top of page


This chapter begins in an autobiographical emic way, sharing with readers how I first learned about the System of Rice Intensification, inviting them to put themselves vicariously in my position of becoming acquainted with this innovation first-hand. It was the start of a serendipitous journey on which readers can accompany me and others.

The chapters that follow in Parts I, II and III report on how SRI came to be understood scientifically and operationally, how its methods gained acceptance within the scientific community and among farmers and decision-makers, and how SRI knowledge and practice spread in over 60 countries through the efforts of first dozens, then hundreds, and eventually thousands of remarkable, diverse persons in many walks of life.


This prefatory chapter introduces readers in a biographic (etic) way to how SRI got started but also with autobiographical (emic) elements. This account has been written with the help of many others who participated in the process, so that it is not just one person’s perspective and becomes a collective memoire.


In December 1993, I was invited to visit Madagascar with a Cornell colleague, John Dennis, to consider whether CIIFAD, the Cornell International Institute for Food, Agriculture and Development, should help implement an integrated conservation and development project there,  funded by USAID, the U.S. Agency for International Development. This was in the third year of my 15-year tenure serving as CIIFAD’s director. Almost everyone knows about the exceptional but endangered biodiversity in Madagascar. Almost as well-known is the pervasive poverty that begs for development assistance on this huge island off the coast of southern Africa.[1]

The Ranomafana National Park Project was intended to halt the degradation of rainforest ecosystems that covered more than 35,000 hectares in the central part of the country. The project, about to enter an implementation phase after a first phase of planning, was expected to improve the lives of about 25,000 Malagasys[2] who lived in more than 100 village located in a peripheral zone around the Park while at the same time protecting the Ranomafana region’s biodiverse ecosystems.[3] Hundreds of unique species of flora and fauna in the region were jeopardized by the encroachment of small-scale farmers who were growing upland rice and other crops in the forest with slash-and-burn methods of cultivation, urgently trying to feed themselves and their families.

In fact, illegal logging and mining were probably more imminent threats to the rich biodiversity of Ranomafana, home to indigenous mammals (12 species of lemurs), birds (115 species), amphibians (98 species), reptiles (62 species), butterflies, bats, rare palm species, and other plants. It was ho human intrusion on vulnerable ecosystems. Moreover, it was thought to be easier to achieve such development than to improve governance and curb the corruption endemic in this country.

Already by the end of our first morning of village visits during a reconnaissance trip to Ranomafana, it was evident that increasing rice production around the forest was strategically the most urgent need. Malagasys consume more rice per capita than almost any other people in the world, and most eat rice three times a day, a reflection of their poverty as much as of food preferences and cultural traditions. The villagers whom John and I met on our field visit with the project’s director, Patricia Wright, a primatologist based at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, were some of the poorest and neediest whom I had seen in my 25 years of working on rural development efforts in a dozen Asian and African countries.

Farmers in the peripheral zone around the Ranomafana rainforest were producing only about 2 tonnes of paddy rice per hectare from the limited, low-lying irrigated areas to which they had access. (The world average rice yield was around 4 tonnes per hectare.) With such low yields, they could not keep their families adequately fed. So growing slash-and-burn upland rice in forested areas, even if forbidden, was an attractive, even necessary option.

Shifting cultivation yielded farmers only about 1 tonne of rice per hectare for a few years until the soil’s fertility was depleted, and they moved on to exploit other patches of forest. This form of cultivation, called tavy in the Malagasy language, required little labor and few other inputs. The government had little capacity or will to stop tavy, and farmers’ poverty and hunger gave them strong incentive to evade the authorities, who were in any case thinly-spread and not very motivated in this forested region eight hours’ drive from the capital city.

When we returned to the capital Antananarivo after five days in the field, John and I spoke with the project’s coordinator, Benjamin Andriamihaja, a U.S.-trained naturalist, about the priority of raising rice yields in the peripheral zone around Ranomafana’s rainforest. He was in full agreement and asked whether we would like to talk with a small non-governmental organization that he knew about, named Association Tefy Saina. This NGO had been established three years earlier by a French priest living in Madagascar, Fr. Henri de Laulanié, together with some of his Malagasy colleagues.

Benjamin said that Tefy Saina was promoting something called la système de riziculture intensive -- the System of Rice Intensification – of which I had never heard since at that time it was not known outside of Madagascar. I remember telling Benjamin that I would be glad to meet with Tefy Saina representatives as soon as possible because they surely knew much more than I did about both rice and about Madagascar.

Tefy Saina’s president Sébastian Rafaralahy and secretary Justin Rabenandrasana, shown below standing in a rice paddy, came to Benjamin’s office a few hours later. I summarized for them our field visit to Ranomafana and stated our conclusion that raising farmers’ yields of irrigated rice, and doing this quickly, was necessary if the magnificent rainforest there was to have any chance of surviving into future decades. Sébastien and Justin listened intently to what I said, with Benjamin translating.

SRI by Tefy Saina in Madagascar

When I finished, Sébastien waved his hand and responded in French so simple that I could understand it without translation: Pas de problem. No problem, he said, confidently and not boastfully. He assured John and me that by using the novel methods developed by their Jesuit friend Pere de Laulanié, the farmers around Ranomafana who were getting rice yields of only 2 tonnes per hectare could produce 5 tonnes, or 10 tonnes, or even 15 tonnes per hectare. These numbers were hard to accept, of course, but they sounded even more fantastic when Sébastian explained how such increases were achieved.

Farmers could achieve multiplications of yield, Sébastian said, without having to purchase and plant new seeds. Nor did they need to buy and apply chemical fertilizers so long as they could make compost from their rice straw and any other plant material or biomass that could be mobilized to enhance the very poor soils around Ranomafana. (Few rice farmers there were rich enough to maintain cattle that would provide them with a supply of manure.)

Further, farmers would have less need for irrigation water because under SRI management their rice paddy fields would not be kept continuously flooded, as rice farmers do whenever there is enough water available to keep their rice paddies inundated. To get the best results, Fr. Laulanié advised farmers to apply only a minimum of water to their fields (le minimum de l’eau). All this made little sense to me. No new varieties? No use of fertilizer? No flooding of rice paddies?

