Sunday, August 31, 2014

With hunger a huge problem, don't spread false information on farming.

I am really annoyed by this article in The Guardian. I quote:
Kumar, a shy young farmer in Nalanda district of India's poorest state Bihar, had – using only farmyard manure and without any herbicides – grown an astonishing 22.4 tonnes of rice on one hectare of land. This was a world record and with rice the staple food of more than half the world's population of seven billion, big news 
It beat not just the 19.4 tonnes achieved by the "father of rice", the Chinese agricultural scientist Yuan Longping, but the World Bank-funded scientists at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, and anything achieved by the biggest European and American seed and GM companies. And it was not just Sumant Kumar. Krishna, Nitish, Sanjay and Bijay, his friends and rivals in Darveshpura, all recorded over 17 tonnes, and many others in the villages around claimed to have more than doubled their usual yields........ 
That might have been the end of the story had Sumant's friend Nitish not smashed the world record for growing potatoes six months later. Shortly after Ravindra Kumar, a small farmer from a nearby Bihari village, broke the Indian record for growing wheat.
I suggest you watch this video from The Guardian which shows one of the farmers described in the article. It shows what seems to be a simple man proud of his accomplishments as a farmer.

This story got picked up by others. Here is a quote from one such follower:
Another Bihar farmer broke India’s wheat-growing record the same year. They accomplished all this without GMOs or advanced seed hybrids, artificial fertilizer or herbicide. Instead, they used a technique called System of Rice [or root] Intensification (SRI). It’s a technique developed in Madagascar in the 1980s by a French Jesuit and then identified and promulgated by Cornell political scientist and international development specialist Norman Uphoff.
Do you really believe that application of the farming system developed for growing rice could be used to grow wheat, and the result would be record yields? The article even suggests that it improved potato yields for another farmer.

Here is a report from a world leader in agricultural research, Achim Dobermann. I quote:
The Guardian article suggests that Mr. Kumar and other farmers achieved something beyond what can be achieved by scientists and GMO companies, and that they used only farmyard manure and no herbicides. The much more detailed article in Agriculture Today shows almost the opposite. No GM rice is grown anywhere yet. However, all five record farmers grew commercial rice hybrids from Bayer or Syngenta; their seed was fungicide-treated (carbendazim); they used intensive tillage (two deep plowings plus two puddling operations); they applied green manure, farmyard manure, mineral fertilizer (N, P, K), and other nutrient input products (poultry manure, vermicompost, phosphorus-solubilizing bacteria, micronutrient foliar spray of zinc sulfate); and some also used herbicide (2,4-D) for additional weed control. These are in fact very intensive input management practices, perhaps not something that many poor, small farmers could afford.
Here is the link to the Agriculture Today article mentioned.

I believe Dobermann and not the Guardian -- that the farmers used hybrid seed, both artificial and processed natural fertilizers, and chemical inputs.

Scientists from the International Rice Research Institute and from China doubted the accuracy of the yield reports.  Here is what Dr. Dobermann says in the article cited:
In summary, given what we know about the upper limits of nutrient supply from soils in that region, I conclude again that the actual yield may have been in the 10–12 t/ha range at best. Japanese researchers studying SRI fields in Madagascar have shown a clear linear relationship between nutrient supply (enhanced by deep plowing as also done in Bihar) and rice yield, irrespective of other SRI management practices, but also not exceeding yields of about 10 t/ha.
And this from an article quoting a distinguished Chinese scientist:
China’s most renowned agricultural scientist has described as “120 per cent fake” claims that farmers in Bihar harvested a world record 22.4 tonnes of rice from one hectare of land without using herbicides or genetically modified (GM) seeds last year. A national icon, Yuan Longping is known here as “the father of hybrid rice” for developing varieties that enabled China to transform its grain output. His rice varieties were subsequently introduced widely in the world, and marked a record yield of 19.4 tonnes a hectare.
OK, a few farmers in Bihar claimed huge yields in various crops. The claims were picked up and shared by politicians, newspapers, and various factions opposed to modern agricultural techniques. The farmers got famous, and at least one of them got prize money from the government. Clearly most of the people who picked up on the story spread false information.

This is not a critique of Oxfam and its Indian collaborating organization that provided extension services to the farmers promoting good farming practice. It is important in growing rice when you transplant, what density you plant at, how you irrigate your crop, how you treat the soil, how well you control weeds, what fertilizer you use, and how you deal with pests and diseases.

People should also recognize that improved crop varieties have been responsible for huge increases in crop yields. Among other things, varieties have been developed to provide resistance to diseases and pests and to utilize water and nutrients more effectively.

As the Indian farmers and extension workers recognize, there is an appropriate place for water and chemical inputs. As all recognize, good farming practice counts. Smart farmers use all the tools that they can get to efficiently increase the yield of their crops.

Scientific breeding has produced improved cultivars and they are important. Since the first domestication of crops, crop variety improvements have been sought, and they always come from genetic changes in the crops grown. Ancient practice was random and very slow. For most of the 20th century, scientific breeding was more directed by knowledge and faster than in the distant past; the development of hybrid varieties for some crops greatly improved the effectiveness of breeding of those crops. We have been dependent on hybrid corn (and chickens) for many decades. New techniques of biotechnology utilize even more knowledge, are still faster, and make fewer genetic changes to improve a variety; they are safer in part because the new varieties are so extensively safety tested.

As the world population moves to 11 billion by the end of the century, and as climate change increases and increases the challenges faced by farmers, lets not spread false information and fear about the science we need to feed people.

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