The record harvests changing lives for impoverished Indian farmers    

The record harvests changing lives for impoverished Indian farmers From drought-stricken crops to pesticide-riddled farms; from the creeping GM takeover of farming, to rising food prices and warnings of famine - the drumbeat of bad news for small farmers in the developing world has been relentless. With more mouths to feed, in an era of climate change and extreme weather, many have argued that only genetically-modified seeds, from the giant agricultural companies, can save farming in countries like India. But what's this? A chord of good news, breaking through the gloomy tones? A small farmer, in one of the poorest parts of India, breaking the world record for rice harvested per hectare? That's the promising note coming from the Indian state of Bihar. And he bought in his staggering, record-breaking 22.4 tonnes per hectare (five times the usual yield) with nothing but some clever and careful nurturing of his crop - without a drop of pesticide, herbicide and fertilizer in sight. Not only that, but Sumant Kumar is far from the only farmer in Bihar to see yields rise. In fact, this impoverished state in the north-east of India saw its rice harvest leap from 3 million to 8 million tonnes in just 1 year. And it's all down to a new technique that is the very opposite of the high-tech, high-cost agriculture the developed world has so often pushed on developing-world farmers. Getting intense with the nurturing It's called System of Rice Intensification (or SRI), and it started with highland rice farmers in Madagascar. But its use is spreading far beyond rice, to crops like potatoes, tomatoes, wheat and peppers. At its heart is a simple organic approach, that looks to raise fewer, stronger plants, by ensuring the seedlings get off to flying start. Rice seedlings are transplanted when very young (and quickly too) aiming to keep the stress on the tiny roots to a minimum. Only 1 seed is planted per 'hill', and they are more widely spaced, so each plant can flourish. SRI also aims for minimal watering, so the soil stays air-rich and loose, encouraging root growth. For the moment the SRI technique involves more work at the outset - more careful planting, and more frequent hoeing and dressing with manure. But with less seed used, no need for expensive fertilizers - and with the healthier plants generally not needing pesticides or herbicides - the payback for farmers from the increased yields seems more than worth the extra effort.