The world record yield for paddy rice production is not held by an agricultural research station or by a large-scale farmer from the United States, but by Sumant Kumar who has a farm of just two hectares in Darveshpura village in the state of Bihar in northern India. His record yield of 22.4 tons per hectare, from a one-acre plot, was achieved with what is known as the System of Rice Intensification (SRI). To put his achievement in perspective, the average paddy yield worldwide is about four tons per hectare. Even with the use of fertilizer, average yields are usually not more than eight tons.
Sumant Kumar’s success was not a fluke. Four of his neighbors, using SRI methods, and all for the first time, matched or exceeded the previous world record from China, 19 tons per hectare. Moreover, they used only modest amounts of inorganic fertilizer and did not need chemical crop protection.
Producing more output with fewer external inputs may sound improbable, but it derives from a shift in emphasis from improving plant genetic potential—whether through engineering or plant breeding—to providing optimal environments for crop growth. SRI methodology translates into a number of irrigated rice cultivation practices that, for most smallholder farmers, include the following:
- Plant young seedlings carefully and singly, giving them wider spacing, usually in a square pattern, so that both roots and canopy have ample room to spread
- Keep the soil moist but not inundated. Provide sufficient water for plant roots and beneficial soil organisms to grow, but not so much as to suffocate or suppress either (e.g., through alternate wetting and drying or through small but regular applications)
- Add as much compost, mulch, or other organic matter to the soil as possible, feeding the soil so that the soil can, in turn, feed the plant
- Control weeds with mechanical methods that can incorporate weeds while breaking up the soil’s surface. This actively aerates the root zone as a beneficial by-product of weed control. This practice can promote root growth and the abundance of beneficial soil organisms, adding to yield.