Is there is a “rice revolution” in India’s poorest state, Bihar? Sumant Kumar claims to have shattered the world’s record for output of the staple.
Kumar, from the village of Darveshpura in the district of Nalanda, usually harvested four to five tons per hectare. In 2011, each stalk was heavier and each grain bigger. The result? The shy young man had grown 22.4 tons on a hectare. That topped the record of 19.4 tons held by China’s Yuan Longping, the elderly agronomist known as the “father of rice.”
And Kumar was not alone in attaining agricultural glory. Nitish Kumar, a friend of the rice king, broke the world’s record for potatoes by harvesting 72.9 tons per hectare last March. His mark, however, was surpassed a few months later when Rakesh Kumar, from another Nalanda village, grew 108.8 tons. Ravindra Kumar, from a nearby field, took India’s record for wheat.
Do the Kumars practice magic? No. The amazing thing is that they do not even bother with complex science. Sumant Kumar employs nothing more complicated than the System of Rice Intensification, SRI, and the other Kumars use related techniques. SRI farmers avoid the use of herbicides, chemical fertilizers, and genetically modified seeds.
Using SRI, Sumant Kumar did not plant three-week-old rice seedlings in groups of three or four, as he used to do. Instead, he uses a less-is-more system championed by Rajiv Kumar, a Bihar extension worker trained by Anil Verma of Pran, an Indian NGO. To obtain extraordinary yields, Sumant Kumar now plants younger seedlings one-by-one. He also uses manure and much less water. All the simple techniques stimulate root systems. Once again, ingenuity has postponed the Malthusian moment when population growth outruns agricultural production.
Agricultural scientists, by and large, bristle at SRI, which undercuts their work by making dramatic improvements in yield with simple adjustments in technique. Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz did not help relations between the record-setting Kumars and the world’s scientific community when he visited their Nalanda district last month and said the poor farmers there were “better than scientists.”
Insults aside, SRI is great for subsistence tillers, who may not be able to afford expensive fertilizers or genetically modified seeds. Moreover, it’s terrific for the planet as well. SRI has almost no adverse ecological impact, unlike the “green revolution” of the 1960s, which relied on pesticides and chemical fertilizers.
“SRI is an astonishing win-win for farmers and the environment,” says Robert Chambers of Sussex University to London’s Guardian. “Some scientists have been slow to recognize it, and have even rubbished it in peer-reviewed journals, but its success and spread have been phenomenal.”
Today, some four to five million farmers in 51 countries use SRI, according to Forbes columnist Beth Hoffman, a food expert. More will take up the practice as the Kumars have attracted international attention recently. It’s hard to argue with success.
In the meantime, China’s Yuan, recently dethroned by a dirt farmer in an obscure corner of India, is fuming. Yuan, a SRI pioneer, calls Sumant Kumar a “120 percent fake.” Whether he in fact broke the record, Kumar has dramatically increased yields on his small plot. That means his life—and the lives of tens of millions of farmers—will get better because of SRI.
Yet there could be much more at stake. With substantial advances in output and far fewer inputs, the “resource wars,” which many predict will ravage our century, may not occur.
Nitish Kumar, who lost the world’s potato-growing crown, now wants the record back. In some small way, he and the other Kumars, by striving for even better yields, are advancing the cause of peace.