CAMBRIDGE, MASS |
A new study points to the risk that China and India will be facing severe water shortages due to a perfect storm of economic growth, climate change, and demands of fast growing populations by mid century.
Within 35 years, the countries where roughly half the world’s population lives may be facing what scientists are calling a “high risk of severe water stress”. That translates into billions of people having access to a lot less water than they do today, according to a new study from MIT.
“There is about a one in three chance that if we take no action to mitigate climate or to do anything to curtail any of the factors that go into this water stress metric, there is a one in three chance that you will reach this unsustainable situation by the middle of the century,” said Adam Schlosser, a senior research scientist who co-authored the paper published in the journal PLOS ONE.
“It’s very important to show that all things being equal, all things not changing, if we continue with what we are doing now we are running along a very dangerous pathway,” he added.
The scientists simulated hundreds of scenarios looking into the future and found that on average, the water basins that feed economic growth in China and India will have less water than they do today. At the same time, they say pressure on water resources will continue to grow as populations increase, creating an unsustainable scenario where supply loses out to demand.
“We are looking at a region where nations are really at a very rapid developing stage or they are at the precipice of a very rapid development stage and so you really can’t ignore the growth effect, you just can’t, particularly when it comes to resources,” said Schlosser.
But overshadowing everything else, they say, is climate change. While some models show that the effects of climate change could potentially benefit water resources in Asia, the majority point in the opposite direction.
Schlosser and his colleagues believe it will only exacerbate an already gloomy outlook for the future.
Date: February 12, 2016
Source: University of British Columbia
Summary: New research shows that more than 5.5 million people die prematurely every year due to household and outdoor air pollution. More than half of deaths occur in two of the world’s fastest growing economies, China and India.
New research shows that more than 5.5 million people die prematurely every year due to household and outdoor air pollution. More than half of deaths occur in two of the world’s fastest growing economies, China and India.
Power plants, industrial manufacturing, vehicle exhaust and burning coal and wood all release small particles into the air that are dangerous to a person’s health. New research, presented today at the 2016 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), found that despite efforts to limit future emissions, the number of premature deaths linked to air pollution will climb over the next two decades unless more aggressive targets are set.
“Air pollution is the fourth highest risk factor for death globally and by far the leading environmental risk factor for disease,” said Michael Brauer, a professor at the University of British Columbia’s School of Population and Public Health in Vancouver, Canada. “Reducing air pollution is an incredibly efficient way to improve the health of a population.”
For the AAAS meeting, researchers from Canada, the United States, China and India assembled estimates of air pollution levels in China and India and calculated the impact on health.
Their analysis shows that the two countries account for 55 per cent of the deaths caused by air pollution worldwide. About 1.6 million people died of air pollution in China and 1.4 million died in India in 2013.
In China, burning coal is the biggest contributor to poor air quality. Qiao Ma, a PhD student at the School of Environment, Tsinghua University in Beijing, China, found that outdoor air pollution from coal alone caused an estimated 366,000 deaths in China in 2013.
Ma also calculated the expected number of premature deaths in China in the future if the country meets its current targets to restrict coal combustion and emissions through a combination of energy policies and pollution controls. She found that air pollution will cause anywhere from 990,000 to 1.3 million premature deaths in 2030 unless even more ambitious targets are introduced.
“Our study highlights the urgent need for even more aggressive strategies to reduce emissions from coal and from other sectors,” said Ma.
In India, a major contributor to poor air quality is the practice of burning wood, dung and similar sources of biomass for cooking and heating. Millions of families, among the poorest in India, are regularly exposed to high levels of particulate matter in their own homes.
“India needs a three-pronged mitigation approach to address industrial coal burning, open burning for agriculture, and household air pollution sources,” said Chandra Venkataraman, professor of Chemical Engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, in Mumbai, India.
In the last 50 years, North America, Western Europe and Japan have made massive strides to combat pollution by using cleaner fuels, more efficient vehicles, limiting coal burning and putting restrictions on electric power plants and factories.
