Jesuit scientist's controversial rice system flowers in poor nations

Jesuit scientist’s controversial rice system flowers in poor nations

Jesuit scientist’s controversial rice system flowers in poor nations

Rice fields outside of Mumbai, India. (Credit: Shannon Levitt.)

In the middle of the 20th century, a French Jesuit and missionary in Madagascar named Father Henri de Laulanié pioneered an approach to expanding rice crops called "System of Rice Intensification." It's derided by some others in the field as a collection of folk practices rather than real science, but it lives on, including in a Nepal project by "World Neighbors," a non-profit organization devoted to promoting sustainable agriculture.

Many in the West, convinced of the benefits of low-carb diets, also understand quite well how important certain carbs remain, especially when they’re the staple of an entire nation. Without those crops, wide swaths of people around the globe would be in immediate danger of malnutrition.

One 20th century French Jesuit, for instance, saw rice for the life-preserving staple it could be, and developed an innovative system that came to be known as the “System of Rice Intensification” (SRI). Now, twelve years after his death, the system he pioneered is critical to anti-hunger strategies in various parts of the world, including the improbable Madagascar.

Father Henri de Laulanié de Sainte-Croix received his education as an agronomist at the renowned Institut National Agronomique in Paris, where he studied the treatment of rice in the works of Japanese scientists. When Laulanié was 41, he went to work in Madagascar to put his budding ideas into practice, and he remained there until he died in 1995 at the age of 75.

Upon his arrival in 1961, one problem that was obvious to Laulanié was the low quality of food production and agricultural practices in general among the Malagasy people. He grasped the cultural and historical significance of rice, not to mention its centrality to the diet – to this day, it accounts for more than half of people’s daily calories.

Laulanié also saw that the island nation’s poor did not have the money to let this crop fail, or to buy another food staple that could sustain them, so he focused his energy on the productivity of rice, since on the island’s already-eroding soil expanded planting wasn’t an option.

For the next 34 years, Laulanié worked on SRI and wrote a book about it before he died and was buried in Ambohipo, Madagascar. His book, Rice in Madagascar, is summarized briefly in a set of frequently asked questions into four principles:

  1. Establishing plants early and quickly, to favor healthy and vigorous root and vegetative plant growth.
  2. Maintaining low plant density to allow optimal development of each individual plant and to minimize competitions between plants for nutrients, water and sunlight.
  3. Enriching soils with organic matter to improve nutrient and water holding capacity, increase microbial life in the soil, and to provide a good substrate for roots to grow and develop.
  4. Reducing and controlling the application of water, providing only as much water as necessary for optimal plant development and to favor aerobic soil conditions.

Despite Laulanié’s noble intentions, his system is not without its detractors. In 2013, Forbes described it as “possibly one of the most important, and most controversial, advances in modern agriculture.”

Usually, the complaint is that SRI is sort of a folk solution that ignores the input of the sciences.

The International Rice Research Institute and other prominent rice scientists, for instance, say SRI is, at best, a “methodology” with some of the individual practices long promoted by researchers.  Other parts of the system, they say, run directly counter to well-established, scientifically proven best practices.

Thomas Sinclair, at the time a plant physiologist in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service, dismissed SRI completely in 2004 in an article he wrote in Rice Today.

“Discussion of the system of rice intensification (SRI) is unfortunate, because it implies SRI merits serious consideration,” Sinclair wrote. “SRI does not deserve such attention.”

Sinclair caustically wrote that evidence for the effectiveness of SRI is based on what he called “Unconfirmed Field Observations,” or UFOs, suggesting the scientific case is about as strong as evidence proving the existence of the other kind of UFO.

None of that has stopped Laulanié’s system, however, from proliferating around the world. Recently, the global non-profit group World Neighbors, founded on helping people help themselves, was asked by people in Nepal to help develop an SRI system for rice farmers there.

The organization’s CEO, Dr. Kate Schecter, told Crux, “We only work in rural areas, we tend to look for or reach out to communities that may have not been assisted in the past. They come and ask us to work with them.

“Everything is about figuring out what assets you have in your own community,” Schecter said.

In Nepal, rice is one of those assets. When a group approached World Neighbors for help in sustaining small rice farms, they brought the work of Laulanié and his SRI to serve a population distant in miles from Madagascar, but with some of the very same problems – including poverty, and a keen dependence on a staple food such as rice.

Despite debate about just how many of its promises the SRI system fulfills, Schecter said in her somewhat limited experience, “You get results very quickly.”

As an added benefit for naysayers, she said, “It’s organic. There’s no tinkering with it. You get more yield with less water. And that’s what makes it more efficient.”

Schecter says the real difficulty is convincing farmers who have been doing things a certain way for generations to change, based on what academics are telling them about things such as rainfall.

“A lot of the older farmers are nervous about changing,” she said. “They’ve been doing it this way for centuries, and for someone to come in and say let’s do it this way, it’s just too radical for people, and some aren’t willing to do it.”

From the farmer’s point of view, she said, such caution makes sense.

“You only have one chance to grow your rice, and don’t want to take the risk,” she said.

Schecter understands that doubt, but also says that World Neighbors has been successful in convincing people they do know what they’re talking about. The organization is also invested in making sure they get it right, and Schecter said it’s been pretty successful thus far.

For a small group, she said, they’re currently in 13 countries and they’ve touched millions of lives – which, as Schecter put it, “is a pretty wide reach.”

During his lifetime, Laulanié said he had no interest in trying to trademark his system or profit from it, calling SRI part of “the heritage of humanity.”

According to the foreword in a 2003 edition of Rice in Madagascar, Laulanié also took his missionary identity seriously, at one point developing a “seminary without teachers,” essentially self-taught and self-funded, to help less well-educated adults prepare for the priesthood.

“He was a mystic, who always believed that the Holy Spirit guided him and did everything for his good,” the foreword said, “while at the same time asking him to be very careful and modest to discern what God expected of him.”

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