A System of School Intensification

This recent article in The Guardian about a method of rice farming termed “System of Rice Intensification“(SRI) that can potentially increase yields dramatically without the use of chemicals immediately piqued my interest, firstly because I am strong believer in farming without pesticides and herbicides, and secondly because it holds implications for our ecological metaphor as it applies to schools.

A theme which I have been pursuing over some of my last few posts has been the idea that complex systems, given their proclivity for chaos and entropy, must be “intensively managed.” This idea can be witnessed in full in SRI, as the method requires the controlled transplanting of seedlings from a nursery into the area where the rice is to be grown, one by one.

“Rather than any magical theory, it is good husbandry, skill and attention which results in the super yields. Clearly in certain circumstances, it is an efficient resource for farmers. But it is labour intensive and nobody has come up with the technology to transplant single seedlings yet.”

No magic indeed. It is rather a set of good local management practices that requires an initial upfront investment in order to lay the painstaking foundation for a strong and resilient crop. As a farmer who practices SRI put it:

“When a farmer does SRI the first time, yes it is more labour intensive,” says Santosh Kumar, who grows 15 hectares of rice and vegetables in Nalanda. “Then it gets easier and new innovations are taking place now.”

What is fascinating is that this method has been around since the 1980s, and yet scientists continue to direct their attention to silver bullets, such as technology and genetic modification. Why is this?

SRI offers millions of disadvantaged households far better opportunities. Nobody is benefiting from this except the farmers; there are no patents, royalties or licensing fees.” 

For 40 years now, says Uphoff, science has been obsessed with improving seeds and using artificial fertilisers: “It’s been genes, genes, genes. There has never been talk of managing crops. Corporations say ‘we will breed you a better plant’ and breeders work hard to get 5-10% increase in yields. We have tried to make agriculture an industrial enterprise and have forgotten its biological roots.” (Bold added)

Better local management, unfortunately, is not as sexy, nor profitable, as technological fixes. Plus, it’s just so messy.

Bihar, from being India’s poorest state, is now at the centre of what is being called a “new green grassroots revolution” with farming villages, research groups and NGOs all beginning to experiment with different crops using SRI. The state will invest $50m in SRI next year but western governments and foundations are holding back, preferring to invest in hi-tech research. The agronomist Anil Verma does not understand why: “The farmers know SRI works, but help is needed to train them. We know it works differently in different soils but the principles are solid,” he says. “The biggest problem we have is that people want to do it but we do not have enough trainers. 

“If any scientist or a company came up with a technology that almost guaranteed a 50% increase in yields at no extra cost they would get a Nobel prize. But when young Biharian farmers do that they get nothing. I only want to see the poor farmers have enough to eat.” (Bold added)

I am aware that this is only one article and that I should hesitate to draw larger inferences from it. But given that the research that has been done on SRI seems promising, I think I may be excused in drawing some connections between SRI and its implications for public education.

If we imagine a school district, a community, as a plot of arable land, we might perceive that our approach to its cultivation is all too often to become reliant on external supports and inputs, rather than to train community leaders and professionals to utilize practices and methods that are ultimately self-sustaining.

We can also perhaps draw some inferences from the idea of carefully transplanting seedlings from nurseries into the soil, as opposed to the traditional method of haphazardly dispersing clumps of seeds. It is no secret that there are toxic environments that all too many of our nation’s children are being raised in. Without a strong foundation in early childhood, academic education for many children is an increasingly uphill battle.

From these thoughts on SRI I draw two main implications for education policy:

1) Universal access to pre-K services is essential. All children must be given the opportunity to have access to as many “nutrients” as early as possible

2) Transplant students raised in toxic environments into schools offering positive, diverse learning environments

What do you think? Am I grasping at straws, or does SRI represent the next “green revolution”?

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