Thinking About Crisis: Talking About Solutions
Since 2008, crisis has been constantly among us, and everywhere we go it is being proclaimed by all. Europe, the United States and others are facing continued economic crisis. India is experiencing a water crisis, as states battle politically over access to major waterways. Farmers in India’s central states continue to commit suicide at alarming rates. Global warming threatens us with catastrophic changes in global climate and environment.
There is no doubt that these crises are real, but they stem from a different kind and arguably more important crisis, a crisis of thought. The late Professor of Geography at the City University of New York, Neil Smith, was known for arguing that neoliberalism is “dominant but dead.” What Neil meant by this was that neoliberalism is failing to produce new ideas and innovation, and at the threat of looming disaster its proponents can only offer the same solutions that created our current problems in the first place. In a simple phrase Neil captured what seems to be the truest source of the combined crises facing the globe today and articulated the dire need for new ways of thinking about and solving the issues of our time.
The System of Crop Intensification (SCI) is one example of an innovative idea poised to confront these issues in agriculture. SCI is an agricultural practice based on a set of four principles: nurture the root potential of young healthy plants; give each plant more room to grow by planting smaller numbers; enrich the soil with organic fertilizer and frequent aeration that allows organisms in the soil to thrive; and apply water purposefully but not excessively.
Generally, these principles translate into a set of practices that farmers have found success using. Rice farmers keep soil moist but not submerged in water, plant seedlings while they are young, use hand tools to mix weeds into and aerate the soil. However, these techniques are not the best suited for all conditions. In fact, SCI is not a one size fits all technique. Farmers are free and encouraged to develop practices that are the most effective for implementing SCI locally. This means that SCI practices have transformative potential when activated on a broad scale because these practices allow farmers to organize themselves in ways that best fit their social needs. Furthermore, SCI requires farmers to organize, support each other, and share information, things that corporate agriculture completely fails to do. It is farmer driven and promotes innovation by farmers. As of 2012, SCI including SRI (referring to its origins with rice production) is found in over 50 countries.
Agriculture led by corporate industries promotes worldwide a standard set of fairly rigid farming practices that includes hybrid and genetically modified crops, excessive chemical use, wastage of water, and environmental destruction; these practices have led to the destruction of rural communities worldwide and have proven to be quite costly for many smaller and medium size farmers.
SCI may not be the only method heralded as “innovative”. Scientists, farmers, and investors in Australia recently built a solar-powered greenhouse-based farm in the Australian desert, using the sun to desalinize water for irrigation and control the greenhouse temperature. The creativity and ingenuity of this project is exciting, but it is not a solution capable of addressing the roots of farmers’ troubles, continued dis-empowerment and poverty. Projects like the solar powered farm require investments that are completely out of the reach of small or even medium size farmers who suffer the most from corporate agriculture, and the model is designed for the profit of the few, not for the liberation of the many.
Information about SCI is freely available on the internet, and SCI practitioners have built an online community for knowledge sharing and dissemination. Cornel University’s SRI-Rice program led by Prof. Uphoff (CIIFAD) is the US hub for this global conversation and its reach is growing by the day. There are also hubs in other countries such as the SRI hub in India. While most of the world’s small farmers are not on the internet they often have access to this information through other farmers. Extending the conversation about SCI requires creativity, farmers talking to farmers about alternative agricultural practices, and the resources of an international community to reach them. The demand and creativity are there.