Agriculture is egocentric

Norman Uphoff, professor emeritus of government and international agriculture at Cornell University, US, likes to say that the system of rice intensification is a virus. He says he caught the virus in 1990 and that it took a full three years for the virus to set in. Uphoff, 73, is talking about SRI, the system of rice intensification, a bug that he caught in Madagascar from a French priest Henri de Laulani who had brought about what he calls a paradigm shift in the way the crop is grown. It is a virus that the American academic has over the past 15 years spread to millions of farmers in 53 countries. In an interview to Latha Jishnu, Uphoff talks about the problems of agriculture scientists. Excerpts

By Latha Jishnu
Published: Thursday 31 July 2014

Norman UphoffWhy do you call SRI a paradigm shift in rice cultivation?

What Father de Laulani's system of SRI did, through observation, experimentation and a little bit of luck, was to synthesise practices that give plants an ideal growing environment, which includes an ideal environment for the microorganisms that live around and inside the plant. Just like human bodies, plants also need beneficial microorganisms. So we are getting a whole new paradigm of how plants perform, which goes against what scientists were doing and thinking for many, many years. Obviously, if you flood the soil it becomes hypoxic; you don't get oxygen. Plant roots need oxygen to breathe, aerobic organisms, which are most bacteria and all fungi, need oxygen. So by adding organic matter to the soil, roots and organisms benefit and by not crowding them together you give them more space to grow. Plants grow in a symbiotic relationship. This is different from the standard view that plants are a machine: we design it, we change the genes, we give it inputs.

Why do you say scientists don't really understand the soil system?

Agriculture is egocentric. Scientists are first of all egocentric. We do this, we do that; it's all about us, our seeds, our fertiliser, our inputs, our cleverness. There is no adequate appreciation of what the natural system can do. We can improve it. But we do not control it. The real agents are soil and the microorganisms.

What's the outlook for SRI in India?

India is world leader in SRI and also in SCI. But national and state policies have not capitalised on the opportunities these offer. You need more research that brings the lab closer to the land by bringing in more farmer participation in field research.

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