“Having been in charge of designing and implementing strategies to improve air in the United States, I know how difficult it is. Developing countries have a tremendous task in front of them,” said Dan Greenbaum, president of Health Effects Institute, a non-profit organization based in Boston that sponsors targeted efforts to analyze the health burden from different air pollution sources. “This research helps guide the way by identifying the actions which can best improve public health.”
The research is an extension of the Global Burden of Disease study, an international collaboration led by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington that systematically measured health and its risk factors, including air pollution levels, for 188 countries between 1990 and 2013. The air pollution research is led by researchers at the University of British Columbia and the Health Effects Institute.
Additional facts about air pollution:
- World Health Organization (WHO) air quality guidelines set daily particulate matter at 25 micrograms per cubic metre.
- At this time of year, Beijing and New Delhi will see daily levels at or above 300 micrograms per cubic meter metre; 1,200 per cent higher than WHO guidelines.
- While air pollution has decreased in most high-income countries in the past 20 years, global levels are up largely because of South Asia, Southeast Asia, and China. More than 85 per cent of the world’s population now lives in areas where the World Health Organization Air Quality Guideline is exceeded.
- The researchers say that strict control of particulate matter is critical because of changing demographics. Researchers predict that if air pollution levels remain constant, the number of deaths will increase because the population is aging and older people are more susceptible to illnesses caused by poor air quality.
- According to the Global Burden of Disease study, air pollution causes more deaths than other risk factors like malnutrition, obesity, alcohol and drug abuse, and unsafe sex. It is the fourth greatest risk behind high blood pressure, dietary risks and smoking.
- Cardiovascular disease accounts for the majority of deaths from air pollution with additional impacts from lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and respiratory infections.
June 10, 2015
The social sciences and humanities will be critical in helping us understand what the sciences will become in the future
Common sense has defeated the social sciences and humanities in India. As the rush for college seats begin, parents worry if there are any viable options outside of medicine, engineering, management or studying abroad. What good would a B.A. in history or sociology do other than a roll-of-the-dice chance at the civil services? As a historian, I have often faced blunt questions: what can a job prospect possibly be if you spend three/four years learning the causes of Mughal decline or the Permanent Settlement of 1793? This ably describes why most people see the social sciences, with the exception of economics, as a losing proposition. But has the tide begun to turn?
One of the most significant bursts of funding in the social sciences and the humanities occurred during the Cold War years. The United States, keen as it was then to establish spheres of influence, invested heavily to learn about how societies understood themselves and which ideology appealed to what individual. The money ran into hundreds of millions of dollars with the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York pulling funds from deep pockets. The Social Science Research Council and the American Council of Learned Societies were other key players who helped sponsor innumerable workshops, conferences and academic seminars. These efforts resulted not only in a vast number of publications, but helped develop many enduring concepts which arguably continue to explain the world we live in. Scores of scholars, research communities and university departments, in being caught up in strategic concerns, ended up harnessing the social sciences and humanities to understand how nations and societies dealt with authority, ideologies, politics and power. Hardly the ‘soft sciences’!
With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, funding for the Area Studies expectedly dried up. On the other hand, academic explorations under the rubrics of nation-making, democracy, globalisation and multiculturalism could hardly wield the previous heft.
In a study published in Research Trends (2013), Gali Halevi and Judit Bar-Ilanit point out that globally the financing for humanities sharply fell between 2009 and 2012. In part, while the 2008 financial crisis could be blamed for the sudden yanking of the proverbial rug, the loss in the lustre of the social sciences had already begun by the mid-1990s following the steady commercialisation of education. Unsurprisingly, student debt and education loans fell harder on those in the social sciences, arts and humanities than they did on those pursuing vocational skills such as engineering. At heart, however, this big turn against the ‘soft sciences’ was what Bill Reading described, in his classic The University in Ruins (1996), as the sustained attempt to transform the university from previously serving as an “ideological arm of the nation-state” to instead now being redesigned as a “consumer oriented corporation”. By morphing the citizen-student into a consumer-student (weighed in by debt), the actual rout of the social sciences was announced.