I wondered to myself when hearing this: Do they know that I am a social scientist by training, not an agronomist, so that they think that I can be scammed with such claims? I knew how the Green Revolution had raised rice and wheat yields in countries all over Asia and to a lesser extent in Africa and Latin America. Its increases were achieved by planting ‘improved’ varieties of seed, by utilizing more chemical fertilizer and agrochemical protection, and by installing or improving irrigation facilities to ensure a larger and more reliable supply of water for their crops. As Sébastian had explained SRI, it relied on none of these things and yet increased food crop yields by 100% or 200%, and maybe by even more? This sounded quite fantastic.


I remember telling Sébastien and Justin: “Let’s not talk about yields of 10 tonnes or 15 tonnes, because nobody at Cornell is going to believe this.” (To be polite, I didn’t say that I myself disbelieved them, but I imagined the dismay with which Cornell agronomists would receive this claim.) “If we can help farmers around Ranomafana to get their yields up to 3 tonnes or even 4 tonnes, that will be an increase of 50 to 100%,” I said. “That should be enough of an improvement to encourage them to move away from their tavy,” their slash-and-burn method of cultivation. That I was willing to set expectations (for them) this low put Sébastian and Justin at ease. Pas de problem.

At the time I also thought to myself: If they are confident that they can raise rice yields to 10 or 15 tonnes per hectare, then reaching yields of 3 or 4 tonne yields should not be too difficult. So trying out SRI methods did not seem terribly risky. We could draw on USAID funding to cover project costs, so I would not have to commit any CIIFAD funds to evaluate SRI.

Sébastien estimated that it would cost Association Tefy Saina about $5,000 a year to introduce, demonstrate and validate SRI in Ranomafana through young field staff whom he and Justin would personally train and supervise. This would be a rather small expense for the project, and potentially there could be great payoff.

SRI was attractive as an innovation because if it was effective and could be validated, it did not require farmers to purchase agricultural inputs as the Green Revolution did. Instead, it depended on the dissemination of new knowledge to make better use of existing, available resources. Most Malagasy farmers, being very poor, could not afford to buy external inputs, and they did not like to go into debt. Indeed, farmers who had enough money to buy new seeds, fertilizers or sprayers often found that these were unavailable in village markets anyway.

An innovation that could spread from farmer to farmer, not relying on government extension services which are seldom strong in developing countries and certainly very weak in Madagascar, would have ‘legs,’ I thought. It could spread on its own merits if people saw net benefits great enough and tangible enough. I was later to learn that this thinking was overly optimistic. This innovation was to face more obstacles and resistance than implied by any ‘rational-choice’ model of decision-making. The prospect that farmers could themselves spread the innovation, farmer-to-farmer, was in principle a compelling consideration. [See mini-memoires of Justin Rabenandrasana, Benjamin Andriamihaja, and John Dennis on this meeting]

The next morning John and I went to the country office of IRRI, the International Rice Research Institute, where we met with IRRI’s representative in Madagascar, Dr. V. Balasubaramanian, to see what he could tell us about SRI. The conversation was cordial but brief.

When I asked Bala if he knew about SRI, he replied, yes. What did he know about SRI? Had IRRI evaluated these methods? No, he responded. Why not? I asked. Because, Bala said, when Madagascar rice scientists had evaluated SRI on their test plots, they had not been able to get those high yields that the priest, Fr. Laulanié, had reported, 10 to 15 tonnes per hectare. What yields had these researchers gotten? I asked.  5 to 7 tonnes per hectare, Bala replied, adding quickly, “We can get those kinds of yields with our improved varieties using modern methods, so SRI is not of much interest to us or to the government.” This reasoning sounded conclusive enough that I did not question him further on this point.

Because I was not ready to accept the claims made for SRI, I did not ask Bala what in retrospect seems like an obvious question: “If SRI methods can enable Malagasy farmers to get yields of 5, 6 or 7 tonnes of rice per hectare -- without having to buy new seeds and chemical fertilizers -- shouldn’t this make SRI of interest to IRRI and the government?” This question went unasked because I did not yet take SRI seriously. The high SRI yields that Tefy Saina had reported the day before seemed more fanciful than feasible.

After the meeting, John and I concluded that it would be worthwhile to at least try out SRI. My guess was that there was less than a 5% chance that SRI methods could deliver what Tefy Saina said they could. But if SRI methods could indeed raise rice production even to 5 tonnes if not 10 or 15 tonnes per hectare, the payoff could be tremendous.

An agricultural technology that did not require the purchase of commercial inputs would in itself be advantageous to resource-limited farmers like those growing rice in the zone around the Ranomafana rainforest. Also, we did not know of any other organizations ready, even eager, to join in the project to improve rice production around Ranomafana, a fairly remote area with strenuous living conditions. This would be difficult work. So we asked Tefy Saina to work with us on this task.


John and I worked out a subcontract with Tefy Saina for it to train, deploy and supervise four young trainers who would live and work in four representative villages in the peripheral zone around the Park. The trainers would work alongside the 25 somewhat-educated village youths whom we planned to recruit, train and deploy under project auspices as Agents for Conservation and Development. These ACDs would introduce improved gardening, agroforestry, fish farming, poultry raising, and other innovations that could create flows of food and income to give households living in villages around the forest some good alternatives to their slash-and-burn farming, supplementing whatever staple food they could get from growing irrigated lowland rice.

The first year, not many farmers, only 38, were willing to try out the recommended SRI methods. I could understand their hesitation because a newly-planted SRI field looks, frankly, rather scary. This was my own reaction when I first observed an SRI plot. All I could see at first was brown mud, and only if I looked carefully could I discern tiny green shoots of grass-like growth. What is visible after transplanting is mostly mud. The methods recommended for SRI were counter-intuitive -- plant single, very young, tiny seedlings in a square pattern across the field, with no standing water.

