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Chapter temp: WHAT 

This book presents an account that could become one of the most significant stories in this century, or it could turn out to be simply a very important story. Depending on when one chooses to date its start, this story began some 20, 30, 40, or even 50 years ago. But it began in earnest about 20 years ago and is continuing, and it could go on for another decade or several.

This chapter reviews why the SRI story is important, and the next one lays out how the story will be told, as a memoire of something, not of a person. This is kind of memoire is unconventional, but so is the innovation that it reports on and memorializes. SRI’s novelty justifies an unusual approach to story-telling, about which more will is said in the next chapter.

This memoire will capitalize on technical possibilities for the dissemination of knowledge that books did not have in previous decades, making this report freely available electronically to anyone interested.

Why should SRI be of interest to readers? This is the question to begin with.

  • How many innovations can increase the output of food by reducing production inputs and by lowering production costs, rather than by expanding them? SRI practices raise crop yields not just by increments, but often by multiples

  • What other agricultural inventions can deal with the afflictions of hunger and poverty at the same time at the same time it counters climate change and buffers crops against its stresses and hazard?

  • How often can innovations improve the nutritional quality of food as well as its quantity, while ameliorating the conditions of work and quality of life for women? Women endure a disproportionate share of the disease and discomfort associated with producing rice, our world’s most important staple food, which provides 20% of humankind’s caloric needs.

Any innovation that can offer such large and diverse benefits is certainly remarkable, especially if it is based more on the spread of knowledge, not requiring capital expenditures.

The System of Rice Intensification, known as SRI, can be considered as a technology, but here it is characterized as an innovation rather than as a technology. Why? Because it has more elements and more implications than are usually associated with the term ‘technology.’ Any new technology is, of course, an innovation; but innovations can be more than technologies. SRI has been described variously as, for example, a movement[1], or paradigm, or even as a philosophy.[2] These things are more than any typical technology.

At its core, SRI is an idea, or a suite of ideas, that originated from the work and thought of Fr. Henri de Laulanié, a French Jesuit who lived half his life in Madagascar. But SRI has taken on a life of its own as it has evolved and diversified in the past several decades. Speaking broadly, SRI represents a confluence or congruence of insights, concepts, practices, proponents, and experiences, meeting a range of contemporary needs.

The understanding and acceptance of SRI has been somewhat slowed by people’s inclination to try to pour its ‘new wine’ into the familiar ‘bottle’ of technology, specifically the kind of agricultural technology associated with the now-well-known Green Revolution. Such a conflation causes confusion because many of the ideas and practices of SRI are contrary to those that constituted the Green Revolution.

The Green Revolution sought to increase the world’s food production first by breeding and planting what were called ‘improved’ varieties of cereal crops, and then by increasing the use of synthetic fertilizers and chemical crop protection. Larger volumes of water were also needed and consumed. It surprises most people to learn that SRI does not rely on new varieties or on agrochemical inputs, and it succeeds with less rather than more irrigation water, which is increasingly scarce. SRI’s approach is thus very different from that of the Green Revolution.

Green Revolution practices were broadly successful in the latter third of the Twentieth Century. However, they have entailed substantial economic and environmental costs. Moreover, they have been losing momentum over the past few decades.[3] It has been quite a revelation for farmers and scientists to learn that SRI methods can give even better results than those from Green Revolution technology with fewer economic and environmental costs.

Thanks to SRI we now know that farmers can get higher crop yields plus other benefits just by making certain changes in their methods of cultivation, such as stopping the age-old practice of growing rice in continuously-flooded paddy fields.[4] Also, SRI shows that higher yields can be achieved by greatly reducing the density of plants in rice fields, by 75% or more. This seemed implausible until such results were demonstrated again and again, with scientific research subsequently validating them.

