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A Conversation with Norman Uphoff, Advisor to Nourishing the Planet

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In this regular series we profile advisors of the Nourishing the Planet project. This week, we feature Norman Uphoff, professor of Government and International Agriculture at Cornell University.

Name: Norman Uphoff

Affiliation: Cornell University

Location: Ithaca, United States

Bio: Norman Uphoff is a professor of Government and International Agriculture at Cornell University and former director of the Cornell International Institute for Food, Agriculture, and Development, 1990 to 2005. His work has focused on development administration, irrigation management, local participation, and strategies for broad-based rural development. His current development interests have expanded beyond the social sciences to include agro-ecology, particularly the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) and its extrapolation to other crops beyond rice.

Published work:

-"System of Rice Intensification responds to 21st Century Needs, Rice Today 3 (3): 42-43
-Reasons for Success: Learning from Instructive Experiences in Rural Development (1997), with Esman and Krishna, Kumarian Press.
-A groecological Innovations: Increasing Food Production with Participatory Development (2002), Earthscan Press.
-Biological Approaches to Sustainable Soil Systems, managing editor (2006), CRC Press.
-"An assessment of physiological effects of system of rice intensification (SRI) practices compared to recommended rice cultivation practices in India," with Thakur and Antony (2010) in Experimental Agriculture, 46:77-98
-"Learning about positive plant-microbial interactions from the System of Rice Intensification (SRI)," with Anas, Rupela, Thakur and Thiyagarajan (2009). Aspects of Applied Biology 98: 29-54.

On Nourishing the Planet: Nourishing the Planet is looking ahead at ways that we can, first, avert the most dire outcomes that will be the likely consequence of our present practices, and, second, reverse the present adverse trends by capitalizing on new opportunities. Both are necessary. Not enough people realize that we are 'in a hole,' and that continuing to 'dig deeper' will not get us out.

Our food production methods need to be reformulated and reoriented to approximate more closely the natural processes that have supported vegetation growth on the planet's surface for some 400 million years. All herbivores, carnivores and omnivores (including us) are supported by these photosynthetically-driven processes and their associated soil system dynamics. Nourishing the planet in the decades ahead will depend on a profound understanding of ecological opportunities and limits.

Nourishing the Planet (NTP): The December 2009 issue of Farming Matters calls you "one of the most energetic and persistent promoters of SRI." Can you describe your evolution from being a skeptic of the technique to becoming one its biggest supporters?

Norman Uphoff (NU): When I first learned about 'SRI' from the Malagasy NGO Association Teffy Saina in December 1993 it sounded fantastical. How could farmers, who had very poor soils, significantly improve their yields-by 5, 10, even 15 tons per hectare-without the use of new, improved rice varieties, and without the use of chemical fertilizer (just compost made from any available biomass), and with less water? This was not believable. Even though I was a social scientist, not an agronomist, I knew this was not possible.

But the Teffy Saina officers who offered to work with us were quite confident, and the Malagasy professional managing the project vouched for their character, so we signed the subcontracts with Tefy Saina to introduce SRI in the peripheral zone of the USAID-funded conservation and development projects intended to save the rainforest ecosystems around Ranomafana. After the farmers used SRI methods for three years, they averaged eight tons per hectare, and some reached 12, 14, and 16 tons per hectare in one case. I decided that I had better learn enough agronomics to figure out what was going on, and enough French so that I could understand the papers for the originator of SRI, Fr. Henri De Laulanià , S.J. He has spent 34 years of his life trying to help poor farmers in Madagascar raise their rice yields without depending on purchased inputs. To my everlasting regret, I never met him before he died in 1995, and because I was still to skeptical about SRI to realize what a remarkable innovator he was, in the tradition of Gregor Mendel.

NTP: The same story in Farming Matters emphasizes the importance of involving farmers' needs and opinions when developing innovations. How does your research and outreach integrate the feedback of farmers using SRI on the ground?

NU: In part because most agricultural scientists have been so skeptical, even dismissive of SRI, our work has usually begun with NGO's and the farmers they assist. There have been a few agricultural researchers who have had open minds and have taken an interest in SRI from the outset, but mostly we have developed our understanding of SR and have made adaptations in close association with farmers. Now the scientific community is becoming more interested.

Because SRI is 'not a technology,' nothing fixed or rigid, but rather a distillation of the insights and methods that Fr. Laulanià put together from his own experience and from working with Malagasy farmers, we try to explain to farmers the reasons for changing their age-old management methods for plants, soil, water, and nutrients, rather than telling them how they should change. We want farmers to understand the rational, and to make adaptation to their own local conditions: how young seedlings should be for their soils and temperatures, how far apart is the optimum spacing, how much they should let their paddy soils dry out before re-wetting them, etc. Some farmers have quickly grasped the principles and techniques, and become leaders in their own communities, and beyond. We start with those who are most curious and innovative and try to spread them from there.

NTP: What are the qualifications you look for in a successful innovation and how do suggest information about the innovation can most effectively be shared?

NU: That not all farmers adopt something immediately does not mean the innovation has no merit, or will not spread once its productivity is demonstrated and once appropriate adaptations have been made for local conditions. SRI was developed for irrigated rice production, for example, with transplanting as the method of crop establishment. But we have seen the ideas successfully extrapolated to rain-fed (non-irrigated) rice production, using only rainfall, and also extended to other crops. When farmers take ownership of an innovation this way, maybe only a few at first, this is a mark of success. Farmers in many countries have taken it upon themselves to spread the innovation to other farmers. That was very persuasive to me.

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