It is amidst the aftershocks of this change in the meaning of education that we should make sense of Ella Delany’s startling report in The New York Times (December, 2013) in which she catalogues a growing disquiet against the humanities and social sciences. In 2012, a task force convened by Governor Rick Scott of Florida recommended that students majoring in liberal arts and social science subjects be made to pay higher tuition fees as they were in “nonstrategic disciplines”. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott in 2013 “reprioritised” 103 million Australian dollars from research in the humanities into medical research. In Britain, Robin Jackson, chief executive of the British Academy for the humanities and social sciences, in 2011 announced that direct government funding for humanities had been withdrawn and was to be replaced by tuition fees “backed up by government loans”.
Is this total defeat? Ironically, just as the social sciences and the humanities are being written off in many countries, there have emerged vigorous calls for resituating its importance. Notably, climate change research and global environmental change programmes the world over are stridently advocating for what they term as the urgent need for “integrated analyses”. It is imperative, they argue, that the natural sciences be drawn into productive dialogues with the social sciences in order to explore critical themes such as global sustainability and green development.
One of the most significant international science initiatives in recent times called the Future Earth has, in fact, in their ‘Strategic Research Agenda’ (2014) urged for initiating a new generation in interdisciplinary and integrated research which can grapple with the realities of a warming planet. The initiative, however, is not entirely novel. For decades now, interdisciplinary efforts such as science studies, environmental history and full-fledged post graduate programmes under the rubric of science-technology-environment-medicine (STEM) have successfully broken down the hard divides between the natural sciences, social sciences and the humanities. These interdisciplinary initiatives have also compellingly revealed that the natural sciences are ideologically driven and are often oriented by political practice. In effect, the social sciences and humanities will be critical to help us understand what the sciences will become in the future. Significantly, given that an entirely new script for economic behaviour is being drafted in the context of climate change, these conversations have acquired pressing strategic consequences for the developing world.
The Indian scenario
The university system in India is, unfortunately, ill-prepared to take up these challenges. In part, it has put all its research and teaching eggs on the vice-chancellor system for administering higher education. The vice-chancellorship, as an organisational logic, is an ailing legacy and remains a bad marriage between the Mughal Jagirdari system and the rigidity of the British colonial bureaucracy. The higher you go up the administrative ladder, there is less transparency, accountability and intellectual oxygen.
There is an urgent need to initiate a generational change in our university leadership, with fresh blood and new ideas brought in with rigorous metrics to judge the performance and contributions at the very top of the administrative chain. If the social sciences and the humanities in India are to be cutting edge by providing knowledge for the future, then the old has to be entirely dismantled.
(Rohan D’Souza is associate professor at the Graduate School of Asian and African Area Studies, Kyoto University.)
The natural sciences should be drawn into dialogues with the social sciences to explore critical themes such as global sustainability
CreditKuni Takahashi for The New York Times
DHANBAD, India — Decades of strip mining have left this town in the heart of India’s coal fields a fiery moonscape, with mountains of black slag, sulfurous air and sickened residents.
But rather than reclaim these hills or rethink their exploitation, the government is digging deeper in a coal rush that could push the world into irreversible climate change and make India’s cities, already among the world’s most polluted, even more unlivable, scientists say.
“If India goes deeper and deeper into coal, we’re all doomed,” said Veerabhadran Ramanathan, director of the Center for Atmospheric Sciences at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and one of the world’s top climate scientists. “And no place will suffer more than India.”
India’s coal mining plans may represent the biggest obstacle to a global climate pact to be negotiated at a conference in Paris next year. While the United States and China announced a landmark agreement that includes new targets for carbon emissions, and Europe has pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent, India, the world’s third-largest emitter, has shown no appetite for such a pledge.
“India’s development imperatives cannot be sacrificed at the altar of potential climate changes many years in the future,” India’s power minister, Piyush Goyal, said at a recent conference in New Delhi in response to a question. “The West will have to recognize we have the needs of the poor.”
Mr. Goyal has promised to double India’s use of domestic coal from 565 million tons last year to more than a billion tons by 2019, and he is trying to sell coal-mining licenses as swiftly as possible after years of delay. The government has signaled that it may denationalize commercial coal mining to accelerate extraction.
“India is the biggest challenge in global climate negotiations, not China,” said Durwood Zaelke, president of the Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development.