Farmers were used to planting much older, larger rice seedlings in clumps of 3 or 4 (or even twice this), close together, helter-skelter, or sometimes in rows. The prevailing methods produced fields with a lot of large green plants and a sheet of water that reflected the blue color of the sky, an attractive scene. In SRI fields, the density of plants was only 10-20% of what were seen in traditionally-managed rice fields. In Indonesia, some farmers later christened SRI methods with a term used for magic, sim sala bim padi, which meant ‘abracadabra rice,’ literally ‘disappearing rice.’

An additional deterrent to adopting the new SRI methods in Madagascar was that the indigenous culture enjoined Malagasys to ‘follow the ways of our ancestors.’[4] Continuing the practices and beliefs of the departed was thought to show them proper reverence and respect. It was commonly believed that if the ancestors were not honored by conformity with the past, their spirits would visit misfortune upon the living as retribution, and not necessarily only on persons who deviated from cultural norms but also on their neighbors and on whole villages that tolerated such disrespect of the ancestors.

Rice as the most important food crop in most rural communities was proudly grown with traditional practices even if the yield was low. (Malagasy farmers were slowly coming to accept synthetic fertilizer, but more than cultural inhibitions limited its use because for most, fertilizers were too expensive or simply not available, as noted above.) For a farmer to try out SRI methods on his field was about as public a display as imaginable of departing from ‘the ways of our ancestors.’ As seen below. SRI could hardly be experimented with in secret.  Below is shown careful SRI transplanting in Sri Lanka, and a ground-level view of an SRI field after transplanting in Indonesia.

SRI in Madagascar
SRI in Madagascar

In the first season of trials, 1994-95, 38 farmers used the new methods on 5.7 hectares of land. They had an average yield over 8 tonnes per hectare, four times what they able to produce with the same rice varieties on these same poor soils. A few farmers got yields as high as 10 or 12 tonnes. The next year, 68 farmers were willing to use the new methods, and again their average yield was over 8 tonnes, and again there were some yields even higher.

The third year, the number of farmers who used SRI methods only totaled 78 because one of the four villages gave up SRI use when its Tefy Saina trainer left Ranomafana to return home, and its farmers did not yet have enough confidence to use the methods without his guidance. However, once again the average SRI yield was over 8 tonnes. (One field’s yield was estimated at 16 tonnes.)

By the fourth year, there was much greater interest in SRI, and the number of farmers using SRI methods rose to 275. The average yield that I calculated from Tefy Saina’s data for the first four years of on-farm trials around Ranomafana was 8.8 tonnes per hectare.[5] This was more than double the world average, and achieved on poor soil without using purchased inputs.

At the start of the fifth year, over 800 farmers signed up for Tefy Saina’s training and supervision. However, USAID decided not to continue the project in Ranomafana and instead asked CIIFAD and Tefy Saina to move their teams to a new project for conservation and development being started 100 miles to the north, based in Moramanga, with a similar purpose but an expanded scale of operation.

It was only after three seasons of positive results, when farmers’ average yields of paddy rice exceeded 8 tonnes each year, that I felt confident enough about SRI to begin to discuss it publicly. I had been cautious about accepting SRI because I did not want to associate Cornell University’s name with anything that might turn out to be bogus or unreliable. Agriculturalists generally want to have at least three years of data in hand before drawing conclusions about new practices because single-season results can be a fluke or an artifact of climate. After three years of quadrupled yields, however, it was clear that this increase was not a matter of errors in measurement. Something real was going on.[6]

In any case, the method that Tefy Saina used for calculating farmers’ yield was the same as that used by government technicians, and the same method was used to measure the yield on both SRI fields and conventionally-managed fields. Even if someone might dispute the reports of absolute yield (kg per hectare), the relative measurements (as a ratio) were robust. Although we could not know it at the time, as knowledge of SRI methods spread to other countries a quadrupling of yield for poor farmers in disadvantaged areas was reported several more times.[7]

A four-fold increase in production -- using fewer seeds, little or no chemical fertilizer, and less water -- was hard to believe especially because the soils around Ranomafana had been adjudged to be very poor according to accepted soil science criteria. A field evaluation by an agronomist from North Carolina State University, based on multiple random soil samplings that were 5 feet deep, had led to the conclusion that given the parent rock from which the soils had been formed, “there are no significant areas of naturally fertile soils within tens of kilometers of the park boundary.”[8]

Specifically, the researchers reported that soil pH values ranged from 3.9 and 5.0, indicating that the soils were extremely acidic, with accompanying iron toxicity and aluminum toxicity that limited plant growth. Further, the levels of available soil nutrients such as calcium, magnesium, sodium and potassium (cation exchange capacity) were assessed to be “low to extremely low in all horizons.”

The biggest constraint was that soil analyses showed levels of available phosphorus in all soil horizons that averaged only 3.5 parts per million (ppm), “far below the 10-ppm level that is generally considered to be the threshold below which large crop-yield reductions begin to occur.”[9] Until we could understand how this phosphorus constraint was dealt with by SRI methods, the reported results defied the most basic knowledge of soil science.

The NC State evaluation concluded that with the very low levels of soil nutrients and acute soil acidity, the two main constraints on soil fertility around Ranomafana, its soils “cannot be realistically managed by low-input technologies such as composting or even manuring. The nutrient-poor soils give rise to nutrient-poor plant residues and manure… The only viable strategies for producing sufficient agricultural yields are to use man-made fertilizers or to continue slash-and-burn practices.”[10] Was there any alternative? Tefy Saina was convinced that SRI methods offered a solution to the constraints that agronomists emphasized.

Before CIIFAD and Tefy Saina started working in Ranomafana, the faculty and staff from NC State who were involved in planning the project had promoted some new iron-tolerant varieties of rice along with the use of chemical fertilizers. Six Ranomafana farmers who cooperated with these advisors in evaluating this input-based strategy were able to get average paddy yields of 3 tonnes per hectare, and one got a 5-tonne yield, well above the prevailing average of 2 tonnes per hectare. So this strategy was seen to improve rice yields under field conditions. But it could not come close to attaining an average yield of 8 tonnes per hectare.

After farmers around Ranomafana had averaged 8-tonne yields for three years, with some reaching 10, 12, or even 14 tonnes per hectare on their SRI plots, it seemed justified to begin informing people outside of Madagascar about SRI possibilities, encouraging others to test and evaluate these methods for themselves elsewhere. How this was done and with what effects is discussed in subsequent sections of this memoire. In this introduction, we note that such outreach began only in 1997, not much more than 20 years ago, after results from the 1996-97 season were in hand and evaluated.

