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How rice farmers in Africa can point us out of California's water crisis

We can make agriculture more productive and reduce water use at the same time. California, a global symbol of innovation, is the perfect place to lead the world in realizing this progress, and rice farmers in Africa an Asia may be able to show it how. 

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    A rice farmer walks across a dried-up irrigation ditch at his rice farm in Richvale, Calif.
    Jae C. Hong/AP/File
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This is a guest article by Devon Jenkins, SRI technical specialist at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

It doesn’t have to be like this.

California isn’t doomed to a future of scarcity. I know this because I’ve seen a glimpse of what it could be—in Africa.

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First things first, though. In early February I got off a plane from Ithaca, N.Y., leaving behind two feet of snow to see fruit trees blooming and seals swimming in Santa Cruz’s Monterey Bay. California, the vision of paradise that has lured generations, including my parents and grandparents, seemed to welcome me back with open arms.

Was this just an illusion?

Earlier this month, media outlets reported that every family in California will have to reduce its water use; agriculture and business and industry and households are all vying for diminishing slices of the same pie.

California has long been ahead of its time, and the current drought is more than just California’s problem. Climate change makes us question the very notion of progress—can the world really handle all of us? Can we hold on to the quality of life that California is so famous for? And can that dream still come true for other parts of the world?

The answer is yes. A qualified yes. We can make agriculture more productive and reduce water use at the same time. We can make our houses and yards greener, more abundant, and less wasteful at the same time. We can actually make our quality of life better in the process, but we need a new vision to make this happen. California, a global symbol of innovation, is the perfect place to lead the world in realizing this progress.

But in our current ecologically-challenged world, who are the real innovators?

Interestingly enough, rice farmers in Africa and Asia. Beginning in the mid-1980s, a quiet revolution in rice farming spread from Madagascar to over 55 countries, largely in Asia and Africa. By focusing on soil and individual plant health, farmers dramatically increased rice yields, despite using 90 percent less seed and—yes—up to 50 percent less water. These remarkable results were the outcome of the System of Rice Intensification (SRI). With SRI, farmers don’t flood their fields; instead, planters set seedlings far apart, and organic matter and integrated pest management replace synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.

SRI isn’t going to fix California’s water problem, and adapting it to industrial rice farming in the Sacramento Valley wouldn’t be easy. SRI does, however, point us in the right direction to address the 80 percent of California’s water used in agriculture. For millions of farmers around the world, SRI already increases yields while reducing water footprint. Better yet, SRI principles work for other crops as well, including corn, wheat, sugarcane, and garden vegetables. And it’s just one of many approaches that show us we can both reduce consumption and live with abundance, as long as we base our choices on an understanding of nature.

While techniques like SRI could help the Central Valley reduce its water footprint, the past week has taught us as well that farming communities aren’t alone in needing to address this challenge.

In Sonoma County’s rolling coastal range, places like the Occidental Art and Ecology Centerpoint to another such solution: permaculture. Using smart design, based on observation of nature and combined with an ecological and humanistic ethic, permaculture allows us to create functional, resilient, and abundant spaces for water in harmony with natural systems. Translated to urban and suburban yards, permaculture lets us harvest, store, and reuse precious water resources, turn wastes into assets, and transform sterile lawns into edible and abundant landscapes.

Critics might dismiss both SRI and permaculture as too small in scale and not ready for the big time, but doing so would miss the point: SRI shows us that agriculture can be more productive yet less consumptive, and permaculture demonstrates we can design yards, neighborhoods, and cities that are abundant and responsible. Perhaps more importantly, both of these approaches can help us shift our way of thinking from scarcity to dynamic abundance.

Any biological system has its limits. To exist within these limits, and to do so comfortably and in abundance, will take a new way of living. Systemic lifestyle changes won’t happen by simply adapting SRI to large-scale rice farming in the Sacramento Delta. It will happen block by block, yard by yard. It will happen in the hearts and minds of Californians of all walks of life, from all parts of the world. It will happen when all of us—farmers, ranchers, office workers, parents, children, and spouses—start seeing this crisis as an opportunity to build something better.

Climate change will impact every place on Earth. Some will face droughts, others extreme storms, floods, heat, and even cold—but all must adapt. SRI and permaculture are just two of many creative paths forward, showing us that a life lived in greater harmony with natural systems isn’t one of scarcity, but abundance. And what better place to do this than in California?

Perhaps it’s time we started paying more attention to African farmers.

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