Archive for June 17th, 2008

What is SRI — System of Rice Intensification?

June 17, 2008

This NYTimes profile of Norma T Upoff explains:

Rejecting old customs as well as the modern reliance on genetic engineering, Dr. Uphoff, 67, an emeritus professor of government and international agriculture with a trim white beard and a tidy office, advocates a management revolt.

Harvests typically double, he says, if farmers plant early, give seedlings more room to grow and stop flooding fields. That cuts water and seed costs while promoting root and leaf growth.

The method, called the System of Rice Intensification, or S.R.I., emphasizes the quality of individual plants over the quantity. It applies a less-is-more ethic to rice cultivation.

In a decade, it has gone from obscure theory to global trend — and encountered fierce resistance from established rice scientists. Yet a million rice farmers have adopted the system, Dr. Uphoff says. The rural army, he predicts, will swell to 10 million farmers in the next few years, increasing rice harvests, filling empty bellies and saving untold lives.

By the way, the Tamilnadu agriculture minister also gets quoted in the piece:

Dr. Uphoff’s improbable journey involves a Wisconsin dairy farm, a billionaire philanthropist, the jungles of Madagascar, a Jesuit priest, ranks of eager volunteers and, increasingly, the developing world. He lists top S.R.I. users as India, China, Indonesia, Cambodia and Vietnam among 28 countries on three continents.

In Tamil Nadu, a state in southern India, Veerapandi S. Arumugam, the agriculture minister, recently hailed the system as “revolutionizing” paddy farming while spreading to “a staggering” million acres.

And, apparently, internet also has played a crucial role in SRI:

His computers link him to a global network of S.R.I. activists and backers, like Oxfam, the British charity. Dr. Uphoff is S.R.I.’s global advocate, and his Web site ( serves as the main showcase for its principles and successes.

“It couldn’t have happened without the Internet,” he says. Outside his door is a sign, “Alfalfa Room,” with a large arrow pointing down the hall, seemingly to a pre-electronic age.

Though the method does not seem to be without its critics, the piece also gives details of the method:

Dr. Uphoff grew up on a Wisconsin farm milking cows and doing chores. In 1966, he graduated from Princeton with a master’s degree in public affairs and in 1970 from the University of California, Berkeley, with a doctorate in political science.

At Cornell, he threw himself into rural development, irrigation management and credit programs for small farmers in the developing world.

In 1990, a secret philanthropist (eventually revealed to be Charles F. Feeney, a Cornell alumnus who made billions in duty-free shops) gave the university $15 million to start a program on world hunger. Dr. Uphoff was the institute’s director for 15 years.

The directorship took him in late 1993 to Madagascar. Slash-and-burn rice farming was destroying the rain forest, and Dr. Uphoff sought alternatives.

He heard that a French Jesuit priest, Father Henri de Laulanié, had developed a high-yield rice cultivation method on Madagascar that he called the System of Rice Intensification.

Dr. Uphoff was skeptical. Rice farmers there typically harvested two tons per hectare (an area 100 by 100 meters, or 2.47 acres). The group claimed 5 to 15 tons.

“I remember thinking, ‘Do they think they can scam me?’ ” Dr. Uphoff recalled. “I told them, ‘Don’t talk 10 or 15 tons. No one at Cornell will believe it. Let’s shoot for three or four.’ ”

Dr. Uphoff oversaw field trials for three years, and the farmers averaged eight tons per hectare. Impressed, he featured S.R.I. on the cover of his institute’s annual reports for 1996 and 1997.

Dr. Uphoff never met the priest, who died in 1995. But the success prompted him to scrutinize the method and its origins.

One clear advantage was root vigor. The priest, during a drought, had noticed that rice plants and especially roots seemed much stronger. That led to the goal of keeping fields damp but not flooded, which improved soil aeration and root growth.

Moreover, wide spacing let individual plants soak up more sunlight and send out more tillers — the shoots that branch to the side. Plants would send out upwards of 100 tillers. And each tiller, instead of bearing the usual 100 or so grains, would puff up with 200 to 500 grains.