I gave Tefy Saina’s results more credence because of the following experience of my Cornell colleague Erick Fernandes, who is now with the World Bank but at the time was an assistant professor of crop and soil science specializing on tropical agriculture. In March 1997, Erick visited Ranomafana to advise on the agroforestry component of CIIFAD’s agricultural program. Agroforestry was one of Erick’s areas of expertise, but he knew a lot about rice farming because while growing up in India he had helped his family cultivate this crop, before he did his first university degree in Scotland and then a PhD in agronomy at North Carolina State University. He was curious about the SRI work and visited a number of SRI fields during his visit. In the most impressive field that he saw, Erick did a crop-cutting to estimate the yield. The grains that he harvested from an area of 1 sq. meter weighed 1.35 kg. This represented a field yield of 13.5 tonnes per hectare, consistent with the best yields that Tefy Saina had been reporting.

Erick came back to Cornell with pictures of what he had seen during his field visits, including a marvelous photograph of a Ranomafana farmer standing in a paddy field, grinning from ear to ear. This photograph was used on the cover of CIIFAD’s Annual Report for 1996-97, shown below. The caption for the picture, printed on the inside cover, is also reproduced below. [See Erick Fernandes’ mini-memoire on this visit to Ranomafana]  

CIIFAD Annual Report Cover Page

The caption on the back of the front cover read: Randrianasolo Gilbert stands with his godson Gil in a rice field near Ambatovaky, Madagascar, where Gilbert is using a new system of rice intensification (SRI) developed by CIIFAD’s NGO partner, Tefy Saina. This system is helping farmers in the peripheral zone around Ranomafana National Park to double and even triple their yields of rice through better techniques of transplanting and management. Because SRI does not require the use of new varieties or purchased inputs, it is accessible to small and poor farmers such as those living around Ranomafana so long as they are able and willing to increase their labor.

Gilbert was one of the first farmers in his village to experiment with SRI. In 1995 he used the methods on 3 ares, three-hundredths of the 1 hectare of rice land that he cultivates in five separate small parcels. He harvested 328 kilograms of rice from the SRI plot, which extrapolated to a yield of almost 11 tonnes per hectare, compared to the village average of less than 3 tonnes.

In 1996 Gilbert expanded his use of SRI to 5 ares and again got over 10 tonnes per hectare. This next season, now being satisfied with SRI’s productivity, he plans to use these techniques on half of his rice land. Because SRI can require more labor than traditional practices, at least initially, household labor constraints kept him from cultivating all of his rice fields with SRI methods.

The first realization of how difficult it was going to be to get widespread interest in and uptake of SRI came when CIIFAD did not receive a single inquiry or response regarding this cover picture or its caption, even though more than 1,000 copies of the Report were distributed at Cornell and worldwide. I knew of only one request for information that resulted from the report. For the most part, this information seemed to be ignored, with a figurative shrug.[11] Conventional methods of rice-growing seemed to be so settled and satisfactory that there was hardly any curiosity about these new and more productive techniques.

Two years later, we received some gratifying feedback on SRI from India. A small farmer in the state of Punjab sent the handwritten letter reproduced below in response to his having somehow received the 1998/99 CIIFAD Annual Report and then trying out the SRI methods described very briefly in the Report. This letter, anecdotal evidence but authentic, added to our confidence in the merits of SRI because it had come unsolicited from halfway around the world, from a farmer in the heartland of the Green Revolution who had benefited from reading just a short description of SRI methods. Gurbir Singh reported that these methods had enabled him to produce 2.5 additional tonnes of paddy rice per hectare, using less water and with less cost.

Letter from SRI Farmer in India
Letter from SRI farmer in India


Here the story reverts to a more etic account since the System of Rice Intensification took shape a decade before CIIFAD first learned about it, and its genesis actually went back several decades before that. People sometimes talk about the ‘discovery’ of SRI, but ‘inductive assemblage’ would be a better characterization. SRI is inextricably bound up with the life, exertions and insights of a remarkable priest-agronomist, Henri de Laulanié, SJ, who was born in southern France in 1920, and who died 75 years later in Madagascar, having lived and worked there since 1961.[12]

Henri de Laulanié, SJ

Laulanié studied for his first degree at the best agricultural school in France, now renowned as the National Institute of Agronomy (Paris-Grignon), graduating in 1939. During his agricultural studies, which were during the years when World War II was beginning, he had decided that he really wanted to become a priest to serve humankind in broader ways than he could as an agricultural specialist. So as soon as he reached the age of 21, he entered a Jesuit seminary, graduating four years later as the war was ending.

Young Henri continued to study theology and philosophy after graduation, and among his various assignments as a young priest was to teach for nine years at an agricultural college in Angers, France. In 1961, he was sent by the Jesuit order to the newly-independent island-country of Madagascar to serve there as an agricultural technician “for ten years.” Fortunately for the world, this turned out to be an open-ended engagement that lasted 34 years.

On arrival, Laulanié, being appalled by the hunger and poverty of most Malagasys, wanted to use what agricultural knowledge he had to do whatever he could to reduce both afflictions. At first he thought that raising the production (and consumption) of fruits and vegetables would have the most positive impact on people’s nutrition and well-being. However, he soon concluded that raising rice production was essential for reducing both hunger and poverty because the diets and livelihoods of most Malagasys were so dependent on rice.

His agronomic studies had taught him little about this crop, however, because rice was not grown very much in France, so regarding the cultivation of rice he started as a novice. Moreover, there was not much scientific knowledge in the country for improving rice production because France’s colonial rule had been more extractive than beneficent. Accordingly, Laulanié turned to both indigenous knowledge and to his own observations and experimentation.[13]

To begin, Laulanié came across a few Madagascar farmers who were not planting their rice seedlings in clumps of 3 or 4 per hill, even as many as to 8 or 10 seedlings at a time, which was common practice. These innovative farmers were transplanting their rice seedlings singly, just one plant per hill. These individual plants grew as well as, or even better than, multiple plants placed together.

