Without biodiversity, there is no future for humanity”
Agriculture and biodiversity have a complex relationship.Many of our current-day conventional agricultural practices such as agrochemical use, monoculture cropping, and land conversion can have a negative impact on biodiversity as they can reduce habitat availability, alter ecosystems, decrease soil fertility, and increase soil erosion. Yet, sustainable agricultural practices exist that promote biodiversity, maintain ecosystem health, all while supporting food security and livelihoods. There is a need to transition to regenerative sustainable agriculture. When it comes to rice farming, the System of Rice Intensification provides a positive alternative for rice cultivation to increase yields in an environmentally friendly manner – addressing both food security and biodiversity loss in one movement.
In this blog we will explore three ways SRI can help to conserve and promote biodiversity.
Biodiversity, short for ‘biological diversity’, refers to the variety of life on Earth in all its levels, forms, and interactions. There are several levels of biodiversity from genes to species, to entire ecosystems.
Biodiversity is the backbone of life on our planet. Without it, we would not have the essential ecosystem services that sustain us, such as clean air and water, nutrient cycling, and climate regulation. But biodiversity is not only important for our survival - it also provides a wealth of cultural and recreational opportunities, inspires innovative products, and medicines, and offers a sense of wonder and awe at the beauty and complexity of the natural world. In short, biodiversity is what makes our world worth living in.
SRI is an effective tool that has been used in numerous conservation projects. By increasing rice yields with less water and resources,SRI helps to alleviate the pressure on farmers to expand their cultivated land into surrounding ecosystems. This, in turn, supports biodiversity conservation efforts.
One of the earliest successful examples of SRI being used for conservation took place in Madagascar during the 1990s. With the support of USAID, local communities were trained in SRI techniques to improve their resource efficiency, farming returns, and quality of life. The success of SRI in these communities helped to preserve the rich biodiversity of Ranomafana National Park, which remains a hub for endemic flora and fauna today. By providing an effective way to balance the needs of communities and conservation efforts, SRI has proven to be an invaluable tool in promoting sustainable agriculture practices.
SRI has also been used in the conservation of Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park, which is home to a diverse array of species including majestic elephants, lions, leopards, and buffalo along with 400 species of bird. To protect the park's biodiversity and support local communities, the Wildlife Conservation Society established the COMACO project, which offers training in alternative livelihood skills such as SRI. Through this project, approximately 35,000 rice farmers have adopted SRI, resulting in a 44% increase in yields compared to the national average. Furthermore, farmers have significantly reduced their seed costs, using only 5-7kg per hectare compared to conventional methods requiring 160kg per hectare. The success of the COMACO conservation model has helped reduce poaching incidents and created market opportunities for local farmers, including the export of their aromatic 'Chama Rice'.
Overall, SRI has the potential to be a critical component in supporting environmental conservation efforts and the preservation of land, wildlife, and their habitats. Additionally, it can generate significant market value and social benefits, making SRI a sustainable and impactful solution for the future.
The Green Revolution of the mid-20th century focused on producing high-yielding "improved" rice varieties, but this came at a cost. Traditional rice varieties, which boast unique and valuable traits such as superior nutritional quality, stress-tolerance, and flavour, were ignored and abandoned. Sadly, this has led to the loss of thousands of rice varieties. In India alone, it is estimated that 100,000 indigenous rice varieties have been lost, while in China an estimated 72% of rice varieties have disappeared since 1950. It's alarming to think that so much diversity has disappeared in just a few decades. The loss of these valuable traditional rice varieties has not only deprived us of flavourful and nutritious food, but also negatively limits a farmers' resilience to changing climate conditions. Crop breeders are presently trying to adapt rice varieties to survive increasingly erratic climates and depleted soils and could greatly benefit from various qualities these indigenous cultivars possess.
