A joint project by Wageningen University and Research (the Netherlands) and Brawijaya University (Indonesia) has resulted in cultivation methods which outperform all other forms of rice production, including both organic and conventional production systems. Details of the complex rice system have just been published in Scientific Reports and the authors are now working to have this integrated method included as a lighthouse farming system.
Combining rice plants with the nitrogen-fixing aquatic plant Azolla, fish, ducks and border crops within coherent man-managed ecosystems, the system was found to provide yields that were both higher and more stable over three cropping cycles that saw both droughts and excessive rainfall, suggesting resilience in the face of climate change. The study showed that the complex rice system enables Indonesian rice farmers to consistently feed over 80 people per hectare in a variety of environments, compared to a maximum of 60 people per hectare for comparable traditional cultivation.
Complex symbiotic system
The main author of the study, Uma Khumairoh, explains how this form of rice production works. “We combined the best elements of the System of Rice Intensification with insights from organic rice production. The Azolla provides nitrogen for the rice, the fish and the ducks take care of weed and pest control below and above the water surface, and the border plants provide both edible crops and habitat for additional natural enemies. You could see this as a complex symbiotic system where these species support each other while performing tasks normally carried out by farmers. This saves on labour just as this is becoming more expensive, while also reducing the use of agrichemicals, including pesticides.”
“The implications of this research extend beyond rice as a crop: it helps the discussion of sustainable food security rise above the classical dichotomy between conventional and organic farming,” comments Dr Ernst van den Ende, director of WUR’s Plant Sciences Group. “It is an early example of how a thorough understanding of natural processes can lead to managed synergies, instead of conflict, between farming and nature. The research should inspire other scientists and farmers to search for similar combined effects and managed ecosystems for different crops, climates and cultures.”
Lowering the threshold
The study went beyond simple agronomic trials: in a forthcoming publication, the authors will explain how the method should be adapted to local needs and conditions to ensure that it can spread as broadly as possible. “We modified the well-known Farmer Field School approach of dissemination to be more congruous with local culture and traditions,” remarks Dr Suprayogo of Brawijaya University. “This allowed us to customise our Complex Rice System to suit different soil types, altitudes and farming practices. This flexibility has lowered the threshold for farmers to adopt these new practices.”
A lighthouse farming system
The authors of the paper are currently working to include the complex rice system as a so-called ‘lighthouse farming system’. The International Network of Lighthouse Farms, coordinated by WUR’s Farming Systems Ecology Group, was set up to showcase exemplary sustainable production systems in response to tomorrow’s challenges. Key goals are ensuring food security, maximising resource use efficiency, improving stability and resilience, minimising environmental impact and contributing to social justice. The methods deployed are relevant to several interlocking conditions, including soils, climates, cultures and local conditions, and the ideal solution for any given set of circumstances is a mosaic of optimised systems.