SINGAPORE — Cornell University’s System of Rice Intensification (SRI) production method, which can increase rice yields by 20% to 50%, received an award from Olam International, the company announced on March 17.

The International Prize for Innovation in Food Security was awarded by an international jury panel to Professor Norman Uphoff and the SRI International Network and Resources Center (SRI-Rice) at the 3rd Global Science Conference on Climate Smart Agriculture in Montpellier, France.

Launched in partnership with leading scientific organization Agropolis Fondation to celebrate Olam’s 25th anniversary, the Olam Prize for Innovation in Food Security recognizes an outstanding innovation for its impact on the availability, affordability, accessibility or adequacy of food.

SRI-Rice, which is housed at Cornell University in New York, U.S., has been promoting research and facilitating knowledge-sharing on the System of Rice Intensification, a climate-smart methodology with outstanding results for rice production that is surprisingly counter-intuitive.

Capitalizing on biological processes, on the genetic potential of the crop, and on plant-soil-microbial interactions, the system requires 80% to 90% fewer rice seeds, up to 50% less water and in many instances no fertilizer. Yields are then boosted by 20% to 50% (and often by much more), with farmers’ costs subsequently reduced by 10% to 20%.

SRI methods include alternately drying and wetting the rice field rather than the usual practice of continuous flooding, adding organic matter to soil for their improvement, and instead of planting  the standard of approximately 130 plants per square meter, about 16 single, very young seedlings are planted with much wider spacing. These carefully designed planting and growing practices produce deep-rooted rice plants with a greater amount and diversity of soil organisms. The healthier, more robust plants are better able to withstand the stresses of drought, flooding, storm damage, and pests and diseases.

SRI is now being promoted by governments in China, India, Indonesia, Cambodia and Vietnam, where two-thirds of the world’s rice is produced. Use of SRI practices is increasing the yields of over 10 million smallholder farmers by an average of 1.67 tonnes per hectare, while simultaneously reducing their costs and lowering water requirements.

“The innovation behind SRI is fascinating because it disrupts common notions of rice farming, and such disruption is essential if we are to feed 9 billion people by 2050. Grown by 200 million small-scale farmers, rice is the world’s staple diet, so I am delighted that Olam is helping to scale up practices so clearly proven to increase yields, thereby reducing the pressure on precious arable land and water,” said Sunny Verghese, co-founder, group managing director and chief executive officer. “On top of this, there are no costs to the farmer which provides three benefits: firstly, communities have increased access to vital calories without paying more; secondly they can improve their livelihoods by selling the surplus and lastly, through that surplus they are supporting global food security needs.

“As we celebrate our 25 years in the agricultural sector, I am proud that this anniversary prize should be awarded to SRI-RICE, a team that has ‘transcended boundaries’ – the meaning of Olam. And with our own 10,000 hectare rice farm and smallholder program in Nigeria we will certainly be exploring this research further.”

In addition to the promotion of the new methodologies, SRI-Rice provides technical assistance to development and research programs, advancing knowledge on SRI and acting as a global hub for the international SRI community.

“The SRI-Rice team stood out for the demonstrable impact their research and outreach on paradigm-shifting methodologies is having in over 55 rice-growing countries globally,” said Pascal Kosuth, director of Agropolis Foundation and jury member for the Olam prize. “Professor Uphoff and the SRI-Rice team at Cornell University are working with a vast global network to build a body of scientific evidence demonstrating that significant yields can be achieved from the same land by simply better understanding the natural synergies between plants, soils, water, nutrients, soil organisms and climate.”

“Along with the rest of the SRI-Rice team and the hundreds of colleagues all around the world who have made SRI a reality on the ground, I am honored to receive this award from Olam, one of the world’s largest agribusinesses and a team that knows very well the importance of agricultural science to ensuring food security,” said Uphoff, in receiving the award. “However, this award must be dedicated to the memory of Père Henri Laulanie, whose ideas and observations working with impoverished farmers in Madagascar some 30 years ago provided the basis for all SRI research.

“Scaling up SRI and its derived System of Crop Intensification (SCI) is a matter of changing mindsets, habits and practices, and the recognition Olam has bestowed on us with this award marks a milestone in terms of support from the private sector. The Olam Prize money will be used to support further research, particularly around how SRI management methods can reduce methane gas emissions – essential in the fight against climate change – as well as on the role of soil microbes in the uptake of nutrients.”

With a prize value of $50,000, the Olam prize was judged by an international panel of experts in conjunction with the Louis Malassis International Scientific Prizes.