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Drier Conditions Force Researchers To Find New Rice Farming Method


How do we adapt to a world with more people and less fresh water? The question becomes urgent as climate change accelerates. The oceans may rise, but some regions are becoming drier. Farmers use a lot of water growing rice as a basic food for billions, but some need to do it with less. Danielle Preiss reports from Nepal.


DANIELLE PREISS, BYLINE: Apsara Bharati and her neighbors are spread across a small bit of land in Kavre about 20 miles outside Nepal's capital. The women bend to plant rice seedlings in mud to their calves in Bharati's fields.

APSARA BHARATI: (Speaking Nepali).

PREISS: One by one, Bharati instructs the women, who are used to placing several plants at once. Bharati is practicing SRI, or the system of rice intensification. The technique, which developed in Madagascar in the 1980s, involves planting fewer seedlings, planting them younger and using less water. It seems counterintuitive, but in countries like Nepal, subsistence farmers have seen their harvest grow.

BHOLA MAN SINGH BASNET: We are getting more than 50 percent or in some cases 100 percent increase in yield you see by following the SRI.

PREISS: Bhola Man Singh Basnet is a retired agronomist from Nepal's National Agriculture Research Council. He says SRI is not a technology but a set of practices that helps plants grow stronger roots and more seeds per plant. Small farmers in India have broken yield records, and Nepal plans to incorporate it into next year's agriculture policy. While some in the scientific community doubt the sensational results and peer-reviewed research has been limited, SRI appeals to Basnet because there's no need to invest in new technology or buy seeds.

BASNET: I like this SRI system very, very much as an agronomist also because farmers, without spending extra money, they can increase yield.

PREISS: There might be a more pressing reason for countries like Nepal to try SRI. If you've ever seen rice paddies, you've probably seen them flooded.

SRIJANA KARKI: Because rice is not water-thirsty plant, but this is the tradition. That's how people plant rice.

PREISS: Srijana Karki, who promotes SRI use in Nepal through the organization World Neighbors, says the water is really to control weeds. With SRI, farmers weed more but use less water.

SONALI MCDERMID: We are very close to hitting a crisis, if not, you know, starting a crisis already, in terms of the amount of water available to sustain production.

PREISS: Climate researcher Sonali McDermid at New York University, who I reached by Skype, is working with collaborators from Tamil Nadu Agricultural University to see whether SRI might help in the face of global water shortages.

MCDERMID: I've seen estimates of about 25 percent reductions in water consumption all the way to 50 or 60 percent reductions in water consumption.

PREISS: Through test plots in India and Latin America, the researchers aim to isolate the parts of SRI that seem to work for poor farmers. They'll then use climate models to see how it might fare in a drier future. With longer root systems, the plants should better withstand drought. Back in Kavre, Srijana Karki translates for farmer Indira Lamisal who is noticing changes in the climate.

KARKI: In earlier days, rainfall was pretty predictable and regular, but nowadays, there's no rainfall, and it's not predictable.

PREISS: But Karki says the hardest part is convincing farmers' families to take the risk on SRI.

KARKI: There's no insurance, and they don't have much land, you know, and they depend on the produce. And they don't have extra money to buy rice if it doesn't work.

PREISS: Shanti Rai, who is helping her neighbor plant, remembers seeing what looked like a barren field when she tried SRI for the first time.

SHANTI RAI: (Through interpreter) I was scared, and my family yelled at me, what did you plant?

PREISS: Rai's family changed their minds when they saw their production increased almost 25 percent. This meant they grew enough to eat from their fields for eight months out of the year instead of the six they managed before. For families like theirs, this is all the evidence they need. For NPR News, I'm Danielle Preiss in Kathmandu. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Danielle Preiss