The Jesuit who revolutionized rice production

Fr Henri de Laulanié SJ worked as a missionary in Madagascar for over thirty years and soon realised how important rice was and how people’s lives were linked to the success or the failure of the rice harvest. Now, twelve years after his death, the system he pioneered is critical to anti-hunger strategies in various parts of the world.

Nepal and Indonesia have announced success in pilot projects of growing rice, using a system called SRI (System of Rice Intensification) which was developed by a French Jesuit. Nepal has run the project with the NGO "World Neighbors," whereas in Indonesia the project has been funded by  Indonesia Climate Change Trust Fund (ICCTF).

Fr Henri died in 1995 at the age of 75, but in an era of climate change, his system has become more influential.  Norman Uphoff of Cornell University introduced the system outside of Madagascar in the late 90’s and now it is used in more than 50 countries. 

In 2013, Forbes described it as “possibly one of the most important, and most controversial, advances in modern agriculture.”  The system is controversial because innovative ideas are often resisted by the ‘establishment’; and also because it involves very little use of pesticides resulting in some opposition from chemical companies with vested interests. It encourages less use of water – which has made the system attractive in a time of increasing extreme weather events.  Farmers in Bihar, northern India (pop 99 million) recently broke records for the world's highest rice yields using SRI techniques, and farmers in Goa last year found they spent 70 percent less on seed with SRI to grow up to twice as much rice.

In his encyclical Laudato si, Pope Francis talks about the ‘hearing both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor’. The encyclical encourages a strategy which links a true ecological approach with a social approach (LS 49) , he observes that often opinion formers and power brokers live in affluent urban areas and are out of touch with the majority of the world’s poor. Fr Laulanié worked on SRI in Madagascar for 34 years and wrote a book about it before he died called ‘ Rice in Madagascar’.