Norman Uphoff went to Madagascar to save the rain forest. He came back convinced he could help save millions from hunger and malnutrition.

In the early 1990s, while heading an environmental institute at Cornell University in New York, Uphoff travelled to Madagascar and learned about an innovative way of boosting rice yields. Developed in 1983 by the French Jesuit priest Henri de Laulanié, the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) calls for planting rice seedlings at a young age, with wide spacing and no continuous flooding of the field. SRI saves water and reduces seed costs — and produces big harvests.

Depending on location, SRI increases yields up to 100 percent. Once Uphoff saw the results, he began to promote the technique. He’s done so since 1998, traveling to Asia, Africa and Latin America and frequently working with nongovernmental groups and local extension agents.

He’s made a difference. More than 10 million smallholder farmers in China, India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia and other countries have adopted SRI or parts of it. And SRI now is used successfully to cultivate other crops including wheat and millet.

But SRI initially met with skepticism from established rice scientists.

Conventional rice on left, SRI rice on right. (Courtesy photo)

“It’s a paradigm shift,” Uphoff explains.

But, as research mostly validated SRI’s benefits, including reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, the skeptics relented. Vernon W. Ruttan, an agricultural economist at the University of Minnesota, once doubted the system’s prospects but now considers himself an enthusiastic fan. The Philippines-based International Rice Research Institute, initially the harshest critic, now hosts a multipage SRI section on its website.

Uphoff, now a professor of government and international agriculture at Cornell, has lived to see SRI endorsed by the World Bank, Oxfam and several governments.

SRI has arrived in Cambodia. (Courtesy of SRI International Network)

One of many new methods

But SRI is just one of many sustainable practices that are revolutionizing agriculture and preserving the environment. Increasingly common practices include:

  • Using heat-tolerant and water-efficient seed varieties.
  • Crop rotation.
  • Intercropping, or growing two or more crops in proximity for better harvests and use of soil nutrients.
  • Conservation tillage, a soil-cultivation method that leaves the previous year’s crop residue on fields before and after planting the next crop in order to reduce soil erosion and runoff.
  • No-till farming, a way of growing crops or grasses without disturbing the soil through tillage to improve soil biological fertility.
  • Closed or drip-irrigation systems.
  • Buffers that can trap sediment and contaminants in runoff.
  • Using renewable energy to power farm equipment.