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New farming method boosts food output for India's rural poor

GAYA, India (Reuters AlertNet) - A new farming technique is dramatically boosting wheat yields across parts of impoverished Bihar and, although still in its infancy, could be piloted in many other countries that are vulnerable to food shortages, experts say.

Manna Devi from Ghantadih village in Bihar holds up her wheat crops (L) cultivated according to a new farming method and compares with crops cultivated traditionally (R). REUTERS ALERTNET/Nita Bhalla

For decades, Indian farmers who own less than an acre of land or none at all have struggled to survive.

Such farmers account for over a third of India’s more than 1.2 billion people. Not only do many of them suffer discrimination and stigma in traditional communities due to their lower caste, they are also unable to produce enough food to feed their families.

Dependent on tiny portions of land and too poor to afford irrigation systems, many farmers are now also grappling with erratic rainfall, which scientists attribute to climate change as temperatures soar and water sources dry up.

With many producing only a third of the food they need, the farmers are often forced to borrow money, migrate to urban areas or cultivate land for wealthier farmers.

But in Bihar, one of the most underdeveloped states in India, a new way of growing wheat that takes particular care of the root is spreading across farming communities - boosting yields at least three-fold.

“This method of farming focuses on better root growth as the root is the mouth of the plant,” says Debaraj Behera, State Project Manager for Livelihoods for Jeevika, a $73-million Bihar government programme supported by the World Bank.

“If the root is taken care of, it gives support to the tillers, and in the last three years we have seen yields in wheat increasing dramatically.”

LOW-TECH, HIGH YIELD

Jeevika introduced the System of Wheat Intensification or SWI in Bihar’s drought-prone Gaya district in 2007, and 25,000 wheat farmers are piloting the scheme throughout the state.

The system, based on low-tech methods, may be more labour-intensive than traditional techniques, but it requires less seeds, water, pesticide and fertiliser, farmers and experts say.

Seeds must first be nourished by immersion in warm water and then by adding vermicompost which is made using worms, traditional unrefined sugar called jaggery, cow urine and a fungicide and left to germinate.

Seedlings must then be sown according to strict spacing of 8 inches (20.3 cm) apart, with transplanting, watering and harvesting done at specified times.

Weeding and hoeing is also essential to loosen the soil for better aeration for the root - allowing the root to lengthen and reach for more moisture and nutrients from deeper ground.

In Ghantadih village in Gaya district, more than half of the 42 farming households have switched to SWI from traditional practices.

Manna Devi, mother of three, was the first woman to use the technique in Bihar. She says she decided to take a gamble despite jibes from neighbouring farmers who mocked her cultivation methods.

“We were living a hand-to-mouth existence before and we just couldn’t manage to eat, let alone put our children through school,” she says.

“We were only producing about 30 kg of wheat which lasted us four months and we had to take loans, and my husband had also taken a second job as a rickshaw puller in order to make ends meet.”

Devi says she now produces about 80 kg of wheat - enough to feed her family for a year - and hopes to start selling extra crop.

In the nearby village of Nawadhee, villagers using SWI proudly display their plots filled with tall, bold and bulky wheat crops which stand alongside their shrunken and skinny traditionally cultivated counterparts.

“You can see the difference immediately - the number of tillers was on average about four, and now from one of my crops I have counted 75 effective tillers,” says Sudha Devi, who adopted the new technique last year after seeing results in neighbouring villages.

The fact that SWI does not require as much water is a key advantage for farmers in this drought-prone region where groundwater reserves are dwindling and vital monsoons are becoming less regular.

CAUTIOUSLY OPTIMISTIC

The method has already been successfully used to cultivate rice paddies in Madagascar, Mexico and Mali as well as in India’s states of Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Tripura.

Supporters of SWI say it can be used for other crops such as maize, tomatoes, chilli and mustard. As the practice uses soil with high nutrient content, the crops it produces are more resistant to droughts, floods and other irregular climatic conditions, they add.

But agriculturalists are concerned that while the technique may improve yields in the short term, the crops’ high absorption of soil nutrients could render the land ineffective for cultivation in the long term. SWI advocates respond that the soil’s fertility can be boosted by adopting organic manuring and vermicomposting.

World Bank officials say more research is required, adding that they are wary of backing any single technology as the livelihoods of millions of farmers across the world are involved.

“While (SWI) is giving excellent results in the smallholder rain-fed areas of Bihar, a more systematic and scientific evaluation will need to be done before it can be confidently up-scaled across regions and countries,” says Biswajit Sen, the World Bank’s Senior Rural Development Specialist.

“The approach would be to pilot these technologies in other contexts first, now that it is working well in pockets of Bihar... We need to contextualise and localise technologies before adapting them.”

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