How SRI can be Labour-Intensive and Labour Saving Simultaneously

Notes by Norman Uphoff, Cornell University

It may appear contradictory that a methodology for rice production can be labour-intensive and yet labour-saving simultaneously. But SRI can be both. These notes address this apparent paradox.

What is Labour Intensity?

Factor‘intensity’ is a term that economists use to describe whether a technology is relatively more dependent on land, labouror capital.

SRI was developed for small-scale, land-poor households in Madagascar to use their available resources most productively. However, it is now used in over 60 countries under many different circumstances. Labour requirements for SRI in these countriesare affected by farmers’ relative endowment of the factors of production--land, labour, and capital.

SRI is not like most technologies because it relies mostly on farmers learning new skills and improving their management of labour rather than on capital. Also, SRI is more land-intensive than land-extensive because land is managed more carefully to maximize production.

Increasingly, the most labour-demanding activities of SRI (transplanting and weeding) are being mechanised with implements that reduce the amount of labour required. This makes SRI somewhat more capital-intensive, but SRI still focuses more on labour, management and skill to raise productivity, than on capital.

SRI can be capital-intensive, as in Punjab, Pakistan where mechanized SRI includes laser-leveling of the land to reduce water requirements and the construction of raised beds to improve the soil and water distribution. This version of SRI reduced labour inputs by 70% and lowered crop water requirements by 70% compared to farmer practice, while giving an average yield of 12 tonnes/ha (Sharif, 2011). But this has large capital requirements.

As a labour-intensive methodology, SRI does require some investment in learning, training & supervision

As SRI methods are learned, labour requirements diminish over time.More labour isusually needed initially while the new techniques are being learned by farmersor labourers.Over time, labor inputs usually diminish due to learning.

In Asia, where 90% of the world’s rice is produced and where most rice production is at present relatively labour-intensive, the introduction of SRI methods has usually been found to be labour-savingor at least labour-neutral, even during the first season of using them.

For example in Cambodia, an evaluation done for German aid (GIZ) in 2004 surveying a randomized sample of 500 farmers in 5 provinces, comparing the experience of SRI users vs.non-users. It found there was no increase in overall labour requirements. Farmers said that they liked that SRI reduced their requirements during the period of peak labour demand. They also reported that with SRI, their households could provide most of the labour needed, ameliorating the amount of labour that they needed to hire and pay for (Anthofer,2004).

A similar effect was reported in India, from a detailed study by Oxford researchers and Indian colleagues in Andhra Pradesh state (Gathorne-Hardy et al., 2016).

Also in India an evaluation of rainfed SRI in Purulia district of West Bengal by the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) in 2004 found that SRI practices reduced farmers’ labour input per hectare by 8%, while raising their yield (in a drought year) by 32%. Farmers’ net income per hectare was raised by 67% (Sinha & Talati, 2007).

Finally in Indonesia, a Japanese Koei technical assistance team managing a large irrigation project in Eastern Indonesia  (with >12,000 farmers cultivating 9,429 ha) found that  SRI methods increased farmers’ labour by less than 1%, while their yields went up by 86%, using 40% less water and 50% less fertilizer, and with 20% lower costs of production (Sato & Uphoff, 2007).

Labour requirements for SRI depend on the farmer's starting point

In most of Africa, rice production is labour-extensive, i.e., little labour is employed to cultivate rice. Under such conditions, changing to SRI requires at least short-term increases in labour inputs. But this kind of ‘labour-intensity’ refers to the farmers’ current operations, rather than to the methodology itself.

In Madagascar, the classification of SRI as ‘labour-intensive’ in the literature stems principally from a one-season evaluation based on four village studies in this country (Moser & Barrett, 2003).  

          When these authors analyzed a larger and longitudinal data base in Madagascar (Barrett et al., 2004), they found that while SRI required more labour per hectare   in the first three years, after this it became labour-saving, even compared to farmers’ usual practices.

So, even in comparison with labour-extensive rice cultivation, SRI can reduce labour requirements once the practices have been mastered. All studies have shown that SRI methods increase labour productivity, i.e., the number of kg of rice produced per hour/day of work.

In Kenya, the Mwea irrigation scheme found that the labour input for SRI was generally higher by 9% (Ndiri et al., 2013). However, in three of the ten zones studied, labour inputs were 13% less than with farmers’ usual practices. In the scheme as a whole, SRI increased rice yields by 33%, while reducing water requirements by 28%.

