In the palm of your hand, a single grain is almost weightless. But multiply that grain by 850,000 hectares of paddy packed with slender stalks of electric green and you've got the staple that's feeding a nation: rice in Sri Lanka.
The country is in the enviable position of being nearly self-sufficient when it comes to rice: It produces 95 percent of what Sri Lankans consume. But for some poor paddy farmers—especially those who struggle with drought, floods, and the effects of the 2004 tsunami—growing this essential food is an exercise in hard labor with little financial return, even as the price of rice soars around the globe.
But there may be a solution. It's called SRI, or system of rice intensification, and it's one of the recommendations offered in a new study Oxfam commissioned on ways to improve the lives of poor rice growers in Sri Lanka following the 2004 tsunami.
Carried out by researchers at Eastern University in Batticaloa, Sri Lanka, the study examined production and marketing issues among small-scale farmers in three villages, each of which is facing a different set of challenges. All of them are located in Hambantota, one of the country's top rice-growing districts. Together with Ampara, Batticaloa, and Polonnaruwa, the four districts produce nearly 40 percent of all the rice harvested in the country.
Other recommendations the study offers for helping farmers improve their living standards include planting a different crop—possibly the legumes known as pulses—between the two rice-growing seasons. Livestock could also be integrated with paddy farming, particularly in Hambantota, which markets its famous buffalo milk yogurt, known as curd, around the country. The dairy initiatives would have the added benefit of producing organic fertilizer, courtesy of the animals, that could then be used on the paddies.
But it's the SRI that has sparked particular excitement in some quarters. And all it might take to really get it going is a simple mind shift.
It's all in the roots
Sitting behind a desk piled high with papers, W.G. Somaratne, an Oxfam policy and advocacy manager based in Colombo and an enthusiastic SRI proponent, spins his laptop around to make sure his visitor can see the full screen. After all, seeing is believing.
Stretched across the screen is a photo of two clumps of dirt, beneath each of which hangs a tangle of roots. The tangle on the left is dense, the roots thick and long. But on the right, the roots look stubby by comparison, and thin. It's not hard to guess which of these bundles was grown using the SRI method—a technique that, on average, can produce 40 to 50 percent higher yields; uses 25 percent less water; and costs 25 percent less to produce.
"We tell farmers not to grow plants but to grow roots," says Somaratne, clicking to another image, this one showing two rice paddies side by side after a typhoon has blown through. On the right, the grass-like rice plants lie flattened and gray. On the left, plants grown using the SRI method—with their strong root system feeding an abundance of hardier leaves—still stand tall and green.
Somaratne is on a mission to convince local farmers and government officials that SRI—with its six steps toward cheaper and more productive harvests—would make a great deal of sense for Sri Lanka to embrace.
"SRI is not a technology," says Somaratne. "It's a matter of practicing methods through changing farmers' behavior. It's education."
Six steps to productivity
What are the six steps that promise stronger plants and bigger harvests? They range from using young seedlings—transplanted gently into paddy fields when they are 10 days old—to making sure that you don't crowd them. Plants should be about 12 inches apart.
"Planting is labor-intensive, but there's the possibility to reduce the overall cost," says Somaratne. And in a departure from traditional thinking, with the SRI system, rice paddies don't need to be flooded as much.
"Wetting and drying we call it," says Somaratne. "You wet it today, and tomorrow you allow it to dry." The advantage is that the extra sunlight that hits the plants on the dry days allows microorganisms that are beneficial to the plants to flourish.
Other steps include making sure the soil is aerated, which helps to control the weeds and cuts down on fertilizer needs, and enhancing the soil with organic matter such as compost.
When farmers first learn about the benefits of this new method—the cost savings, the greater yields—they are enthusiastic, says Somaratne. But then, there's a bit of a reality check. SRI takes work.
"When it comes to the labor involvement, they are fussy," he admits. "But you have to put your sweat in, otherwise how can you get your benefits?"
A sweat-saving weeder, complete with a motor and the ability to weed four or five rows at a time, is now under development by an organization called Practical Action, says Somaratne—and that could help persuade farmers SRI is the way to go.
But convincing government officials might be another matter.
"It's very difficult to change their ideas," says Somaratne, who recently met with Ministry of Agriculture officials to promote the SRI method. Already farmers in 32 countries—especially those in the rice bowl of Asia—now use the technique, Somaratne added.
A silver lining in high costs
Somaratne's hunch is that government resistance to SRI will be short-lived. That's because the cost of current growing methods is soaring, and the Sri Lankan government is footing a good chunk of the bill. It subsidizes about 94 percent of the cost of the fertilizers paddy farmers use, says Somaratne. The current market price is 41.30 rupees for every kilogram; farmers pay just 3.5 rupees for each kilogram of fertilizer they buy.
In 2007, Sri Lanka spent 17 billion rupees in fertilizer. But this year, that figure shot up to 40 billion rupees, Somaratne says. The spiraling cost of fuel—needed to make the urea that many paddy farmers use—is the culprit.
"If oil prices move up again, the government will be in a difficult position trying to maintain the level of subsidy," says Somaratne. "My personal position is the government can't continue with this, so then the option would be to shift to low-cost organic rice cultivation."
To help government officials change their thinking, the SRI Network—a coalition of aid groups and farmers already practicing the SRI techniques—is planning to invite agriculture officials to come see for themselves the difference the method can make. Somaratne calls it the "demonstration effect"—like the photos he has on his laptop.
"We are indirectly lobbying the government to get into the mainstream," he says. "Sustainability means changing the mindset. This is not a static world. Everything is changing."