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Food Security, Technologies and Innovations

Rampung

Rampung Sorathaworn is a farmer from Surin province, Thailand. She tried out SRI for the first time two years ago, transplanting very young single seedlings in a widely spaced grid, following advice provided by the EU-funded, region-wide SRI-LMB programme. But she wasn’t sure that she had made the right decision when she began to hear her neighbours’ comments: “When they saw my field, the villagers asked how I thought I was going to grow any rice,” she says. “They kept saying: ‘Seedlings can’t grow like that – you need to plant 3 or 4 together. The Golden Apple snails will eat it all up!’ I wasn’t too sure it would grow either, but I told them I would wait and see”. Sure enough, within a couple of weeks, the villagers changed their tune and started asking “Why is it growing like this? How is it you have so many tillers!” And she says after that they began to pay a lot more attention, even helping her to count the tillers on her crop.

In Surin, rice growers traditionally broadcast their seed rather than transplanting and so for Rampung, SRI also meant more work and higher labour costs. “When I first transplanted, I paid a lot for labour. I hired about 8 people for 1 or 2 rais (‘rai’ is a Thai term for a 40m x 40m plot of land). This is a heavy cost – about 300 baht (US$9) per person per day.” The project leader of the SRI-LMB programme, Dr. Abha Mishra, stresses that production costs are a serious issue for rice farmers in Thailand and indeed across the entire Mekong Basin where the programme is working: “The main concern for the farmer,” she says, “is to reduce the cost of production because the price of fertiliser and seed is increasing. So, there are a lot of issues for them. And the price of rice is decreasing every year.”

Rampung surveys her field. The seedlings are only just pushing through and the rains are about to start. It won’t be long before the field is full of big, healthy rice plants.

In practice, farmers in Thailand offset the lower costs of seed when transplanting SRI with the higher costs of labour. For Rampung, the solution to this problem was direct seeding. She has a lot of land and could see how SRI could help her produce significantly more rice, but also that the cost of labour for her would be extremely high in an area where labour is hard to come by. Convinced by her first successful harvest using SRI, she decided to purchase a seeder machine which cost 20,000 baht (US$615) – an appreciable sum. As a business women, she made the decision that the investment was worth it.

She found the direct seeder to be a vast improvement on the broadcast technique and although not as productive as transplanting, she thinks it has proven to be a good compromise. She manages to control the water on her rain-fed fields as much as possible and while direct seeding may not give precise control over spacing between the seeds, the wide rows she plants allow for regular weeding to keep the soils aerated, according to SRI practice.

Her friend, Tawee has found a different compromise. She also used to broadcast all her rice seed until being introduced to SRI. “It’s a good technique,” she says, “and I will continue using SRI because I grow SRI on just 2 rais and it produces enough rice for the whole year, even though the transplanting is backbreaking work.” As head of her household, she has guaranteed her food supply while also producing additional rice to sell. Tawee also has a substantial amount of land and is in a position to set aside 2 rais to get the higher yield that SRI brings. However, to do this, she must also invest in labour to do the transplanting, most of which is done by local women as the men are migrating to the cities to work. “There are no men here,” says Tawee. “It’s just women.”

It’s transplanting season and Tawee still has more than enough rice stored to see her through to the next harvest.

The growing labour shortage provides a strong incentive for farmers to invest in alternative technologies here. Rampung is convinced that the seeder was worth the expense, as direct seeding in rows will reap dividends in the future due to the combination of lower seed use and lower labour costs. Now using the direct seeder instead of broadcasting, she spends a quarter of what she used to spend on seeds. She saves on labour and gets a slightly higher yield. But the quality of the crop is also an important advantage as Rampung explains: “The SRI crop is a good weight but the percentage of the rice that is good for milling is higher than with the traditional crop and I can also use part of my SRI crop for seeds.”

With the guaranteed quality of her rice, she is in a better position to seek out a market and increase her profits, as Dr. Mishra explains: “The quality of the grain really makes a difference because most of the farmers in Thailand are linked with the market and the market now is not just looking for quantity but also quality – especially in Thailand and when you talk about quality, SRI has a significant role to play.”