Very importantly, these insights do not apply only for rice cultivation. Farmers have been able to make better, more productive use of their available resources by adapting the ideas and methods of SRI developed for irrigated rice to many other crops (Chapter 13).[5]  

The counter-intuitive results of SRI – getting more output with fewer production inputs -- are achieved by drawing on two sources of productivity that were almost completely ignored by the Green Revolution: plants’ root systems (Chapter 4), and soil biology (Chapter 5).

SRI methods, especially when taken together, enable rice plants to grow larger, healthier, longer-lived root systems at the same time that they promote more abundant and diverse life in the soil. Better root systems and more abundant soil organisms together support the emergence and growth of more tillers (stalks), with more of the tillers producing panicles (heads) that form and produce rice grains; and these grains in turn are more numerous in each panicle and also often heavier. These are the elements that contribute to having higher yield.[6]

The value of having more biodiversity and biological activity in the soil is becoming more understandable as we learn more about called the soil-plant microbiome.[7] This is similar to the human microbiome which we now know contributes greatly to our own health and well-being.[8] SRI’s attention to root systems and to soil biology is of broad relevance,[9] and it fills a major gap in the thinking and strategy of the Green Revolution, a gap that is becoming more and more evident.

The importance of roots and the impact of modified soil and crop management can be seen very easily. The first picture below was sent to Cornell from Cuba in 2003. It shows two rice plants of the same age and same variety, each endowed with the same genetic potential. However, the plant on the right has 43 tillers, while the one on the left has only 5. As significant as this difference in the number of tillers are the obvious differences in the size and color between the two respective root systems.

The seeds for both plants were sown in the same nursery on the same day. But the plant on the right was grown with SRI methods while the plant on the left was grown according to the farmer’s usual practices. The contrast between the two plants makes tangible the kind of impact that altering a plant’s growing environment, both above and below ground, can have on its growth and performance.

The second picture, sent from Liberia in 2014, shows the same kind of effect observed in a very different setting, in West Africa. Again, both plants were grown from the same variety of seed, so they had the same growth potential. The disparity in their sizes and vigor can hardly be accounted for by the fact that the SRI plant on the right was planted 3 days before the conventionally-grown rice plant seen on the left.

SRI Rice in Cuba
SRI Rice in Liberia

On left, Cuban farmer Luis Romero holds two rice plants of the same age and same variety (VN2084). Both were started in the same nursery at the same time, but the plant on the right with 43 tillers was transplanted when only 9 days old into an SRI-managed field. The other plant, with 5 tillers and still considered a seedling, was removed from the nursery for this picture at 52 days of age. In Luis’ region, transplanting is usually done between 50 and 55 days.[10]

On right, Edward Sohn in Grand Gedee county of Liberia shows two contrasting rice plants of the same variety. The plant on the right was grown in an SRI plot while the other on the left was raised by Edward in a nearby field with his usual practices.


[1] B.A.M. Bouman, ‘SRI: Why the animosity?’ IRRI blog, April 16 (2013). 

[2] N. Uphoff, ‘Reflections,’ SRI Newsletter, 4: 8-13 (2009). WWF-ICRISAT Program on Food, Water and Environment, Hyderabad, India.

[3] P.L. Pingali, M. Hossain and R.V. Gerpacio, Asian Rice Bowls: The Returning Crisis? International Rice Research Institute, Los Baños, Philippines (1997); M.S. Swaminathan, ‘Can science and technology feed the world in 2025?’ Field Crops Research, 104: 3-9 (2007); H.C.J. Godfray, J.R. Beddington, I.R. Crute, L. Haddad, D. Lawrence, F.J. Muir, J. Pretty, S. Robinson and C. Toulmin, ‘Food security: The challenge of feeding 9 billion people,’ Science, 327: 812-818 (2010); D.K. Ray, N.D. Mueller, P.D. West and J.A. Foley, ‘Yield trends insufficient to double global crop production by 2050,’ PLoS ONE, 8(6) (2013). The narrative of the Green Revolution as necessary and a huge success has been challenged by some historians. See Glenn Davis Stone, ‘Commentary: New histories of the Green Revolution,’ The Geographical Journal, The Royal Geographical Society, London (2019).