Why? Because the root systems of crowded-together plants inhibit each other’s growth. Moreover, their leaves shaded each other enough to reduce the amount of sunlight that each could intercept. Further, the rice seed that was saved when planting density was reduced this way could directly lessen hunger in very poor households.

When Laulanié tried planting single seedlings in his own field, he concluded that this was a better approach to crop establishment. At first, the field with fewer plants per hill looked rather bare, but subsequent growth compensated for the lower plant population. Within several weeks the sparsely-planted field had more profuse growth than fields that had started out with many more plants.

Next, Laulanié came across some other rice farmers who were not keeping their paddy fields continuously flooded, the preferred practice for rice cultivation not only in Madagascar but all around the world. These few farmers supplied their fields just with small amounts of water daily, keeping the soil moist but never inundated. Their plants flourished with just enough water to meet their needs, and no more. When he tried this practice on his own field with single seedlings, Henri saw even better plant growth and health than with just single seedlings or with no flooding. There was some evident synergy between the practices.

Not flooding paddy fields keeps their soil mostly aerobic, that is, suffused with oxygen, whereas inundating them cuts off the soil from this vital element. Over time, having a layer of water standing on the field suffocates the rice plants’ roots and other forms of life in the soil that also need oxygen, like earthworms.

Rice plants can survive under such conditions but they do not prosper, for reasons discussed in the next chapter. True, flooding ensures that rice plants will always have water, and it suppresses the growth of many weeds. But it also constrains the size and health of their root systems, something little recognized because farmers almost never inspect their plants’ roots.

In the 1970s, government technicians were encouraging farmers to plant their rice in rows rather than helter-skelter, and to use a simple mechanical weeder to control weeds. An implement called a rotating hoe (houe rotative) pushed up and down between the rows of rice uprooted weeds and buried them as a kind of green manure, returning plant nutrients to the soil.

Laulanié’s first personal contribution to the development of SRI was the counterintuitive innovation of planting single rice seedlings in a square pattern, rather than in rows, initially with a spacing of 25 x 25 cm. This grid pattern permitted mechanical weeding to be done in perpendicular directions, criss-crossing the field at right angles, as seen in the picture below from Indonesia. This disturbed the topsoil all around each plant.

SRI planting technique

It became clear from both experience and research that this method of weed control stimulated the growth of both plant roots and beneficial soil organisms. When rice fields were no longer kept inundated, especially with wide spacing between young plants, weed growth does become a problem since flooding previously suppressed most weed growth. Mechanical weed control has the benefit of actively aerating the soil’s surface in a way that neither hand weeding nor using herbicides can.

Getting higher yield from doing multiple mechanical weedings, as shown in Chapter 10, makes this more than a cost. Such weeding with soil aeration all around each rice plant produces significant benefits of greater yield and income. Furthermore, although this operation is less laborious than squat-weeding, and once the technique of mechanical weeding is mastered, the time and effort required for weeding can be reduced.

Spacing plants enough to be able to weed in perpendicular directions greatly reduces the number of plants per square meter. Together with the other new practices, this reduction in plant density led to significantly increased yield while making for large savings of seed (80-90%). Such a change in practice was unlikely to occur to a farmer who was concerned with feeding his or her family. Recognizing the advantages of optimizing wider spacing between plants, rather than optimizing how closely they can be crowded together, was the first of Laulanié’s own contributions to SRI.

Laulanié’s second contribution was, by his own account, serendipitous.[14] He says that it was ‘almost by accident’ that he discovered that the methods which he had combined previously had much greater effect when transplanting was done with very young seedlings, no more than 15 days old – instead of with the older seedlings that Malagasy farmers were using, from 6 to 10 weeks old.[15]

In 1981, Laulanié established a school for rural Malagasy youths in Antsirabe, 100 miles south from the capital. At this school they got an education adapted to their real-world needs, rather than being imitative of the French curriculum as was the formal schooling in Madagascar, and they learned better methods for farming.[16] By this time he had already figured out that the age of seedlings transplanted from nurseries into main fields should be reduced to 30 days from the 60-70 days that was common for transplanted rice in the countryside.

Also, he had established that seedlings should be handled very carefully and should be transplanted into the main field quickly, preferably within 30 minutes after they were removed (gently) from the nursery where their seeds had been sown, so that the roots would not get dried out. It was common practice to leave seedlings in the open for 5-6 hours after they were uprooted from the nursery, even sometimes leaving them out in the open for a day or more.

Also, the roots of older seedlings were often shortened by cutting off some of the roots with a machete if they were inconveniently long. Soil clinging to the roots was knocked off by beating the roots on the ground or against a knee. When seedling roots were so brutalized and desiccated, it was understandable that low yields resulted. And these seedlings were often left out in the open for hours, even a full day.

Another important deviation from standard practice that Laulanié worked out was to transplant seedlings rather shallow, just 1-2 cm into the soil, not 4-5 cm deep as was common. Also he concluded that seedlings should not be thrust downward into the soil because this inverts the roots’ tips upward, making the plant’s profile in the soil like the letter J.

Instead, seedlings should be slipped into the soil with a lateral motion so that the roots’ tips were laid into the soil as horizontally as possible. In graphic terms, the transplant’s profile should be more like the letter L than like a J. When the root tip is not pointing upward in the soil, as was the case with a J profile, the root could more easily reorient itself downward and more quickly resume its growth into the soil as it is genetically programmed to do.

Around the world, rice seedlings that are not re-planted quickly and carefully experience what is known as ‘transplant shock.’ Seedlings whose roots have been subject to physical trauma during their transplanting require 7-10 days or more to resume their growth, after their roots have reoriented themselves downward and their physiological functions are re-synchronized.

One of the ‘secrets’ of SRI is to minimize this initial period of set-back. Carefully-transplanted SRI seedlings resume their growth with little or no delay. These were things that Laulanié had already learned from his observations and experimentation when he hit upon the keystone element which completed the ‘arch’ of SRI: that rice seedlings should be transplanted while still very young. This will be explained scientifically in terms of phyllochrons in Chapter 6.  