Interestingly, Dr. Mishra has also seen that it is women in particular who are embracing SRI and the alternative techniques that it also encourages. “The women are contributing a lot,” she says. “And they are reporting higher yield and higher benefits. That is one thing. And the second thing which we have seen is an increase in innovation, because the project encourages farmers to innovate in their fields. And some of the innovative techniques – say, for example changing from broadcasting to transplanting or from transplanting to direct seeding – tend to be done by women farmers.”

This is an observation that comes as no surprise to Sabarmatee, an Indian agricultural researcher who has studied SRI in rural regions of India, where transplanting rather than broadcasting is the norm.  “Why shouldn’t women recognise the importance of such innovation?” she asks, “After all, it is women who are spending the maximum time in the fields.” Sabarmatee has investigated  the impact of rice growing on women’s bodies during her research. She points out that transplanting and other manual work in the fields is usually done by women, who suffer serious health impacts from the constant bending in muddy water for many weeks  during the rice growing season. However, she argues, very little has been done to consider the impact of transplanting and weeding on women’s bodies and to develop new technology that could assist in that work. Therefore it is no wonder that it is women who are coming forward with innovative ideas and embracing the tools and ideas that help them in their work. “When technology is considered, hardly ever does someone talk about the impact of that technology on the bodies of the users of that technology.”  Sabarmatee believes that in the past, questions of gender have tended to be overlooked by development professionals in favour of criteria such as yield and income: “People make comparisons between the conventional method and SRI based on which is more expensive in terms of yields and costs. And labour is often looked at as a kind of uniform entity. Performance is considered to be uniform and standardised.”

In Cambodia, where farmers traditionally transplant rice, the NGO Srer Khmer has developed a direct seeder that is becoming a favourite with local women farmers. In an area where labour is also in short supply and women are increasingly responsible for farming, this lightweight tool is proving to be of real benefit to the women who spend many hours bent over transplanting in rice fields.

For Sabarmatee, it is these kinds of innovations that could be really transformative for many millions of women currently labouring in the fields. “More and more women are becoming engaged in agriculture but if they are provided with better technology, I think that would create a big impact, an overall impact, both socially and economically and from a health point of view. At the moment, they are very disadvantaged.” Although Rampung bought her direct seeder for economic reasons, she also recognises the potential health benefits of such technology. For her, it’s the perfect compromise solution between producing a low yielding poor quality crop through the traditional way of farming or having to work for hours bent over in the fields and paying for labour to help her produce the much higher yielding SRI crop. She is living proof that SRI is an adaptive methodology and that direct seeding can be a way to adapt to a farmer’s particular circumstances and needs.

Rampung is a participant in the EU-funded SRI-LMB programme.

Empowerment, Food Security, Video

Ong Ol

(Scroll to the bottom to watch the video)

It’s transplanting season here in Pursat province, Cambodia and across south and southeast Asia. The air is thick with the mists rising from flooded paddy fields as the extreme heat evaporates yesterday’s rain. Conditions are stifling, yet across vast swathes of countryside, women are bent double, transplanting the rice seedlings that will produce over 700 million tons[1] of the world’s most important food staple.

It is estimated that over a billion people grow rice across the world, well over half of whom are women.[2] Most are poor and food insecure. And the majority of those doing the transplanting work right now are women. For them, this involves long days bent over under both a punishing heat that reaches around 35ºC, and heavy seasonal rain that will water the crop. Standing or squatting for long periods in water contaminated with chemical fertilisers and various disease vectors, the women are soaked from above and from below. As working conditions go, in the long-term, these have to be among the most hazardous, yet few women are paid for this work. Most are not even recognised by the authorities or outside world as farmers.

Ong Ol is transplanting on a plot in Sarieng Village. She has no health problems, has food all year round and receives fair payment for what she is doing. She is deputy team leader of her local Women-Led Agricultural Service team (WLAS) and has turned her previously difficult situation into a business:

“We sell our labour as a team to local landowners,” she explains. And then she adds: “And while I’m promoting the team’s services, I promote the practice of SRI.” SRI is the System of Rice Intensification and it is becoming increasingly widespread as farmers and rice growers acknowledge the profound benefits it brings. “We spend less on seeds but get higher yields with SRI,” says Ong Ol. “When we grow rice in the traditional way, it uses much more seed but we harvest so much less.”