But India’s coal rush could push the world past the brink of irreversible climate change, with India among the worst affected, scientists say.
Indian cities are already the world’s most polluted, with Delhi’s air almost three times more toxic than Beijing’s by one crucial measure. An estimated 37 million Indians could be displaced by rising seas by 2050, far more than in any other country. India’s megacities are among the world’s hottest, with springtime temperatures in Delhi reaching 120 degrees. Traffic, which will only increase with new mining activity, is already the world’s most deadly. And half of Indians are farmers who rely on water from melting Himalayan glaciers and an increasingly fitful monsoons.
India’s coal is mostly of poor quality with a high ash content that makes it roughly twice as polluting as coal from the West. And while China gets 90 percent of its coal from underground mines, 90 percent of India’s coal is from strip mines, which are far more environmentally costly. In a country three times more densely populated than China, India’s mines and power plants directly affect millions of residents. Mercury poisoning has cursed generations of villagers in places like Bagesati, in Uttar Pradesh, with contorted bodies, decaying teeth and mental disorders.
The city of Dhanbad resembles a postapocalyptic movie set, with villages surrounded by barren slag heaps half-obscured by acrid smoke spewing from a century-old fire slowly burning through buried coal seams. Mining and fire cause subsidence that swallows homes, with inhabitants’ bodies sometimes never found.
Suffering widespread respiratory and skin disorders, residents accuse the government of allowing fires to burn and allowing pollution to poison them as a way of pushing people off land needed for India’s coal rush.
“The government wants more coal, but they are throwing their own people away to get it,” said Ashok Agarwal of the Save Jharia Coal Field Committee, a citizens’ group.
T. K. Lahiry, chairman of Bharat Coking Coal, a government-owned company that controls much of the Jharia region, denied neglecting fires and pollution but readily agreed that tens of thousands of residents must be displaced for India to realize its coal needs. Evictions are done too slowly, he said.
“We need to shift these people to corporate villages far from the coal fields,” Mr. Lahiry said during an interview in his large office.
With land scarce, Bharat Coking is digging deeper at mines it already controls. On a tour of one huge strip mine, officials said they had recently purchased two mammoth Russian mining shovels to more than triple annual production to 10 million tons. The shovels are clawing coal from a 420-foot-deep pit, with huge trucks piling slag in flat-topped mountains. The deeper the mine goes, the more polluting the coal produced.
India has the world’s fifth-largest reserves of coal but little domestic oil or natural gas production. The country went on a coal-fired power plant building spree over the last five years, increasing capacity by 73 percent. But coal mining grew just 6 percent, leading to expensive coal imports, idle plants and widespread blackouts. Nearly 300 million Indians do not have access to electricity, and millions more get it only sporadically.
“India is going to use coal because that’s what it has,” said Chandra Bhushan, deputy director of the Delhi-based Center for Science and Environment, a prominent environmental group. “Its strategy is ‘all of the above,’ just like in the U.S.”
Each Indian consumes on average 7 percent of the energy used by an American, and Indian officials dismiss critics from wealthy countries.
“I don’t want to use the word ‘pontificate’ when talking about these people, but it would be reasonable to expect more fairness in the discussion and a recognition of India’s need to reach the development of the West,” Mr. Goyal said with a tight smile.
One reason for the widespread domestic support for India’s coal rush is the lack of awareness of just how bad the air has already become, scientists say. Smog levels that would lead to highway shutdowns and near-panic in Beijing go largely unnoticed in Delhi. Pediatric respiratory clinics are overrun, but parents largely shrug when asked about the cause of their children’s suffering. Face masks and air purifiers, ubiquitous among China’s elite, are rare here. And there are signs Indian air is rapidly worsening.
“People need to wake up to just how awful the air already is,” said Rajendra K. Pachauri, chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world’s leading intergovernmental organization for the assessment of climate change.
India’s great hope to save both itself and the world from possible environmental dystopia can be found in the scrub grass outside the village of Neemuch, in India’s western state of Madhya Pradesh. Welspun Energy has constructed what for the moment is Asia’s largest solar plant, a $148 million silent farm of photovoltaic panels on 800 acres of barren soil.