In November 1983, in a season with unsettled weather, 15 days after he had sown a nursery of rice seedlings to plant in his demonstration field at the Antsirabe school, Laulanié decided to plant a second small nursery, to be sure that he would have enough seedlings. When a good rain came another 15 days later, when it was time to plant out the first seedlings, now 30 days old, he decided to transplant also the still-tiny seedlings in his second nursery, only 15 days old, not being confident that good rains would come again. Because the school’s farm was for learning and demonstration, not needed to ensure a family’s food supply and survival, he was free to experiment in this way. His students planted out the small seedlings with little expectation that they would produce much.[17]

For their first several weeks, the 15-day-old plants, set out singly in a square pattern with wide spacing, then weeded in a soil-aerating way with only small applications of water, were unimpressive, small compared to the normally-transplanted rice. But then they began to tiller more rapidly and vigorously, and within two months they had surpassed the rice plants transplanted at an older age. By harvest time, the younger plants outyielded their elders, although both fields produced more than did conventionally-grown flooded rice.

This surprise could have been considered as a fluke and forgotten. But the next year, Laulanié transplanted 15-day-old seedlings again at the school, with good results. And in subsequent years, even younger seedlings, 12, 10, even 8 days old, were used with the other new practices, and they likewise performed very well. For some reason, rice seedlings transplanted at a young age grew more rapidly and robustly. A few years later, Laulanié learned why, as discussed below and in more detail in Chapter 6.

Young farmers studying at the school to improve their agricultural productivity were using chemical fertilizers to improve the soil’s fertility. Everyone who could afford fertilizer used it to raise crop yields since most soils in Madagascar were quite deficient in soil nutrients. However, by the end of the 1980s, the government of Madagascar, facing stringent budget constraints, ended its subsidizing of fertilizer. This had made it no longer possible for most farmers in Madagascar to benefit from adding inorganic nutrients to the soil.

Once farmers could no longer afford to apply fertilizer at its unsubsidized price, Laulanié had his students begin making and relying on compost, made from rice straw and other vegetative matter, to improve the soil’s fertility. They found that in conjunction with the other new SRI practices, compost gave better results than did chemical fertilizer. This finding was confirmed by the factorial trials discussed at the beginning of Chapter 7.[18]

This completed the synthesis of what became known as SRI, even though SRI itself continued to evolve and change as more experience was gained and as more minds followed the lines of investigation and practice that Laulanié had mapped out.[19] Extensions of SRI logic and practice included adapting its methods to unirrigated rice production in upland areas or in rainfed lowlands; to direct-seeding of rice instead of transplanting; and to mechanized, larger-scale production as well as to other crops.[20]

How and why did SRI practices achieve such remarkable improvements in the productivity and resilience of rice plants? And other plants? This remained to be determined. Before he died, Laulanié published one article in a Belgian agricultural journal Tropicultura and wrote a summary technical paper that I translated with a lot of help from Malagasy colleagues in 1998, once I had started taking SRI seriously.[21] The chapters that follow in Part I review how better understanding of SRI’s effectiveness was developed after Laulanié’s death, which is an interesting story in itself, and how SRI diversified in a number of ways and produced some unexpected benefits.

In 1987, Laulanié fortuitously came to understand in physiological and morphological terms just how and why transplanting very young seedlings added so significantly to the productivity of rice plants, and he wrote about this in the two publications referred to above. Somehow a book on rice written by the French agronomist Didier Moreau[22] reached him in Madagascar, and in it he read about the research of a Japanese agronomist, T. Katayama, who during the 1920s and 1930s had done research on the tillering (production of stalks) of rice, wheat and barley.

Katayama discovered a surprising periodicity in the pattern and numbers of tiller emergence (and concomitant root growth) in cereal plants of the grass family, botanically known as Gramineae (or now Poaceae). This pattern and these numbers corresponded quite well to a Fibonacci series in mathematics. Katayama’s work was not published (in Japanese) until after World War II,[23] and this book has not been translated into English.

Katayama synthesized the concept of ‘phyllochron’ from the Greek words for leaf and time. As discussed in Chapter 6, this idea illuminates the natural sequence in which tillers and roots emerge from the plant’s meristematic (growth) tissue. Understanding this helped to explain why rice plants that are transplanted before the start of their 4th phyllochron of growth (usually about 15 days) can produce more tillers and roots than if they are transplanted (and their roots are disturbed) later in their growth cycle. These relationships result from rice plants’ genetically-determined pattern (potential) for growth.

Very few things could have been more exciting than to witness Laulanié’s reading about phyllochrons in Didier Moreau’s book in 1987. This book gave him suddenly an understanding in scientific terms for why planting very young seedlings, which he was now promoting, could produce such remarkable improvements in yield.

These yield gains were doubted by most scientists and farmers because they could not understand how and why seeds or seedlings with a given genetic potential (genotype) could produce such different and more productive plant types (phenotypes). This would have been a ‘Eureka’ moment for Laulanié that resembled the one attributed to Archimedes.

Just as there are a number of components of SRI’s methodology, there are numerous causal mechanisms and interactions that collectively put SRI-nurtured plants on a different growth trajectory. Phyllochrons are just one of these explanations, but a really important one. Knowing about phyllochrons gave Laulanié more confidence than ever in the validity and power of his innovation, just as my knowing about them from his writings gave me more confidence that what I and others were observing was real, with validatable explanations.


By the end of the 1980s, Laulanié began trying to spread knowledge of SRI methods and their results beyond his school at Antsirabe, working with a variety of Catholic institutions and also NGOs. He set up a distance-learning school for rural youth living anywhere in the country, enabling them to get an education through correspondence courses. In this he was assisted by Sébastian and Justin and others.

In 1990, together with Sébastien, Justin and other Malagasy friends and colleagues, Laulanié established a voluntary, non-governmental organization, Association Tefy Sana. Its Malagasy name means ‘forger l’esprit’ in French, or in English ‘to form the mind.’ The aim of the organization was thus not just to improve rice production, but to promote overall human development.[24]

Laulanié made a presentation on SRI in 1991 to the Faculty of Agriculture at the University of Antananarivo which was received by the faculty and students there with little appreciation or respect. Sebastién said that when the priest’s departed from the campus after the lecture, his driving away in his old Citroën 2CV, the cheap French car called ‘Deux-chevaux,’ was accompanied by jeers and hoots from the students.

