to be 15 tonnes per hectare! He told me that he decided to make this measurement himself because he supposed that nobody would believe it if the statistic was determined by laborers. He said that he was quite certain of this result because he had measured the field’s area himself and weighed the grain harvested from it himself.

[81] K. Palanisamy, K.R. Karunakaran, U. Amarasinghe and C.R. Ranganathan, ‘Doing different things or doing it differently? Economic and Political Weekly 48 (February 23, 2013), 51-58.

[82] Because I had worked on participatory irrigation management during the 1980s, I was well acquainted with IWMI, its staff, and leadership, and vice versa. I remember telling the director-general of IWMI in 1998, David Seckler, about SRI. (We were both attending a CGIAR lunch at the World Bank in Washington.) His response was that SRI made no sense because “everyone knows that rice grows better in standing water.” This statement was not only factually incorrect, but IWMI had just published a few months before a research paper that refuted this assertion. L.C. Guerra, S.I. Bhuiyan, T.P. Tuong and R. Barker, Producing More Rice with Less Water from Irrigation Systems, IWMI, Colombo (1998). At that time in 1998, we had data only from Ranomafana in Madagascar. When I reported these data to Seckler, his response was “I don’t accept any data from any NGO.” Then realizing that this was politically incorrect (and perhaps remembering that the CGIAR system was trying to woo support from the NGO community), he tried to retract this disparaging but revealing remark.

    When I visited Sri Lanka in 2002, I met with IWMI’s director-general at that time, Frank Rijsberman, and we talked about SRI experiences in Sri Lanka and elsewhere. That probably led to IWMI’s doing the evaluation reported on above. But as also seen above, when I tried in 2010 to get Frank’s concurrence to make a presentation on SRI to IFPRI staff, while he was serving as CEO for the CGIAR system, he avoided any discussion of this.

[83] The International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) based in Colombia had a mandate that included rice production in the Latin American and Caribbean region. I had several long discussions with one of its rice advisors, Ed Pulver, at an international meeting in Havana. Ed worked with CIAT’s Latin American Fund for Irrigated Rice (FLAR). But he took no interest, perhaps because SRI was seen as ‘competing’ with FLAR’s program for rice improvement. There were actually many similarities with SRI, and the objectives were essentially the same. But FLAR placed much emphasis on improved rice varieties, while SRI was an opportunity for new and traditional varieties.

[84] Ren Wang figured earlier in the SRI story while he was deputy director-general of IRRI. His remarks on SRI at an international meeting in Thailand in 2002 are noted above (endnote 22; also endnotes 38 and 41).

[85] This body succeeded the CGIAR’s Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) in 2002. The Science Council was reorganized in 2011 and was renamed the Independent Science and Partnership Council. One of SRI’s greatest assets for gaining some acceptance within the CGIAR system and beyond was having the understanding and support of Amir Kassam, who served as a senior agricultural research officer for the TAC Secretariat from 1990 to 1998, before spending two years as deputy director-general of WARDA, as noted above. Amir then returned to FAO and served as the interim executive secretary of the CGIAR’s Science Council during 2003 and 2004, when he had to retire for reasons of health.

     Having Amir as a co-author of the first major scientific journal article on SRI (Chapter 28) added greatly to its respectability within the CG system. Also, Amir’s knowledge of the CGIAR system and FAO was always a benefit for dealing with these institutions. He and I became acquainted in 1994-95 when he asked me to serve on an external review team from the TAC Secretariat to assess the performance of IWMI’s predecessor, the International Irrigation Management Institute, then known as IIMI. This was one of the most fortuitous personal associations in the whole SRI saga, strengthened when Amir and Willem Stoop worked together at WARDA from 1998 to 2000.

[86] See for example, Dominic Glover’s blog in 2009 on the Science Council’s efforts to mobilize new and better thinking to guide the CG system. I attended a USAID research conference in 2007 in Washington at which Norman Borlaug, ‘father of the Green Revolution,’ gave the keynote address. In his remarks Borlaug reminisced about a conversation that he had had almost 40 years previously with one of the founders of the CGIAR system, a highly-respected Rockefeller Foundation vice-president known as ‘Frosty’ Hill (also a former Cornell faculty member).

Borlaug recalled how at the time when the CGIAR was created, Hill had mused about setting up the system with a ‘sunset clause’ so that this new research system would be closed down after its first 30 years, and then reconstructed if there was still a demonstrable need for it. Any successor system should have a new organization, new staffing, and a reformulated mission, all better suited to contemporary and future conditions.  


PICTURE CREDITS: WWF (2); Rajendra Uprety; Crawford Fund blog; Lucy Fisher; Norman Uphoff

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