Friday, June 20, 2008

Food Innovation Guest Memo: An American Professor's Food Revolution Starts With Rice

International Herald Tribune
June 18, 2008
By William J. Broad

Many a professor dreams of revolution. But Norman Uphoff, working in a leafy corner of the Cornell University campus, is leading an inconspicuous one centered on solving the global food crisis. The secret, he says, is a new way of growing rice.

Rejecting old customs as well as the modern reliance on genetic engineering, Uphoff, 67, an emeritus professor of government and international agriculture with a trim white beard and a tidy office, advocates a management revolt.

Harvests typically double, he says, if farmers plant early, give seedlings more room to grow and stop flooding fields. That cuts water and seed costs while promoting root and leaf growth.

The method, called the System of Rice Intensification, or SRI, emphasizes the quality of individual plants over the quantity. It applies a less-is-more ethic to rice cultivation.

In a decade, it has gone from obscure theory to global trend — and encountered fierce resistance from established rice scientists. Yet a million rice farmers have adopted the system, Uphoff says. The rural army, he predicts, will swell to 10 million farmers in the next few years, increasing rice harvests, filling empty bellies and saving untold lives.
Today in Health & Science

"The world has lots and lots of problems," Uphoff said recently while talking of rice intensification and his 38 years at Cornell. "But if we can't solve the problems of peoples' food needs, we can't do anything. This, at least, is within our reach."

That may sound audacious given the depths of the food crisis and the troubles facing rice. Roughly half the world eats the grain as a staple food even as yields have stagnated and prices have soared, nearly tripling in the past year. The price jolt has provoked riots, panicked hoarding and violent protests in poor countries.

But Uphoff has a striking record of accomplishment, as well as a gritty kind of farm-boy tenacity.

He and his method have flourished despite the skepticism of his Cornell peers and the global rice establishment — especially the International Rice Research Institute, which helped start the green revolution of rising grain production and specializes in improving rice genetics.

His telephone rings. It is the World Bank Institute, the educational and training arm of the development bank. The institute is making a DVD to spread the word.

"That's one of the irons in the fire," he tells a visitor, looking pleased before plunging back into his tale.

Uphoff's improbable journey involves a Wisconsin dairy farm, a billionaire philanthropist, the jungles of Madagascar, a Jesuit priest, ranks of eager volunteers and, increasingly, the developing world. He lists top SRI users as India, China, Indonesia, Cambodia and Vietnam among 28 countries on three continents.

In Tamil Nadu, a state in southern India, Veerapandi Arumugam, the agriculture minister, recently hailed the system as "revolutionizing" paddy farming while spreading to "a staggering" million acres.

Chan Sarun, Cambodia's agriculture minister, told hundreds of farmers at an agriculture fair in April that SRI's speedy growth promises a harvest of "white gold."

On Cornell's agricultural campus, Uphoff runs a one-man show from an office rich in travel mementos. From Sri Lanka, woven rice stalks adorn a wall, the heads thick with rice grains.

His computers link him to a global network of SRI activists and backers, like Oxfam, the British charity. Uphoff is SRI's global advocate, and his Web site ( serves as the main showcase for its principles and successes.

"It couldn't have happened without the Internet," he says. Outside his door is a sign, "Alfalfa Room," with a large arrow pointing down the hall, seemingly to a pre-electronic age.

Critics dismiss SRI as an illusion.

"The claims are grossly exaggerated," said Achim Dobermann, the head of research at the international rice institute, which is based in the Philippines. Dobermann said fewer farmers use SRI than advertised because old practices often are counted as part of the trend and the method itself is often watered down.

"We don't doubt that good yields can be achieved," he said, but he called the methods too onerous for the real world.

By contrast, a former skeptic sees great potential. Vernon Ruttan, an agricultural economist at the University of Minnesota and a longtime member of the National Academy of Sciences, once worked for the rice institute and doubted the system's prospects.

Ruttan now calls himself an enthusiastic fan, saying the method is already reshaping the world of rice cultivation. "I doubt it will be as great as the green revolution," he said. "But in some areas it's already having a substantial impact."

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