Welspun harvests some of the most focused solar radiation in the world. Dust is so intense that workers must wash each panel every two weeks.
Under Mr. Modi, India is expected to soon underwrite a vast solar building program, and Welspun alone has plans to produce within two years more than 10 times the renewable energy it gets from its facility in Neemuch.
The benefits of solar and the environmental costs of coal are so profound that India has no other choice but to rely more on renewables, said Dr. Pachauri.
“India cannot go down China’s pathway, because the consequences for the public welfare are too horrendous,” he said.
PALITANA — Jainism is one of the oldest religions in the world and preaches a path of non-violence towards all living beings. In India, about 5 million people practice it.
“Everyone in this world — whether animal or human being or a very small creature — has all been given the right to live by God,” says Virat Sagar Maharaj, a Jain monk. “So who are we to take away that right from them? This has been written in the holy books of every religion, particularly in Jainism.”
The mountainous town of Palitana in the state of Gujarat is home to one of Jain’s holiest sites, and many residents don’t want any kind of killing happening here. Recently, 200 Jain monks began a hunger strike, threatening to fast until death until the town was declared an entirely vegetarian zone.
The Jain monks on hunger strike — Photo: Shuriah Niazi
“Meat has always been easily available in this city, but it’s against the teaching of our religion,” says Sadhar Sagar, a Jain believer. “We always wanted a complete ban on non-vegetarian food in this holy site.”
They have gotten their wish. On Aug. 14, the Gujarat government declared Palitana a “meat-free zone.” They instituted a complete ban on the sale of meat and eggs and have also outlawed the slaughter of animals within the town’s limits.
It’s a victory for vegetarians, but bad for business for others. Fishermen such as Nishit Mehru have had to stop working entirely. “We have been stopped from selling anything in Palitana,” he says. “They shouldn’t have taken this one-sided decision. How will we survive if we are not allowed to sell fish? The government should not make decisions under pressure.”
On behalf of other fishermen, Valjibhai Mithapura took the issue to the state’s high court, which has called on the state government to explain the ban put in place locally. It will then make a decision about whether this regulation is legal. Gujarat is ruled by the Hindu nationalist BJP party, whose leader is Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The population of Palitana is 65,000 and about 25% of them are Muslim. Local Muslim religious scholar Syed Jehangir Miyan disagrees with the ban. “There are so many people living in this city, and the majority of them are non-vegetarian,” he says. “Stopping them from eating a non-vegetarian diet is a violation of their rights. We have been living in this city for decades. It is wrong to suddenly put a ban on the whole city now.”
Date: September 24, 2014
Source: Rice University
Summary: Indian scientists are significantly more religious than United Kingdom scientists, according to the first cross-national study of religion and spirituality among scientists.
Indian scientists are significantly more religious than United Kingdom scientists, according to the first cross-national study of religion and spirituality among scientists.
The U.K. and India results from Religion Among Scientists in International Context (RASIC) study were presented at the Policies and Perspectives: Implications From the Religion Among Scientists in International Context Study conference held today in London. Rice’s Religion and Public Life Program and Baker Institute for Public Policy sponsored the conference. The U.K. results were also presented at the Uses and Abuses of Biology conference Sept. 22 at Cambridge University’s Faraday Institute in Cambridge, England.
The surveys and in-depth interviews with scientists revealed that while 65 percent of U.K. scientists identify as nonreligious, only 6 percent of Indian scientists identify as nonreligious. In addition, while only 12 percent of scientists in the U.K. attend religious services on a regular basis — once a month or more — 32 percent of scientists in India do.
Elaine Howard Ecklund, Rice’s Autrey Professor of Sociology and the study’s principal investigator, said the U.K. and India data are being released simultaneously because of the history between the U.K. and India. She noted that their differences are quite interesting to compare.
“India and the U.K. are at the same time deeply intertwined historically while deeply different religiously,” Ecklund said. “There is a vastly different character of religion among scientists in the U.K. than in India — potentially overturning the view that scientists are universal carriers of secularization.”
Despite the number of U.K. scientists identifying themselves as nonreligious, 49 percent of U.K. survey respondents acknowledged that there are basic truths in many religions. In addition, 11 percent of U.K. survey respondents said they do believe in God without any doubt, and another 8 percent said they believe in a higher power of some kind.
