Uma Khumairoh and Pablo Tittonell, Farming Systems Ecology Group, Wageningen University.
Humans, birds, fish, plants, microorganisms: all creatures need food, air, water and shelter. As part of an ecosystem they develop a complex series of interactions through which each species finds the right and diverse balance of nutrients needed for life.
Diet diversity is also the key to nourishment of humans. In countries like Indonesia where rice is the major staple food, and an estimated 19.9 million people are undernourished, nutrition-related health problems have been identified, among these blindness as a result of deficiency of vitamin A in the diet.
All over the developing world, resource-poor farmers in risk-prone, marginal environments, remain untouched by ‘modern’ agricultural technology. Indonesia is typical of this chronic situation as it is dominated by small farming systems where the rice value chain is a key sector of the rural economy.
Complex adaptive rice production systems
Our studies on complex agro-ecosystems for food security in a changing climate showed that combining rice cultivation with azolla (an aquatic plant able to fix nitrogen in symbiosis with a bacteria), ducks, and fish resulted in a marked increase in grain yields and net revenues during seasons of adverse weather in East Java, Indonesia. That’s why we call these systems ‘complex adaptive systems’.
Uma Khumairoh (left), researcher at Wageningen University, with Susilowati (right) rice farmer in Malang district, East Java, Indonesia.
Combining azolla, duck and ﬁsh with rice crops not only increased plant nutrient content, tillering and leaf area expansion, but also strongly reduced the density of six different pests. The more complex the system, the higher the rice yield that was obtained, up to a maximum of 10 tonnes per hectare. Rice plants provide shade and organic matter for fish, which in turn oxygenate the soil and water, eat rice pests and favour nutrient recycling.
But also, making systems more complex led to greater diversity in the harvest from a human nutrition point of view. Next to more rice, farmers were able to harvest fish, eggs and ducks for their own consumption and for the market. Complex adaptive rice systems provided enough vitamin A from one hectare of land to supply the annual needs of 50 people!
Greenhouse gas (GHG) emission levels increased as the system became more complex, but they remained below the levels that were measured in monoculture rice fields managed with chemical fertilisers and pesticides. Yet, to reduce GHG emissions, our studies show that it is essential to achieve a good coverage of the water surface with azolla, as this reduces the temperature in the water and the rate of emission, which do not only contribute to global warming – rice cultivation is one the major sources of GHG emissions – but also to gaseous losses of essential nitrogen in the form of NH3.
Net revenues from sales of rice grain, ﬁsh and ducks, after correction for extra costs, were 114 per cent higher than monoculture rice cultivation, and represented a diversification of income sources which is essential to reduce economic risks. The extra costs associated with the complex adaptive system were the result of more labour needed for animal husbandry. This can be seen as a burden, or as an opportunity to create jobs for unemployed, landless rural dwellers.
Smallholders trained to manage these systems while being supported for initial investments by credits see an improvement in their livelihoods while they are producing in an ecologically benign way, reducing their exposure to dangerous pesticides. This diversity prepares farmers to deal with even stronger fluctuations in economic and climatic conditions, thereby contributing to secure more food for a broad undernourished population.
Do we need ‘golden’ rice?
Hani women at their rice paddy carrying ducks, Lao Bo Village, Yunnan Province, China. Ducks play an important role in the long developed Hani rice-farming system.
In Indonesia, we already had indigenous red, black, purple, sticky, mid-sticky and non-sticky rice that contain adequate levels of zinc, antioxidant and vitamins. Indonesian people used to eat sego-empog (local rice-corn), sego-gaplek (local rice-cassava), rice-peas and other mixed rice meals that diversify food nutrition. Fish, ducks, eggs, legumes, banana, papaya and other fruits from complex rice and pekarangan (Javanese home garden) systems fulfilled the needs for proteins, vitamins and minerals.
So-called ‘golden’ rice is a genetically modified rice cultivar with foreign genes from other species that synthesise extra vitamin A, and it is advertised as the ‘solution’ to the problem of insufficient human nutrition. But rather than a real solution to the problem it will, at most, be a palliative measure until the next problem associated with rice monoculture arises. The cultivation of genetically modified ‘golden’ rice does not address the problem of lack of proteins or other nutrients in the diet, or the yield fluctuations associated with climate change, or the income stability of the rural household.
Promoting ‘golden’ rice as the solution to the nutrient deficiency problem may even contribute to the gradual erosion of the local food culture, undermining the need for diversity in the diet and hence in the fields. Parents will not need to teach their children how to farm with nature anymore, children will not be able to go fishing in the rice fields, duck farmers will not herd their ducks in the rice fields. We already experienced a massive simplification of agroecosystems worldwide through the green revolution, with enormous consequences for the environment. Let us not take that road again.
Instead of searching for what has already been there, in traditional Indonesian food and farming systems, why don’t we restore, rebuild and maintain the diversity of the agricultural landscape? Complex adaptive rice systems can deliver important ecological services, such as bio-control, nitrogen fixation and landscape enhancement, and since they are incompatible with the use of agrochemicals, they can reduce their impact on nature and people, while maintaining high rice yields.
Complex adaptive rice systems are designed by drawing inspiration from nature and from ancient agricultural practices. However, most Indonesian people nowadays live in cities, and buy their food on the market instead of producing it themselves. This means that the ancient complex farming systems that emerged in different historical and demographic contexts have to be optimised using modern technologies to produce food surpluses.
Complex adaptive rice systems require technology; but just the right type of technology. They are knowledge intensive and can contribute sufficient and nutritious food, to climate change adaptation and mitigation, to income diversification and to ecosystem service functions of the landscape.
No, thanks, we don’t need ‘golden’ rice.
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