Initially Laulanié called this new system of rice cultivation ‘the Katayama system,’ in honor of the Japanese researcher whose concepts of rice growth in terms of phyllochrons had made the new system scientifically more explicable. But at one of his public presentations on the new system in Antananarivo, a staff member from the Japanese Embassy publicly took exception to this naming, saying that Katayama had had nothing to do with this agricultural methodology, so it should not be named after him. (The method was already controversial, so the diplomat probably wanted to distance his country from the methodology.) So, Laulanié had to come up with another designation.

At that time, some rice scientists in Madagascar were pressing the government to invest more heavily in plant breeding, to develop new varieties according to the Green Revolution strategy that would be suitable to Malagasy conditions and more responsive to the intensified application of external inputs, especially chemical fertilizer. This was the common meaning of the term ‘intensification’ at that time.

Knowing how much his new methods could produce without making genetic changes, Laulanié believed that such a strategy was not advisable, being costly for the government and for farmers, and taking many years to implement. He knew that his methods could already accomplish, at low cost and immediately, most of what a Green Revolution approach could deliver. So he re-named his methodology ‘le systém de riziculture intensive’ -- the System of Rice(culture) Intensification, or SRI.

In retrospect, this was not a very good name for Laulanié’s system because ‘intensification’ was strongly associated in most people’s minds, certainly in most scientists’ thinking, with more intensive use of fertilizer, agrochemicals, and irrigation water. SRI involved quite a different kind of intensification, involving more knowledge, more management, and more labor, at least in Madagascar where rice production was labor-extensive, as Malagasy farmers were investing much less labor per hectare in such production than in Asia, where most of the world’s rice is grown and consumed.

The name ‘SRI’ added some confusion to the resistance that arose from those who preferred and supported mainstream ‘intensification,’ which was more dependent on material inputs than on mental changes. ‘Modern’ practices injected agrochemical inputs into the natural environment where rice plants were grown, rather than modifying that environment to make if more favorable for plant growth. But the name once given remained set, and the acronym SRI soon became more widely recognized and more often used than the longer, awkward name, System of Rice Intensification.[25]

In 1995, when Laulanié passed away, there was still little acceptance of SRI in Madagascar, and indeed some opposition since the Green Revolution strategy was favored by most scientists, government departments, and donor agencies, not to mention by commercial interests. In his last years of his life, Laulanié suffered from severe osteoarthritis of his hips and moved around with great difficulty, although he did his best to keep in touch with farmers and their lives. Below is a picture of him making a field visit some months before his death in June 1995.

Fr. Laulanié

Five days before he died, it is reported that Laulanié said: Maintenant, je puis disparaître, la riziculture est bien lancée, elle continuera après moi. Et quand je ne serai plus là, je pourrai encore vous aider.[26] “Now I can disappear; the rice culture [SRI] is well launched, and will continue after me. When I am no longer here, [my ideas] can still help you.” This was an optimistic view.[27]

It has taken another 25 years to explicate and elaborate Laulanié’s thinking and practice, and this effort is ongoing, with dozens, then hundreds, and now thousands of people getting involved. This chapter has introduced SRI, how it was developed, and how I and others became involved with it. The rest of this memoire is divided into three parts. How did this collection of practices, ideas and insights known as SRI get to be understood more deeply and broadly. Then how did it gain acceptance and overcome resistance (although not yet all). And finally, how did it spread to and within so many countries, now over 60, in two decades’ time?

Each of these parts is a story in itself, and there is a lot of interaction among them, but the respective stories will be told serially, for the sake of clarity, even if the whole story is more complex. Connections between the parts will be made explicit as appropriate. The story is both a humbling and an inspiring one. Hopefully something can be learned from it for understanding how we can deal better with the many problems now facing our communities and countries beyond reducing hunger and poverty. 



[1] According to the 2016 World Development Indicators published by the World Bank, in 2010, 82% of the population of Madagascar subsisted on less than $1.90 per day, the internationally defined poverty line. In 2005, this number was reported to be 74%, indicating that poverty in Madagascar has been increasing in recent years from an already dreadful level.

[2] The term ‘Malagasy’ is an adjective or noun used to refer to the inhabitants, language and culture of Madagascar.

[3] The project is well-described in a brochure from the Institute for the Conservation of Tropical Environments, based at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, the institution managing the project. For a critical review of the project, see Joe Peters, ‘Transforming the Integrated Conservation and Development Project (ICDP) approach: Observations from the Ranomafana National Park Project,’ Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 11: 17-47 (1998). This article covered Phase I of the project, before Cornell became involved in Phase II, and it did not consider the role of SRI.

[4] ‘Traditional beliefs and religion’ in H.C. Metz, ed., Madagascar: A Country Study, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC.

[5] Uphoff, ‘Agroecological implications of the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) in Madagascar,’ Environment, Development and Sustainability, 1: 297-313 (1999).

[6] The standard method for calculating yield, used by government technicians and by Tefy Saina, was to put a 1 meter x 1 meter wooden frame around the rice plants in three different parts of the field, one where grain production was seen to be the best, one where it was the poorest, and one in-between, considered typical.

Measurements were always done at least a few meters from the edge of the field because it was known that rice plants growing on the edge of a field, more exposed to the sun and to air circulation, produce more grains and thus are not representative of the whole field. Crop cuttings were not done on the border of a field so as to avoid what agronomists called ‘the edge effect.’

     All of the rice plants within each 1 m2 area were harvested and threshed, and their grains were weighed. The weight from the ‘typical’ area was counted twice so that the four weights considered together would approximate a normal distribution. The weights of the grain from these crop cuttings, a 4 m2 area, were added together and then divided by four. The resulting average weight (in grams per m2) was multiplied by 10,000 to get a per-hectare yield, as there are 10,000 m2 in one hectare.

