Sun, Oct 21, 2018 - Page 15 News List

Malian farmers seeking ‘white gold’ with rice tech

By Dieneba Deme  /  Thomson Reuters Foundation, BAGUINEDA, Mali

When rice farmers started producing yields nine times larger than normal in the Malian desert near the famed town of Timbuktu a decade ago, a passerby could have mistaken the crop for another desert mirage.

Rather, it was the result of an engineering feat that has left experts in the nation in awe — but one that has yet to spread widely through Mali’s farming community.

“We must redouble efforts to get political leaders on board,” said Djiguiba Kouyate, a coordinator in Mali for German development agency GIZ.

With hunger a constant menace, Malians are cautiously turning to a controversial farming technique, known as rice intensification, to adapt to the effects of climate change.

The method, pioneered in Madagascar in 1983, has raised hopes that Mali’s small-scale rice farmers might be able to increase their productivity to meet the country’s gargantuan appetite for the grain.

Consumption of the staple stood at about 72kg of rice per person in 2014, according to the latest data Mali’s National Directorate of Statistics has made public — and demand is continuing to grow.

Dubbed the “system of rice intensification” (SRI), the new rice production method involves planting fewer seeds of traditional rice varieties and taking care of them following a strict regime.

Seedlings are transplanted at a very young age and spaced widely. Soil is enriched with organic matter and must be kept moist, although the system uses less water than traditional rice farming.

SRI is used on both irrigated and non-irrigated land, meaning it is possible to cultivate rice even in Mali’s desert, pilots conducted by the US Agency for International Development have shown.

Up to 20 million farmers use rice intensification in 61 countries, including in Sierra Leone, Senegal and the Ivory Coast, said Norman Uphoff, a senior adviser at the SRI International Network and Resources Center at Cornell University in the US.

Rice plants grown following the method live longer because, given more space, more oxygen and less water, their roots grow bigger and deeper, so they are more resilient to drought and do not deteriorate under flooding, he said.

However, despite its success, the technique has been embraced with varying degrees of enthusiasm from country to country.

That is because it competes with the improved hybrid and inbred rice varieties that agricultural corporations sell, Uphoff said by telephone.

“Corporate agriculture has a huge stake in this,” he said. The new technique is “not good news for the brand breeders and the seed companies.”

Interest in SRI has mounted as droughts and erratic rainfall become more common, adding urgency to efforts to create a steady stream of food from farmland to cooking pots.

Mali is West Africa’s second-largest rice producer, but it still imports 18 percent of its rice annually, said Abdoulaye Koureissi, national coordinator for a rice farmers platform.

Imports prevent local production from reaching its full potential, he said.

And longer droughts and other forms of unpredictable weather are destroying an ever-larger share of crops across the country, where nearly half the adult population suffered from stunting as children due to malnutrition, according to the UN.

Malian authorities are looking for ways to reduce imports and become self-sufficient in rice, Kouyate said.

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