SRI, which harnesses the growth potential of individual rice plants by transplanting young seedlings singly rather in the traditional clumps, requires up to 90% less seed and also favours non-flooded fields where the aerobic soil conditions encourage faster and stronger growth. It costs less but, counter-intuitively perhaps, it results in higher yields from those stronger plants. And it is knowledge-based, which means farmers can adopt the methodology at no expense. It also favours organic fertilisation. Fewer seedlings mean less time bent over; no flooding eradicates some of the soaking conditions; organic inputs reduce contamination. SRI results not only in cost savings and food security but also in improved health.

SRI was introduced to this area by a local NGO, Srer Khmer. It was also Srer Khmer that came up with the WLAS team idea, as the organisation’s coordinator, Chhun Sophorn explains: “We’ve been introducing SRI in Pursat province for some time but talking with the communities, it became very clear that the local labour shortage was becoming a serious obstacle in our efforts to intensify agriculture here,” he says. “More and more people are migrating away from rural areas and those landowners left behind tend to be older and are abandoning their land because they simply can no longer do the work.”

Migration away from rural areas is a growing problem for the agriculture sector. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), there were 244 million international migrants in 2015 and a staggering “763 million internal migrants according to 2013 estimates.“[3] In Cambodia, migration to the capital Phnom Penh has been rising dramatically over recent decades. A government survey shows that “according to the 2008 Cambodian census, only 30% of residents of Phnom Penh were born there.”[4] And the numbers have been steadily rising. Generally, migration is caused by conflict and natural disasters but the phenomenon is also driven by land degradation, desertification, climate change and inappropriate farming techniques according to FAO, “undermining farmers’ productivity and resilience.”[5]

Srer Khmer’s WLAS initiative is a way to adapt to the phenomenon of such large-scale migration and ensure that sufficient food is produced both for the security of the poor smallholders and the nation as a whole. Since it is primarily the young and the men who migrate to towns and cities, women are left to cope with feeding their families. SRI, being more efficient and physically less demanding than conventional rice growing, meets women’s needs and allows them also to benefit economically. “About 90% of the team members are women,” says Chhun, “and they have structured their groups into various committees and elected leaders, deputy leaders, promoters and so on.”

Ouk Norng is the team leader here in Sarieng village and once she finishes another business call to a local landowner, she confirms how beneficial the WLAS team and the adoption of SRI have been for her family: “Once I started with SRI, I had enough to eat and a surplus to sell. My family is now better off. Before, I could scarcely afford a bicycle. Now I have a motorbike.” But she also says that the women in the team are more confident and have gained knowledge. They “dare” to discuss various issues they would not have talked about before. “We communicate with people from outside the commune,” she says. “For example, when I promote our services, I dare to contact the commune chief and speak with him. There have been a lot of changes for our team members.”

It is certainly true that the women here in Pursat province have been “economically empowered”. But something more is evolving here thanks to these labour teams, something less tangible but just as important. “SRI really is a tool for empowerment,” says Kaneka Keo, Oxfam’s Regional Policy Advisor, “In Cambodia, rural women tend to have a low self-regard but they seem willing to adopt the new technique, give it a go. And when it works, it’s like ‘wow!! I can really do this!’. It really does add confidence.” And hopefully this improved economic situation and a firm sense of self-worth, will prove to be a springboard for these women to pursue greater decision-making and even political roles.

[1] Source: IRRI http://ricestat.irri.org:8080/wrsv3/entrypoint.htm
[2] The system of rice intensification and its impacts on women: Reducing pain, discomfort, and labor in rice farming while enhancing households’ food security, Olivia Vent , Sabarmatee and Norman Uphoff, Women in Agriculture Worldwide: Key issues and practical approaches, Edited by Amber J. Fletcher, Wendee Kubik, 2017 – Routledge
[3] Migration, Agriculture and Rural Development, FAO, 2016 – http://www.fao.org/3/a-i6064e.pdf
[4] Cambodia Rural Urban Migration Project 2011 (CRUMP), Ministry of Planning – Royal Government of Cambodia, https://nada-nis.gov.kh/index.php/catalog/9/related_materials
[5] Migration, Agriculture and Rural Development, FAO, 2016 – http://www.fao.org/3/a-i6064e.pdf

More information
Srer Khmer is a Cambodian NGO working in Pursat Province in collaboration with Oxfam Cambodia
The project Ong Ol and Ouk Norng are involved with is funded through Oxfam in Cambodia