When Sumant Kumar—a humble farmer in Darveshpura, a village in India’s poorest province—achieved an astonishing yield of 22.4 tonnes of rice on one hectare of land, he broke a world record. With rice being the staple food of more than half the world's seven-billion-strong population, it was big news. “It beat not just the 19.4 tonnes achieved by the ‘Father of Rice,’ the Chinese agricultural scientist Yuan Longping, but the World Bank-funded scientists at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, and anything achieved by the biggest European and American seed and GM companies.”
And it didn’t end with Sumant. Friends and neighbours in Darveshpura recorded over 17 tonnes, and many others in the area claimed to have more than doubled their usual yields. “That might have been the end of the story had Sumant's friend Nitish not smashed the world record for growing potatoes six months later. Shortly after, Ravindra Kumar, a small farmer from a nearby Bihari village, broke the Indian record for growing wheat. Darveshpura became known as India's ‘miracle village,’ Nalanda became famous and teams of scientists, development groups, farmers, civil servants and politicians all descended to discover its secret.” When Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz visited the farmers in Nalanda, he validated that “they were better than the scientists.”
The secret? They were using the ‘SRI’ (System of Root Intensification) method, which was first developed by French Jesuit priest, Henri de Laulanie, after observing farmers in Madagascar in the 80s. He established the method, but it was an American professor by the name of Norman Uphoff, director of the International Institute for Food, Agriculture and Development at Cornell University, who was largely responsible for spreading the word about De Laulanie's work.
“It is a set of ideas, the absolute opposite to the first green revolution [of the 60s] which said that you had to change the genes and the soil nutrients to improve yields. That came at a tremendous ecological cost,” says Uphoff. “Agriculture in the 21st century must be practiced differently. Land and water resources are becoming scarcer, of poorer quality, or less reliable. Climatic conditions are in many places more adverse. SRI offers millions of disadvantaged households far better opportunities. Nobody is benefiting from this except the farmers; there are no patents, royalties or licensing fees.”
Of course, not everyone agrees, especially (and not surprisingly) scientists, who complain that “there is not enough peer-reviewed evidence around SRI, and that it is impossible to get such returns.” But as Uphoff states, “if any scientist or company came up with a technology that almost guaranteed a 50% increase in yields at no extra cost they would get a Nobel prize. But when young Biharian farmers do that they get nothing.”
While scientists are busy defending their knowledge, farmers like Sumant Kumar are now preparing their next rice crop, in what is being called a “new green grassroots revolution.”