A new farming technique using drastically less water is catching on q gastrobar

What was a grassroots movement spreading slowly by word of mouth since it was developed by French priest Henri de Laulanié in Madagascar in 1983 is now growing fast as regional governments in China and India join anti-poverty groups like Oxfam to back the method.

“It has the potential to reduce the amount of water, money and labor that farmers in developing countries need to spend. Time and again, farmers have seen improvements in yield, profitability and resilience,” says Norman Uphoff, professor of international agriculture at Cornell.

The idea of using less to gain more is seen as an important innovation for adapting farming to climate change and a way to increase yields at a time when human populations are growing fast but traditional plant breeding and genetically modified techniques have failed to increase yields more than a few percentage points, says Uphoff.

In Bihar, one of India’s poorest states, more than 335,000 hectares of rice are grown using SRI methods. Scientist Anil Kumar Verma from the rural nongovernmental organization Pran and the state government have led a push to develop new weeding tools to help farmers and yields have increased dramatically.

The new way to grow rice is proving most popular in water-stressed countries, says Tavseef Mairaj Shah, a Ph.D. researcher at Germany’s Hamburg University of Technology. “Rice growing in Kashmir largely depends on irrigation systems that draw water from the river Jhelum. But climate change is leading to drier winters, untimely rains, and warmer summers.”

“SRI promises to be a viable alternative, not just from the water-savings perspective but because it offers better yields and soil conditions. Different studies, both at the experimental level and farmer-participative level, have shown that SRI improves yields with less water,” Shah adds.

Some academics, the global seed industry and the international community have rejected reports of “fantastic” yields, accusing farmers of falsifying records and researchers of carelessness and “non-science.” But more than 600 articles, collated by SRI International at Cornell University, have shown benefits.

“The last published [academic] critique of SRI was in 2006,” Uphoff says. “There is nothing more to prove. The original hostility has gone. It may have been linked to the fact that SRI came from the grassroots and not the well-resourced global agricultural industry, which for 50 years has invested heavily in genetics, mechanization, improved seeds and the use of inorganic fertilizers and pesticides.”

But, Uphoff says, the early opposition has resulted in comparatively little scientific research being conducted into SRI and a slow uptake by funders. “SRI was made controversial within the academic and donor communities. Donors have been reluctant to get involved although there are a variety of initiatives at the country or regional level,” he says.

“[We fund] investments in rice breeding and genetics because we believe innovations in these areas have the greatest potential to empower smallholder farmers and lift their families out of poverty. We don’t currently invest in rice crop management research,” said Gina Ivey, head of global policy for agricultural development with the Gates Foundation.

Attitudes are changing, however. The United Nations has come out in support of SRI in countries including Mali, Cambodia and V ietnam, and the World Bank has begun to promote it in India and Egypt. In 2017 SRI was endorsed by the science journal Nature.

“Clearly SRI is one of the technology options that has the potential to increase paddy yields for small farmers. We have invested in scaling up SRI systems in rice in both Bihar and Tamil Nadu [states] and based on our experience have observed that there is potential of more than 25 percent increase in the yield [and a] 64 percent increase in output per unit of water for SRI,” says Vinay Kumar Vutukuru, a World Bank senior agricultural specialist.

Uphoff calls for governments to study the experiences of grassroots farmers: “The principles of SRI can be applied to many crops. It is a genie that can no longer be stuffed back into the lamp. We could have accomplished so much more for farmers, consumers and for the environment if we had even some very modest support [from international donors] and hadn’t had to rely on personal resources and a lot of volunteered effort.”

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