How rice farmers in Africa can point us out of California’s water crisis

Food Tank – Friday 17th April

Rice farmers in Asia and Africa could teach the developed world a great deal about how to manage the water it uses for agriculture much better.

Devon Jenkins, technical specialist in sustainable rice intensification (SRI) at Cornell University, invites us to think about how techniques used by (mostly) small-scale farmers to increase yields while cutting water use might give us some ideas for saving California’s drought-stung agriculture industry. SRI focuses on improving both soil and individual plant health without the use of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides – the soil’s humus is key. This decomposing organic matter is rich in microbial life, which breaks it down and makes the nutrients available to plants.

The focus on the individual plant means that much less water is used. These farmers don’t flood rice fields as has long been traditional practice: they water plants individually. The two principles combined result in healthy productive plants with strong yields and dramatically reduced water usage. And SRI isn’t just for rice – its techniques can be applied to a wide array of crops, and used in horticulture as well as agriculture. When you think about it, its ethos is one of giving the plant just what it needs, nurturing the health that will help it thrive.

Aligned with SRI is permaculture, another agro-ecological approach described by Jenkins as “… smart design, based on observation of nature and combined with an ecological and humanistic ethic … permaculture allows us to create functional, resilient, and abundant spaces for water in harmony with natural systems”. It provides a blueprint for thinking differently about agriculture’s relationship to nature. No longer adversarial but rather symbiotic, it seeks a consonance with it.

The shift in thinking is what points a way out of California’s water crisis. Jenkins highlights a systemic change that fundamentally alters our approach to the problems at hand, “showing us that a life lived in greater harmony with natural systems isn’t one of scarcity, but of abundance”.