EVEN as the government continues to insist that there is no rice supply shortage but only an abnormal increase in the price of the staple owing to soaring world market prices of commodities, the fact is the country is not 100-percent self-sufficient in rice.
As it is only able to produce 90 percent of the rice it needs, the Philippines has had to import the grain from other rice-exporting countries every year. For this year, the government is importing 2.1 million metric tons to maintain its two-month inventory.
To be sure, the Philippines has been resorting to rice importation over the last half-century. Since 2001, however, rice imports have grown to 1.32 million metric tons every year, making the country the number one rice importer in the world.
But to farmers and NGO advocates who have been propagating a rice planting method developed in Madagascar back in 1983, rice self-sufficiency is not only not impossible to attain, the government need not have to resort to importation to feed almost 90 million Filipinos.
The method they are using is called System of Rice Intensification (SRI), discovered by a French Jesuit agriculturist, Fr. Henri de Laulanie, in the course of his collection of the rice-growing practices of Madagascar’s farmers to increase their yields. Successfully tested in over 25 countries, SRI has been found to increase yields by 20 percent or more, and reduces farmers’ costs from seeds, water and external inputs (use of chemical fertilizers and other toxic chemicals).
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Among the first to adopt SRI in the country was the late Dr. Edwin Acoba, director of the Agricultural Training Institute of the Department of Agriculture. In 2001, he instructed ATI’s regional training centers to test SRI. One of Acoba’s supervisors then, Noe Ysulat, now director of the training center ng ATI in Region XII, seriously tried the system and to this day demonstrates and advocates SRI’s use in Cotabato and Southern Mindanao.
At about the same time, software engineer and social activist Roberto Verzola was also experimenting with SRI in a small farm in Tagkawayan, Quezon, and was easily impressed by the farming method. In 2002, he and other SRI advocates from the Philippine Rural Reconstruction Movement, Philippine Greens, Pabinhi, and Negros-based Broad Initiatives for Rural Development formed SRI-Pilipinas to provide trainings to farmers’ groups nationwide in the use of SRI.
With a meager funding it was able to acquire from the agriculture department, SRI-Pilipinas produces SRI primers and training videos that it then provides at cost to farmers’ groups.
But Verzola, the group’s coordinator, is urging the government to allot funds for SRI training to farmers so they can become familiarized with “this amazing method of growing rice.” SRI, he says, can be the key to the country’s rice self-sufficiency.
What makes SRI different from traditional rice planting are its core practices, which consist of the following:
- carefully transplanting very young seedlings (two leaves, eight to 12 days old) at one seedling per hill in a square pattern of wider distances (25 centimeters by 25 centimeters or more);
- no continuous flooding while the rice is growing, either keeping the soil moist or alternating between wet and dry every three to six days;
- using a mechanical weeder every 10 to 14 days for weed control and soil aeration; and
- use of compost and organic matter to encourage the growth of soil organisms.
Though the scientific community’s verdict on SRI remains mixed, Dr. Norman Uphoff, former director of the Cornell International Institute for Food, Agriculture, and Development (CIIFAD) of the Cornell University, is among the scientists who have been convinced by what they desrcibed as SRI’s “incredible” results.
Based on his own empirical tests, Uphoff documented such results as increased tillering (usually averaging 30 to 50 tillers per plant or more); bigger panicles (generating 200 to 300 grains/panicle or more); larger root systems (that are five to six times more resistant to uprooting; improved grain quality (fewer unfilled and broken grains); and remarkable resistance to pests, diseases, storms, drought, and cold spells.
Uphoff’s studies also validated SRI’s greater yields from the use of less water as it promotes more root growth and aerobic soil conditions that increase root exudation. Rice plant roots, he noted, degenerate under continuously flooded conditions.
The larger root systems have also been attributed to the plants’ ability to acquire more nutrients that help resist pests and diseases.
The same results are being reported by farmers in SRI production and demonstration farms in Plaridel and Malolos, Bulacan. (see video)
(Photo credits: Still photo of Fr. Laulani taken from Dr. Uphoff’s slide presentation; Dr. Uphoff’s photos taken from the websites of the China government and Cornell University)