Ecklund noted that although the U.K. is known for its secularism, scientists in particular are significantly more likely to identify as not belonging to a religion than members of the general population.
“According to available data, only 50 percent of the general U.K. population responded that they did not belong to a religion, compared with 65 percent of U.K. scientists in the survey,” Ecklund said. “In addition, 47 percent of the U.K. population report never attending religious services compared with 68 percent of scientists.”
According to the India survey, 73 percent of scientists responded that there are basic truths in many religions, 27 percent said they believe in God and 38 percent expressed belief in a higher power of some kind. However, while only 4 percent of the general Indian population said they never attend religious services, 19 percent of Indian scientists said they never attend.
“Despite the high level of religiosity evident among Indian scientists when it comes to religious affiliation, we can see here that when we look at religious practices, Indian scientists are significantly more likely than the Indian general population to never participate in a religious service or ritual, even at home,” Ecklund said.
Although there appear to be striking differences in the religious views of U.K. and Indian scientists, less than half of both groups (38 percent of U.K. scientists and 18 percent of Indian scientists) perceived conflict between religion and science.
“When we interviewed Indian scientists in their offices and laboratories, many quickly made it clear that there is no reason for religion and science to be in conflict; for some Indian scientists, religious beliefs actually lead to a deeper sense of doing justice through their work as scientists,” Ecklund said. “And even many U.K. scientists who are themselves not personally religious still do not think there needs to be a conflict between religion and science.”
The U.K. survey included 1,581 scientists, representing a 50 percent response rate. The India survey included 1,763 scientists from 159 universities and/or research institutions. Both surveys also utilized population data from the World Values Survey to make comparisons with the general public. In addition, the researchers conducted nearly 200 in-depth interviews with U.K. and Indian scientists, many of these in person.
The complete study will include a survey of 22,000 biologists and physicists at different points in their careers at top universities and research institutes in the U.S., U.K., Turkey, Italy, France, India, Hong Kong and Taiwan — nations that have very different approaches to the relationship between religious and state institutions, different levels of religiosity and different levels of scientific infrastructure. Respondents were randomly selected from a sampling frame of nearly 50,000 scientists and compiled by undergraduate and graduate students at Rice University through an innovative sampling process. The study will also include qualitative interviews with 700 scientists. The entire RASIC study will be completed by the end of 2015.
In a village in India’s poorest state, Bihar, farmers are growing world record amounts of rice – with no GM, and no herbicide. Is this one solution to world food shortages?
John Vidal in Bihar, India
The Observer, Saturday 16 February 2013 21.00 GMT
Sumant Kumar photographed in Darveshpura, Bihar, India. Photograph: Chiara Goia for Observer Food Monthly
Sumant Kumar was overjoyed when he harvested his rice last year. There had been good rains in his village of Darveshpura in north-eastIndia and he knew he could improve on the four or five tonnes per hectare that he usually managed. But every stalk he cut on his paddy field near the bank of the Sakri river seemed to weigh heavier than usual, every grain of rice was bigger and when his crop was weighed on the old village scales, even Kumar was shocked.
This was not six or even 10 or 20 tonnes. Kumar, a shy young farmer in Nalanda district of India’s poorest state Bihar, had – using only farmyard manure and without any herbicides – grown an astonishing 22.4 tonnes of rice on one hectare of land. This was a world record and with rice the staple food of more than half the world’s population of seven billion, big news.
It beat not just the 19.4 tonnes achieved by the “father of rice”, the Chinese agricultural scientist Yuan Longping, but the World Bank-funded scientists at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, and anything achieved by the biggest European and American seed and GM companies. And it was not just Sumant Kumar. Krishna, Nitish, Sanjay and Bijay, his friends and rivals in Darveshpura, all recorded over 17 tonnes, and many others in the villages around claimed to have more than doubled their usual yields.
The villagers, at the mercy of erratic weather and used to going without food in bad years, celebrated. But the Bihar state agricultural universities didn’t believe them at first, while India’s leading rice scientists muttered about freak results. The Nalanda farmers were accused of cheating. Only when the state’s head of agriculture, a rice farmer himself, came to the village with his own men and personally verified Sumant’s crop, was the record confirmed.