Traditional rice varieties were often overlooked due to the belief that they produced lower yields. However, this perception was likely based on the way the method of cultivation and inputs received. In contrast the high-yielding varieties of the Green Revolution were able to produce impressive yields but only when given excessive inputs of water and managed with chemical fertilisers. However, recent studies have shown that traditional varieties can perform equally well, or even better, when managed using different practices. SRI is an example of such practices that can improve the yields of any rice variety, even traditional cultivars, without the need for additional costly inputs.
In Nepal, a study found that a local rice variety, Thapachini, produced the highest yields under SRI methods, reaching 8.1 tons per hectare and increasing grain yields by an average of 70% compared to conventional cultivation. SRI also enables farmers to increase seed multiplication rates by over 1000 times, compared to only 90-100 times in conventional farming. This allows farmers to access a wider selection of local seed varieties, promoting self-sufficiency and increasing financial returns.
Not only does SRI increase yields and promote seed autonomy, but it also fosters more resilient rice phenotypes that can help farmers confront the mounting challenges of climate change. SRI plants have deeper root systems and improved architecture, making them more resilient to biotic and abiotic stresses. This is especially important as climate change progresses and pests, diseases, and environmental stresses become more prevalent. Indigenous cultivars are often susceptible to lodging caused by these stresses, but SRI practices can mitigate this concern.
In Odisha, India, the NGO Sambhav has successfully conserved over 550 indigenous rice varieties through regenerative farming and SRI methods. Founded in 1989 by Professor Radhamohan and his daughter Sabarmatee, Sambhav is now a resource centre for regenerative agriculture and gender justice. Sambhav's Adopt a Seed initiative provides farmers with seed varieties to conserve and protect local varieties in a decentralised manner. This approach supports the biodiversity of rice while helping farmers become more resilient in the face of increasingly challenging conditions.
See Sambhav’s work here.
Preserving the diverse genetic makeup of indigenous rice varieties that possess valuable traits is vital for ensuring global food security. With the decline of these varieties, their vulnerability must be safeguarded, particularly as our changing climate presents mounting challenges for farming systems. SRI offers sustainable practices that not only support the preservation of indigenous rice cultivars, but also increase their value to farmers. By adopting SRI, we can contribute to securing the future of our food and farming systems, while also safeguarding the cultural heritage and traditions of local communities.
Healthy soil is the cornerstone of successful crop production, and the key to achieving this lies in the diversity of microorganisms thriving beneath the ground. These tiny living creatures play an integral role in crop growth, health, and yield. SRI helps to support the growth and abundance of beneficial microorganisms, improving soil health and resilience, leading to increased yields. Research has also shown that SRI plots have larger and more diverse microorganism populations, which are linked to better soil functioning and resilience.
SRI promotes the growth and abundance of soil biota by encouraging aerobic soil conditions through alternate-wetting-and-drying irrigation as well as mechanical weeding. By aerating the soil and incorporating organic matter back into it, SRI encourages healthy root growth and the proliferation of diverse, beneficial soil microbes. Conversely, traditional rice cultivation practices flood paddy fields continuously, resulting in hypoxia and a reduction in the number of beneficial biota in the soil.
SRI also enhances soil health and fertility. While SRI need not be fully organic to be classified as SRI, organic matter is preferred over chemical fertilisers is because it is more favourable for the growth of beneficial microorganisms and building healthy soils. Mechanical weeding is encouraged which reduces the need for herbicides, which can also negatively impact soil biota.
Without biodiversity, there is no future. By implementing SRI practices, farmers can help conserve and protect the land and wildlife surrounding their farms, as well as preserve the genetic diversity of indigenous rice varieties. Additionally, SRI supports the growth and abundance of beneficial soil biota, leading to healthy soil, better plant growth, and increased crop yields. The benefits of SRI go beyond just sustainable farming practices and contribute to the larger goal of preserving the world's precious biodiversity. As we continue to face environmental challenges and work towards a more sustainable future, SRI provides a promising solution for supporting biodiversity through regenerative agriculture.
Want to know more about SRI? Explore the SRI-2030 website here.
Read Professor Norman Uphoff's SRI Memoires on SRI & the Conservation of Biodiversity here.
Read the WWF's Report on SRI here.