[4] Farmers’ view that rice fields should be kept flooded if possible was ratified by scientific opinion. In his book widely regarded as a bible for rice agronomy, a senior scientist at the International Rice Research Institute, S.K. DeDatta, wrote “rice thrives on land that is water saturated, or even submerged during part of all of its growth cycle … most rice varieties maintain better growth and produce higher grain yields when grown in flooded soil than when grown in non-flooded soil” (pages 43, 297-298). Principles and Practices of Rice Production, J.W. Wiley, New York (1981). This understanding of how best to grow rice has been shown by SRI experience and by research to be simply and completely wrong.

[5] B. Abraham et al., ‘The System of Crop Intensification (SCI): Reports from the field on improving agricultural production, food security, and resilience to climate change for multiple crops,’ Agriculture and Food Security, 3:4 (2014); P. Adhikari et al., ‘System of Crop Intensification for more productive, resource-conserving, climate-resilient and sustainable agriculture: Experience with diverse crops in varying agroecologies,’ International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability, 15: 1-28 (2017).

[6] A third reason for better performance of SRI-grown rice plants is that the practices create a less dense canopy above-ground, with more air circulation and less humidity. Such a micro-environment is less favorable for pests and disease, and more facilitative of photosynthesis. This kind of micro-environment results from the various SRI practices that promote greater root growth and health and that are conducive to more biodiversity in the soil. We focus on root systems and the life in the soil as these are largely ignored by conventional practice, and there is now much research documenting their positive effects. However, improving the above-ground environment for rice crop growth is also an essential part of the synergistic effects that result from SRI management methods.

[7] N. Uphoff, F. Chi, F.B. Dazzo and R.J. Rodriguez, ‘Soil fertility as a contingent rather than inherent characteristic: Considering the contributions of crop-symbiotic soil microbiota,’ in Principles of Sustainable Soil Management in Agroecosystems, eds. R. Lal and B. Stewart, 141-166, CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL (2013).

[8] C. Gorman, ‘Exploring the human microbiome’ [Interactive], Scientific American, May 15 (2012). The plant microbiome is discussed in Chapter 5.

[9] D. Montgomery and A. Biklé, The Hidden Half of Nature: The Microbial Roots of Life and Health, W.W. Norton, New York (2016).

[10] Because in an era of Photoshop there might be doubts about a picture like this, the next season Dr. Rena Perez who had taught SRI methods to Luis Romero visited his farm each week and videoed the observable changes in plant growth throughout the cropping season. This visual record can be seen at: 

[11] Countries are listed with extensive supporting documentation on each on the SRI-Rice website at

[12] K. Palanisami, K.R. Karunakaran, U. Amarasinghe and C.R. Ranganathan, Doing different things or doing it differently? Rice intensification practices in 13 states of India,’ Economic and Political Weekly, 48: 51-58 (2013).

[13] J.D. Choi, G.Y. Kim, W.J. Park, M. H. Shin, Y.H. Choi, S. Lee, S.J. Kim and D.K. Yun, ‘Effect of SRI water management on water quality and greenhouse gas emissions in Korea,’ Irrigation and Drainage, 63: 263-270 (2014).

[14] P. Jagannath, H. Pullabothla and N. Uphoff, ‘Meta-analysis evaluating water use, water saving, and water productivity in irrigated production of rice with SRI vs. standard management methods,’ Taiwan Water Conservancy, 61: 14-49 (2013).

[15] A.K. Thakur and N. Uphoff, ‘How the System of Rice Intensification can contribute to climate-smart agriculture,’ Agronomy Journal, 109: 1163-1182 (2017).