A tool used to harvest rice. Photograph: Chiara Goia
The rhythm of Nalanda village life was shattered. Here bullocks still pull ploughs as they have always done, their dung is still dried on the walls of houses and used to cook food. Electricity has still not reached most people. Sumant became a local hero, mentioned in the Indian parliament and asked to attend conferences. The state’s chief minister came to Darveshpura to congratulate him, and the village was rewarded with electric power, a bank and a new concrete bridge.
That might have been the end of the story had Sumant’s friend Nitish not smashed the world record for growing potatoes six months later. Shortly after Ravindra Kumar, a small farmer from a nearby Bihari village, broke the Indian record for growing wheat. Darveshpura became known as India’s “miracle village”, Nalanda became famous and teams of scientists, development groups, farmers, civil servants and politicians all descended to discover its secret.
When I meet the young farmers, all in their early 30s, they still seem slightly dazed by their fame. They’ve become unlikely heroes in a state where nearly half the families live below the Indian poverty line and 93% of the 100 million population depend on growing rice and potatoes. Nitish Kumar speaks quietly of his success and says he is determined to improve on the record. “In previous years, farming has not been very profitable,” he says. “Now I realise that it can be. My whole life has changed. I can send my children to school and spend more on health. My income has increased a lot.”
What happened in Darveshpura has divided scientists and is exciting governments and development experts. Tests on the soil show it is particularly rich in silicon but the reason for the “super yields” is entirely down to a method of growing crops called System of Rice (or root) Intensification (SRI). It has dramatically increased yields with wheat, potatoes, sugar cane, yams, tomatoes, garlic, aubergine and many other crops and is being hailed as one of the most significant developments of the past 50 years for the world’s 500 million small-scale farmers and the two billion people who depend on them.
People work on a rice field in Bihar. Photograph: Chiara Goia
Instead of planting three-week-old rice seedlings in clumps of three or four in waterlogged fields, as rice farmers around the world traditionally do, the Darveshpura farmers carefully nurture only half as many seeds, and then transplant the young plants into fields, one by one, when much younger. Additionally, they space them at 25cm intervals in a grid pattern, keep the soil much drier and carefully weed around the plants to allow air to their roots. The premise that “less is more” was taught by Rajiv Kumar, a young Bihar state government extension worker who had been trained in turn by Anil Verma of a small Indian NGO called Pran (Preservation and
Proliferation of Rural Resources and Nature), which has introduced the SRI method to hundreds of villages in the past three years.
While the “green revolution” that averted Indian famine in the 1970s relied on improved crop varieties, expensive pesticides and chemical fertilisers, SRI appears to offer a long-term, sustainable future for no extra cost. With more than one in seven of the global population going hungry and demand for rice expected to outstrip supply within 20 years, it appears to offer real hope. Even a 30% increase in the yields of the world’s small farmers would go a long way to alleviating poverty.
“Farmers use less seeds, less water and less chemicals but they get more without having to invest more. This is revolutionary,” said Dr Surendra Chaurassa from Bihar’s agriculture ministry. “I did not believe it to start with, but now I think it can potentially change the way everyone farms. I would want every state to promote it. If we get 30-40% increase in yields, that is more than enough to recommend it.”
The results in Bihar have exceeded Chaurassa’s hopes. Sudama Mahto, an agriculture officer in Nalanda, says a small investment in training a few hundred people to teach SRI methods has resulted in a 45% increase in the region’s yields. Veerapandi Arumugam, the former agriculture minister of Tamil Nadu state, hailed the system as “revolutionising” farming.
SRI’s origins go back to the 1980s in Madagascar where Henri de Laulanie, a French Jesuit priest and agronomist, observed how villagers grew rice in the uplands. He developed the method but it was an American, professor Norman Uphoff, director of the International Institute for Food, Agriculture and Development at Cornell University, who was largely responsible for spreading the word about De Laulanie’s work.