One drawback was weeds. The halt to flooding let invaders take root, and that called for more weeding. A simple solution was a rotating, hand-pushed hoe, which also aided soil aeration and crop production.

But that meant more labor, at least at first. It seemed that as farmers gained skill, and yields rose, the overall system became labor saving compared with usual methods.

Dr. Uphoff knew the no-frills approach went against the culture of modern agribusiness but decided it was too good to ignore. In 1998, he began promoting it beyond Madagascar, traveling the world, “sticking my neck out,” as he put it.

Slowly, it caught on, but visibility brought critics. They dismissed the claims as based on wishful thinking and poor record keeping, and did field trials that showed results similar to conventional methods.

In 2006, three of Dr. Uphoff’s colleagues at Cornell wrote a scathing analysis based on global data. “We find no evidence,” they wrote, “that S.R.I. fundamentally changes the physiological yield potential of rice.”

While less categorical, Dr. Dobermann of the rice research institute called the methods a step backward socially because they increased drudgery in rice farming, especially among poor women.

An interesting piece; take a look!

Making near perfect catalysts with carbon nanotubes!

June 17, 2008

Science blog alerts to a very interesting story on the makings of efficient solar cells using carbon nanotubes and how these compare with the more traditional cells:

Jessika Trancik of the Santa Fe Institute, Scott Calabrese Barton of Michigan State University and James Hone of Columbia University decided to use carbon nanotubes to create a single layer that could perform the functions of both the oxide and platinum layers. They needed it to have three properties: transparency, conductivity, and catalytic activity.

Ordinary carbon nanotubes films are so-so in each of these properties. The obvious ways of improving one, though, sacrifice one of the others. For example, making the film thicker makes it a better catalyst, but then it’s less transparent.

Previous theory had suggested that materials may function better as catalysts when they have tiny defects, providing sites for chemicals to attach. So the researchers tried exposing the carbon nanotubes to ozone, which roughs them up a bit. Very thin films, they found, became dramatically better catalysts, with more than ten-fold improvement.

In fact, the performance gets close to that of platinum. “That’s remarkable,” Trancik says, “because platinum is considered pretty much the best catalyst there is.”

In order to address the trade-off between transparency and conductivity, the researchers tried another trick on a bottom layer of tubes: they created carbon nanotubes that were longer. This improved both conductivity and transparency.

The carbon nanotube films might be used in fuel cells and batteries as well.

“This study is an example of using nanostructuring of materials – changing things like defect density and tube length at very small scales – to shift trade-offs between materials properties and get more performance out of a given material,” Trancik says. “Making inexpensive materials behave in advanced ways is critical for achieving low-carbon emissions and low cost energy technologies.”

An interesting piece; take a look!

A potential biochemistry classic!

June 17, 2008

Coturnix alerts to a new paper in PLOS Biology on some basic issues of biochemistry:

A dozen or so years ago, I drove my Biochemistry prof to tears with questions – she had 200 people in front of her and she tried hard to make Biochem interesting enough not to get us all bored to tears, and she was pretty good at that, as much as it is possible not to make people bored to tears with Biochem. But my questions exasperated her mainly because she could not answer them, because, as I learned later, the field of biochemistry was not able to answer those questions yet at the time: questions about dynamics – how fast is a reaction, how long it takes for a pathway to go from beginning to end, how many individual molecules are synthesized per unit of time?, etc.

Well, the field is starting to catch up with my questions lately – adding the temporal dimension to the understanding of what is going on inside the cell. In today’s issue of PLoS Biology, there is a new article that is trying to address exactly this concern: Dynamics and Design Principles of a Basic Regulatory Architecture Controlling Metabolic Pathways.

Coturnix also points to an editorial synopsis that accompanies the paper, and goes on to say that the paper is a potential classic:

You should also check out the editorial synopsis for the paper, as it places it nicely into the context – exactly the kind of context I was looking for, in vein, back in my Biochem class: The Fourth Dimension of Biochemical Pathways.

… but perhaps in 10 years we’ll look at it and say “it’s a classic!”

Take a look!