How and why can SRI become Labour Saving?

Even though SRI requires greater care when performing its tasks, it has numerous labour-saving aspects.

For transplanted SRI, thenumber of plants involved is only 10-20% as many as in conventional rice cropping because SRI reduces plant density (the number of plants per m2) by 80-90%. This means that the size of the nursery(in m2) is 80-90% smaller -- and the number of days needed for nursery management is cut by half  or more because the seedlings are planted at ayounger age.

The labour required for transporting and transplanting seedlings is reduced because the seedings are many fewer and much smaller, and lighter. Once the techniques for handling young seedlings have been learned, transplanting them becomes quicker and easier because there are so many fewer plants.

Furthermore, SRI’s promotion of using mechanical weeders reduces the labour time needed for weeding, by as much as 75%, according to Mrunalin i& Ganesh (2008). When weeding is done with a weeder rather than by hand, a task done mostly by women, it is much less tiresome, less debilitating and with fewer long term heath risks. (Vent et al., 2016).  

Labour requirements with SRI can be reduced by mechanisation

Agriculture in general is becoming more mechanized because of the scarcity and/or cost of agricultural labour. As noted above, SRI reduces labour requirements because of reduced plant density and the use of simple implementsfor weeding. There can be further reductions by:

Crop establishment through direct-seeding –this is starting to replace transplanting where soil and seed preparation support high germination.

Motorization of weeders –making weeders self-propelled to reduce the labour time needed for this operation, and to improve soil aeration.

Mechanical transplanting –this can reduce labour requirements by making adjustments in existing transplanting machinery to handle smaller seedlings and to plant them precisely and farther apart.

To demonstrate these are some innovations developed by SRI adopters in various countries to raise resource productivity and to further reduce their labour requirements by building off of SRI.

Weeder built by a Sri Lankan farmer to save labor when applying sri principles

Subasinghe Ariyaratna sows his paddy field with 25 kg/ha of pre-germinated seed, instead of transplanting young seedlings that were grown in a nursery sown for the  SRI-recommended rate of 5 kg/ha.

Ten days later, he ‘weeds’ his paddy field with this motorized weeder that he built himself. He weeds it as if he had transplanted the field with young SRI seedlings at 25x25 cm spacing.

This uproots and sacrifices about 80% of the young rice plants growing in his field, leaving about 20% of them in a grid pattern widely spaced, like what would have been achieved by SRI transplanting.

For the cost of 20 kg of seed, Ariyarathna saves himself the cost and labour for managing a nursery and then doing manual transplanting. His yield is 7.5 tonnes per hectare, with 40% lower labour costs.

Mechanised SRI in Punjab, Pakistan

Adapted SRI practices were evaluated on an 8-ha test plot, with more than doubled yield, an average of 12 T/ha.  

This was achieved with drastically lower inputs, 70% less labour and 70% less water.

Mechanical transplanter for transplanting young SRI seedlings in Costarica,  and hand-drawn drumseeder for direct-seeding an SRI field in India

Both of these inventions offer a cost-efficient and affordable means for farmers to reduce their labour requirements for SRI.

A single labourer trained in SRI methods can use these devices to do the work of several labourers, so that resources and training can be concentrated on fewer trainees.

Tractor-seeder for direct-seeded establishment of large-scale Sri RICE crop into cover-crop mulch in Arkansas, USA

This capital-intensive version of SRI benefits farmers not so much by increasing their yield as by reducing costs of production. This considerably raises  thefarmer’s net profit per hectare. It enables farmers to grow rice on land that could not support irrigated production.

In conclusion, while labour can be a constraint for SRI's spread, SRI is, or can become, labour-saving by modifying practices and/or by mechanization.

Provision or allowance needs to be madefor time to learn SRI methods. The learning curve’ can be quite steep, just a few hours or days, with good supervision.

Agricultural labourers will have more incentive to learn and practice SRI if their training is certified by some agency so that they are qualified for a higher wage, e.g. 25%, for their work and skill, which israising production. This will give them a share of the added-value that they are creating by their skills and effort. This arrangement will be equitable and more productive.

Mechanisation can and should be done for the various SRI operations, informed and guided by itsagroecological principles.