Given $15m by an anonymous billionaire to research sustainable development, Uphoff went to Madagascar in 1983 and saw the success of SRI for himself: farmers whose previous yields averaged two tonnes per hectare were harvesting eight tonnes. In 1997 he started to actively promote SRI in Asia, where more than 600 million people are malnourished.
“It is a set of ideas, the absolute opposite to the first green revolution [of the 60s] which said that you had to change the genes and the soil nutrients to improve yields. That came at a tremendous ecological cost,” says Uphoff. “Agriculture in the 21st century must be practised differently. Land and water resources are becoming scarcer, of poorer quality, or less reliable. Climatic conditions are in many places more adverse. SRI offers millions of disadvantaged households far better opportunities. Nobody is benefiting from this except the farmers; there are no patents, royalties or licensing fees.”
Rice seeds. Photograph: Chiara Goia
For 40 years now, says Uphoff, science has been obsessed with improving seeds and using artificial fertilisers: “It’s been genes, genes, genes. There has never been talk of managing crops. Corporations say ‘we will breed you a better plant’ and breeders work hard to get 5-10% increase in yields. We have tried to make agriculture an industrial enterprise and have forgotten its biological roots.”
Not everyone agrees. Some scientists complain there is not enough peer-reviewed evidence around SRI and that it is impossible to get such returns. “SRI is a set of management practices and nothing else, many of which have been known for a long time and are best recommended practice,” says Achim Dobermann, deputy director for research at the International Rice Research Institute. “Scientifically speaking I don’t believe there is any miracle. When people independently have evaluated SRI principles then the result has usually been quite different from what has been reported on farm evaluations conducted by NGOs and others who are promoting it. Most scientists have had difficulty replicating the observations.”
Dominic Glover, a British researcher working with Wageningen University in the Netherlands, has spent years analysing the introduction of GM crops in developing countries. He is now following how SRI is being adopted in India and believes there has been a “turf war”.
“There are experts in their fields defending their knowledge,” he says. “But in many areas, growers have tried SRI methods and abandoned them. People are unwilling to investigate this. SRI is good for small farmers who rely on their own families for labour, but not necessarily for larger operations. Rather than any magical theory, it is good husbandry, skill and attention which results in the super yields. Clearly in certain circumstances, it is an efficient resource for farmers. But it is labour intensive and nobody has come up with the technology to transplant single seedlings yet.”
But some larger farmers in Bihar say it is not labour intensive and can actually reduce time spent in fields. “When a farmer does SRI the first time, yes it is more labour intensive,” says Santosh Kumar, who grows 15 hectares of rice and vegetables in Nalanda. “Then it gets easier and new innovations are taking place now.”
In its early days, SRI was dismissed or vilified by donors and scientists but in the past few years it has gained credibility. Uphoff estimates there are now 4-5 million farmers using SRI worldwide, with governments in China, India, Indonesia, Cambodia, Sri Lanka and Vietnam promoting it.
Sumant, Nitish and as many as 100,000 other SRI farmers in Bihar are now preparing their next rice crop. It’s back-breaking work transplanting the young rice shoots from the nursery beds to the paddy fields but buoyed by recognition and results, their confidence and optimism in the future is sky high.
Last month Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz visited Nalanda district and recognised the potential of this kind of organic farming, telling the villagers they were “better than scientists”. “It was amazing to see their success in organic farming,” said Stiglitz, who called for more research. “Agriculture scientists from across the world should visit and learn and be inspired by them.”
A man winnows rice in Satgharwa village. Photograph: Chiara Goia
Bihar, from being India’s poorest state, is now at the centre of what is being called a “new green grassroots revolution” with farming villages, research groups and NGOs all beginning to experiment with different crops using SRI. The state will invest $50m in SRI next year but western governments and foundations are holding back, preferring to invest in hi-tech research. The agronomist Anil Verma does not understand why: “The farmers know SRI works, but help is needed to train them. We know it works differently in different soils but the principles are solid,” he says. “The biggest problem we have is that people want to do it but we do not have enough trainers.
“If any scientist or a company came up with a technology that almost guaranteed a 50% increase in yields at no extra cost they would get a Nobel prize. But when young Biharian farmers do that they get nothing. I only want to see the poor farmers have enough to eat.”