     An evaluation in 1996 by a French agronomist Eric Bilger compared the yield results for 108 farmers in two regions who had used both SRI and traditional methods on adjoining fields. Bilger calculated the yield from each field by using both this standard sampling method and then also by whole-field measurements of the actual harvest. That he found this sampling method of yield calculation slightly underestimated the actual yields (by 5%) was a good indication that the sampling method did not exaggerate yields. Avantages et contraintes du SRI, enquêtes auprès de 108 exploitants des régions d’Antananarivo et d’Antsirabe. Report to the Ministry of Agriculture and Association Tefy Saina, Antananarivo (1996).

[7] There were credible reports of paddy yields being raised with SRI management methods from averages of 2 tonnes per hectare to 8.5 tonnes both in Aceh province of Indonesia where the Catholic NGO CARITAS introduced SRI after the tsunami devastation in 2004, and in tribal areas of Madhya Pradesh state in India, as discussed in Chapter 10.

[8] Bruce K. Johnson, ‘Soil survey’ in Final Report for the Agricultural Development Component of the Ranomafana National Park Project in Madagascar, see pp. 6-7. Soil Science Department, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC (1994).

[9] Johnson paper on Soil Survey. Phosphorus is one of the most essential nutrients for plant growth. Deficiencies are normally ameliorated by adding phosphate fertilizer and also limestone to raise the pH level, i.e., to reduce acidity.

[10] Johnson paper on Soil Survey.

[11] There was very noteworthy response that I learned about 20 years later. While writing this book, I learned that Dr. Kanayo Nwanza, shortly before becoming director-general of WARDA, now known as the Africa Rice Center, received and read the Annual Report. Before taking up his DG responsibilities, while still at ICRISAT, he took its information on SRI seriously enough to forward it to WARDA’s interim director of research, Dr. Willem Stoop, and urged Willem to get in touch with me at Cornell to learn more about the new methodology.

     Willem subsequently, after learning more about SRI, took the lead in writing an article on SRI which first introduced it to the scientific community: Stoop, Uphoff and Kassam, ‘Research issues raised for the agricultural sciences by the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) from Madagascar: Opportunities for improving farming systems for resource-limited farmers,’ Agricultural Systems, 71: 249-274 (2002). Nwanza was subsequently elected and served as President of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).

[12] Bernard Leurent, ‘La Père Henri de Laulanié, 1920-1995: 34 ans au service du Madagascar.’ Obituary in Jèsuites en Mission – Chine Madure Madagascar, 255: 16-20 (1996).

[13] A longer account of this process is provided in my paper, ‘The development of the System of Rice Intensification’ in volume 3 of Participatory Research and Development for Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development, eds. J. Gonsalves et al., International Development Research Centre, Ottawa, 119-126.

[14] See his only published article on SRI, ‘Le système de riziculture intensive malgache’ in Tropicultura (Brussels), 11: 110-114 (1993).

[15] See Laulanié’s ‘Technical Presentation of the System of Rice Intensification, Based on Katayama’s Tillering Model.’ This is my translation, with the help of Malagasy colleagues, of the technical paper in which he presented and summarized his experience with and thinking on SRI. This was condensed and converted into the paper cited in the preceding endnote. The published paper was translated into English 18 years later and republished in the same journal as ‘Intensive rice farming in Madagascar,’ 29: 183-187 (2011).

[16] Emblematic of the serendipity with which the SRI story is infused, the grant made by the Catholic NGO Caritas Madagascar to help establish the school at Antsiribe was managed by Ms. Lisa Gaylord, who in the mid-1990s was USAID’s project manager for the Ranomafana Park project through which CIIFAD became involved with SRI. [See her mini-memoire on this]

[17] As described in Laulanié, ‘Le système de riziculture intensive malgache’ (endnote 14).

[18] That Laulanié and farmers came to realize the merits of compost was, in effect, an unintended  result of the World Bank’s ‘structural adjustment’ policies of the late 1980s, which pressured the government to cut it subsidies on chemical fertilizer.

[19]  Tefy Saina considers the first five practices: young seedlings, single seedlings, wide spacing (in square grid pattern), no flooding, and soil-aerating mechanical weeding, as the essential SRI practices. It regards organic means of fertilization as an added feature, an accelerator, but not as essential. Thus SRI was developed with ‘organic’ cultivation being an option, not a requirement.

[20] The original system of SRI, from which further modifications and innovations were made, was summarized in a joint manual prepared by Association Tefy Saina and CIIFAD in 1998: How to Help Rice Plants Grow Better and Produce More: Teach Yourself and Others

[21] These publications have been referenced in endnotes 12 and 14.

[22] L’analyse de l’élaboration de rendement du riz: les outils du diagnostic. GRET, Paris (1986).

[23] Ine mugi no bungetsu kenkyu (Studies on Tillering in Rice, Wheat and Barley). Yokendo Publishing, Tokyo (1951).

[24] This is made clear in a posthumously-published book of Laulanié’s writings, Le Riz à Madagascar: Un Dèveloppement en Dialogue avec les Paysans. Editions Karthala, Paris (2003).

[25] One of my deepest regrets is that I never met Fr. Laulanié personally, even though I could easily have met him if I had wanted to do so. During our introduction of SRI into the peripheral zone around Ranomafana Park, I worked only with Sébastien and Justin. In a properly scientific way, I withheld judgment on SRI’s merits until we had three years of data. Sadly for me, by the time that I understood and accepted the merits of SRI, Fr. Laulanié had departed two years previously.

     A short memoire on SRI has been written in French by his colleagues Rabenandrasana and Rafaralahy on the initial years of SRI, before Tefy Saina began cooperating with CIIFAD in Ranomafana. ‘SRI en Petites Exploitations’ was published in a technical periodical (undated) of the government’s agricultural research agency FOFIFA.

[26] See reference in endnote 12.

[27] Another acquaintance reported that his last words were a gentle lamentation that his Jesuit order had never understood what he was doing. At that time, very few persons understood him or his work.


PICTURE CREDITS: Glenn Lines (CIIFAD); Gamini Batuwitage (Sri Lanka); Shuichi Sato (Japan); Erick Fernandes (CIIFAD); Association Tefy Saina; Shuichi Sato; Association Tefy Saina.

bottom of page