[16] In the same year, a research team of the International Water Management Institute based in Sri Lanka evaluated the results of 60 farmers using SRI methods in two districts, matched with 60 farmers employing their usual methods. In a season that had 75 days of drought, the SRI rice plants had an 80% survival rate of panicle-bearing tillers vs. 70% with conventional practices, and 25% higher seed weight. Although the seeding (kg per ha) in SRI fields was 85% lower, with the number of plants similarly reduced, the grain yield from SRI fields was 33% higher. R. Namara, D. Bossio, P. Weligamage and I. Herath, ‘The practice and effects of the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) in Sri Lanka,’ Quarterly Journal of International Agriculture, 47: 5-23 (2008).

[17] T. Uzzaman, R.K. Sikder, M.I. Asif, H. Mehraj, and A.F.M. Jamal Uddin, ‘Growth and yield trial of 16 rice varieties under System of Rice Intensification,’ Scientia Agricolae, 11: 81-89 (2015).

[18] N. Uphoff, The System of Rice Intensification (SRI): Responses to Frequently-Asked Questions, FAQs 4 & 4.1 (2015); and A. Gathorne-Hardy, D. Narasimha Reddy, M. Venkatanarayana and B. Harriss-White, ‘A Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) of greenhouse gas emissions from SRI and flooded rice production SE India,’ Taiwan Water Conservancy, 61: 110-125 (2013). 

[19] O. Vent, Sabarmatee and N. Uphoff, ‘The System of Rice Intensification and its impacts on women: Reducing pain, discomfort and labour in rice farming while enhancing household food security, in A. Fletcher and W. Kubik, eds., Women in Agriculture Worldwide, 55-75. Routledge, London (2016).

[20] A. Adak, R. Prasanna, S. Babu, N. Bidyarani, S. Verma, M. Pal., Y.S. Shivay and L. Nain, ‘Micronutrient enrichment mediated by plant-microbe interactions and rice cultivation practices,’ Journal of Plant Nutrition 39: 1216-1232 (2016); A. Dass, S. Chandra, N. Uphoff, A.K. Choudhary, R. Bhattacharyya and K.S. Rana, ’Agronomic fortification of rice grains with secondary and micronutrients under differing crop management and moisture regimes in the North Indian Plains,’ Paddy and Water Environment, 15: 1-16 (2017); A.K. Thakur, K.G. Mandal and S. Raychaudhuri, ‘Impact of crop and nutrient management on crop growth and yield, nutrient uptake and content in rice,’ Paddy and Water Environment, 18:139-151 (2020).

[21] C.M. Moser and C.B. Barrett, ‘The disappointing adoption dynamics of a yield-increasing, low external-input technology: The case of SRI in Madagascar,’ Agricultural Systems 76: 1087-1100 (2003).

[22] J.A. Ndiiri, B.M. Mati, P.G. Home, B. Odongo and N. Uphoff, ‘Adoption, constraints and economic returns of paddy rice under the System of Rice Intensification in Mwea, Kenya,’ Agricultural Water Management 129: 44-55 (2013). 

[23] A. Gathorne-Hardy, D. Narasimha Reddy, M. Venkatanarayana and B. Harriss-White, ‘System of Rice Intensification provides environmental and economic gains but at the expense of social sustainability: A multidisciplinary analysis in India,’ Agricultural Systems 143:159-168 (2016).

[24] This can lead to what I have characterized as ‘post-modern agriculture,’ a paradigm more suited to present and foreseeable conditions. N. Uphoff, ‘Agricultural futures: What lies beyond ‘modern agriculture’?’ 2nd Hugh Bunting Memorial Lecture, University of Reading, UK, Tropical Agriculture Association Newsletter, 27: 13-19 (2007).

[25] B.K. Johnson, ‘Soil survey,’ in: Final Report for the Agricultural Development Component of the Ranomafana National Park Project in Madagascar, 5-12. Raleigh, NC: Soil Science Department, North Carolina State University (1994).

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

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