The year 2015 was a big one for the world. Global negotiations delivered both the Paris Agreement and the UN 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda in the same year. The recognition of climate change and its linkages to sustainable development were enshrined in official documentation providing the international community with a sustainable manifesto for transformation.
Yet, despite almost eight years passing since then (it is now 2023), targets remain unmet and the prospects of reaching the goals by 2030 are rapidly dwindling.
In this article, we bring to light the multiple synergistic benefits the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) brings to sustainable development.
In September 2015 the United Nations member states agreed to seventeen global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to achieve by 2030. The SDGs set forth a “shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future." The SDGs serve as a guide for national and global development by providing a framework to address the world’s most pressing challenges such as poverty, climate change, environmental degradation and inequality. Governments can use the SDGs to align their national development plans and where to prioritise action.
Progress across the SDGs, since the initial outset in 2015, has however been lacking. In response, the UN called for the Decade of Action in 2019, to bring together a concerted effort from all stakeholders including governments, private sector and civil society, to accelerate the progression needed to reach the SDG targets. Not long after the Decade of Action was announced, the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the world, halting, and in some cases reversing, development progress, which continues to remain disproportionate across nations.
With the SDG deadline looming only 7 years away, wouldn’t it be nice if there was a silver bullet that could accelerate development across multiple SDGs at once …
Rice is the staple food feeding half of the planet - 3.5 billion people - making rice critical to global food security. The majority of rice farmers are smallholders - around 150 million - who depend on rice for their livelihood. Smallholder farmers, however, are often living in poverty with limited resources and facing the continual obstacles of an inequitable food-value chain. What’s more, these farmers are facing increasing challenges due to climate change, which traditional rice cultivation itself exacerbates by being responsible for around 10% of all anthropogenic methane emissions. As climate change intensifies it is amplifying multiple challenges for farmers including water-stress, extreme weather events such as storms and droughts, and increasing pests and diseases.
SRI mitigates greenhouse gas emissions, increases yields (and their nutrition!), improves farmer profits, and reduces water-stress. SRI supports biodiversity, cleaner waterways and improved human health. Last, and definitely not least, SRI improves the working conditions and status of women.
By increasing yields and reducing inputs, SRI lessens the costs of production and improves household incomes. Seed requirements are reduced by 80-90%. SRI is an accessible technology to even the most low-income households as it does not require additional or expensive inputs, and instead farmers adapt their already available resources.
SRI raises rice yields per hectare by 20-50%, and often by 100% or even more. Additionally, the amount of milled rice from harvested paddy is increased by 10-15%, as SRI rice panicles have fewer unfilled grains and there is less breakage of grains during milling, which further improves the food supply during post-harvest processing. SRI plants are higher in micronutrients such as Iron, Zinc, Copper and Magnesium.
Weeding in rice cultivation is traditionally carried out by hand and requires long hours spent bent-over in uncomfortable positions in muddy, unsanitary paddy fields. SRI instead uses a simple mechanical weeder which reduces labour time and allows for an upright posture. By not continuously flooding the rice paddies, water-borne disease vectors are also reduced with SRI.
Women are in many cultures traditionally responsible for weeding, and (as mentioned for SDG 3 Good Health & Well-being), SRI can reduce the arduousness and health hazards associated with long hours in the rice paddies. A study in India demonstrated that the use of a mechanical weeder can reduce women’s labour requirements by up to 76% per hectare! With more time available women can diversify their activities in the household or off-farm pursuits, enhancing their status and well-being.
Read our previous post on SRI & Women here!
Water requirements for SRI are reduced by 25-50% or more by not continually flooding the fields. As SRI plants have larger, longer-lived root systems, unirrigated or upland SRI rice also requires less rainfall. By reducing agrochemical usage, SRI lessens the build-up of nitrate and toxic chemicals in surrounding water-bodies. SRI can create access to a more reliable and unpolluted water-supply.
SRI improves the productivity of land, labour, water, capital, and energy making rice farming more profitable. Farmers net income can be doubled per hectare or more, improving household incomes and improving economic growth.
With cash requirements greatly reduced, SRI is an accessible innovation to low-income households and has been shown to be particularly beneficial for smallholder farmers with limited resources or access to capital. SRI has also been shown to perform relatively better on poorer soils, which are disproportionately cultivated by poorer farmers.
SRI is a recognised technology for mitigation and adaptation action against climate change, currently declared in 11 nations' NDCs. (Read more on SRI & NDCs here). SRI reduces methane emissions by up to 70%, GHG emissions by 40% per hectare, and increases carbon sequestration. In addition, SRI plants are more resistant to abiotic and biotic stresses, helping farmers adapt to climate change.
SRI supports biodiversity. SRI improves the yield of almost any variety of rice and can be used to support the cultivation of indigenous varieties. Indigenous varieties possess a wide-array of desirable characteristics since they have been bred to withstand varying climatic and environmental conditions over many thousands of years. As crop-breeders try to improve the resilience of rice under increasingly erratic climate conditions and degraded soils, maintaining a diverse gene-pool should be made a priority.
SRI has also been used to preserve the biodiversity of wildlife. SRI has been used in conservation projects such as around Ranomafana National Park in Madagascar or South Luangwa National Park in Zambia. SRI can raise the productivity of land and support farmers to improve their yields without the need to expand agricultural land.
SRI is also shown to support biodiversity within soils by increasing the abundance of diverse beneficial soil microbes. Increased and diverse populations of soil organisms support soil health and functioning, which can help to reverse land degradation.
SRI has been expanding over the past 20 years and is now practiced in 60 countries worldwide. To reach this level of global spread has required the work and collaborative partnerships of millions of farmers, governments, international and local NGOs, the private sector and civil society backed by hundreds of scientists providing over two decades of research in SRI.
SRI has been providing triumphs in sustainable development for decades and will continue to do so. But to reach large-scale adoption that can unleash the global impact possible from SRI requires a concerted effort from governments, institutions and donors to upscale its adoption at pace. The future successes and failures of the UN 2030 Agenda lie within the choices that are made today. SRI is one clear opportunity to prioritise now in this Decade of Action, where our choices now will define all our futures.
For more information on SRI explore the SRI-2030 website and connect with us on social media.
Check out Thakur et al.'s article on SRI and SDGs: "How agroecological rice intensification can assist in reaching the Sustainable Development Goals" here!
And visit SRI-Rice for the most comprehensive collection of information on the System of Rice Intensification globally!