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May 7, 2008 / calebdresser

The Background

In a few weeks I will be leaving for Manila in the Philippines and thence to New Delhi and rural India; if all goes according to plan I will return to the US in mid-December for one more semester of school before graduating next May. I’m going to miss a lot of people; I can only say that it will be all the more exciting to see you when I finally do.

I will be spending most of the year taking classes at the International Rice Research Institute (three weeks in the Philippines) and conducting a research project (six months in India). I am also planning to take some time to learn what I can about the culture and languages of the places I will be visiting, and perhaps see a few of the sights. Anyone who’s been in that region – let me know if there are things I shouldn’t miss!

...if all goes according to plan...As for my research project, the short version is that I will be looking at how to control nematodes (little worms in the soil) that hurt rice plants in South Asia. Efforts are under way to reduce the need for increasingly scarce water when growing rice; unfortunately, less water means more plant-parasitic nematodes. As upwards of 800 million people in Pakistan, Nepal, India, and Bangladesh are dependent on the rice-wheat system for their daily meals, figuring out how to maintain or increase production while using less water is of some importance, and controlling nematodes is part of learning to do that. This is a rather pressing issue – just check out the front page of the New York Times.

My intended itinerary:

May 16: Fly to Manila, Philippines

May 18 – June 6: “Rice from Research to Production,” a Short Course at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), Los Banos, Philippines.

June 7: Fly to New Delhi

June 8 – December 3: Conduct research on plant-parasitic nematode behavior in the rice-wheat cropping system. I will reside in Modipuram, India with frequent travel to New Delhi.

December 4: Fly to Manila, Phillipines

December 5 – December 14: Tour Philippines & present research at IRRI

December 15, 2008: Fly back to New York

For those who are interested, the research details are follows, drawn from various grant/scholarship applications I’ve written:

The world is teetering toward food shortages of epic proportions. Rising population, declining resource availability, and chronic conflicts resulting from population and resource pressures are combining to put enormous demands on global food production systems. The centuries-long pattern of increasing agricultural output has flattened out; in many areas farmers are being forced to increase inputs and permanently draw down water tables just to maintain previous production levels, as overtaxed soils and aquifers begin to give out. There is very little arable land that is not already under cultivation, and what there is often contains the decimated ranks of a host of endangered species. To compound the problem, increasingly urban populations all over the world are demanding more food and covering more arable land in urban sprawl, while at the same time claiming a larger share of the already dwindling water resources.

New approaches are essential if we are to effectively meet the challenges presented by the current situation. It is necessary to take into account a host of factors when developing new systems. Sustainability, a concept once found only in limited circles, is becoming a key consideration in mainstream agriculture; water must not be used faster than it can be replenished and soil health must be maintained. Agricultural labor is also becoming an issue in some areas, while economic difficulties continue to plague farming operations around the world. In addition, these issues must be addressed on a regional basis; there is no single solution to any of these intersecting problems. Despite these challenges, some answers are beginning to emerge.

Direct Seeded Rice technology (DSR) is one of these. It presents a novel approach to rice production that focuses on reducing labor and water requirements. This technology is being developed by the Rice-Wheat Consortium for the Indo-Gangetic Plains, based in New Delhi, India. This collaborative effort draws on a wide range of institutions including the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), the National Agricultural Research Systems of India, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, and independent research institutions including Cornell University. It is managed by CIMMYT as an Ecoregional Program of CGIAR, the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research.

The Indo-Gangetic plains form an arc of flat, fertile soil that stretches along the base of the Himalaya from the Bay of Bengal in the east to the Arabian Sea in the west. The plains are principally drained by the Indus and Ganges rivers, which have endowed the region with rich deposits of sediments brought down from the mountains, and are home to some 900 million people.

Agriculture on the Indo-Gangetic plain is faced by three crucial problems: declining availability of water, declining soil health and fertility, and changes in the available labor pool. Water usage is increasing in urban, industrial, and agricultural applications, and at present the water table in some regions is dropping by as much as a meter every year. When increasing population is taken into account, this translates into 40 to 60% decreases in per capita water availability, and the water is becoming more expensive, due to the increasing costs of diesel fuel and the increasing depth from which water must be pumped.

Soils are also becoming less and less productive. Physical properties of the soil have become less and less positive, as years of traditional puddling have led to the breakdown of healthy soil structure. In addition, more and more inputs of mineral fertilizers (N, P, K, etc) are now needed to maintain previous production levels. This contributes to increased costs associated with fertilizer use, and also further reduces soil health.

Labor availability is also becoming a major concern in the Indo-Gangetic plain. Traditional systems based on transplanting seedlings present huge labor demands, which have recently been filled by migrant workers. This system, however, is inherently unreliable: workers may be late to arrive, delaying transplanting, and the large amount of labor translates into higher costs. In addition, the availability of farm labor is decreasing as more and more people move toward urban centers. Family farms that have been operating for generations are suddenly devoid of younger people, who have been lured away from a backbreaking life of farming by jobs in other economic sectors.

It is clear that these three issues – soil health, water availability, and labor issues – are combining to seriously threaten the future productivity of the Indo-Gangetic plain. Given the continuing rise in the population of this region, the challenge is to develop systems that are less resource-intensive while boosting food production. Direct Seeded Rice may be such a system.

Agriculture in the IGP is based on a rice-wheat rotation that allows farmers to grow crops year-round. Rice is planted for the coming of the monsoon in early to mid June; this crop may take up to 150 days to mature, depending on the variety of rice being used. Once the rice has been harvested, the land is prepared for the growing of winter wheat as a dry-land crop. Some 10 million hectares of land are currently cultivated under this system, which requires large amounts of water. Some 80% of this water goes toward the cultivation of rice.

Direct-seeded rice technology will help change that. The principles guiding DSR focus on sensible resource use and conservation agriculture. Laser-leveling systems are used to ensure that the land is perfectly flat; in some cases pre-treatment of rice growing areas with herbicide plus safener is necessary to control weeds. There is no need to pre-flood the field or carry out puddling activities; this historically requires a great deal of water. Rice is planted 10-12 days before the coming of the monsoon, and rather that transplanting seedlings as in traditional systems, rice is seeded directly into the ground at a depth of approximately 2cm. This is generally done using a mechanical planter at a rate of 20-25 kg/ha. Soil moisture is maintained to allow proper germination; it is sometimes helpful to pre-hydrate seeds prior to planting. A substantial dose of fertilizer is applied at planting time; future nitrogen fertilizer application is based on the leaf color index of the crop. Deviating from current practice, the DSR production areas are not constantly flooded; irrigation may only be initiated with the appearance of hairline cracks in the drying upper soil layer.

In traditional rice cultivation systems, flooded conditions prevent the growth of weeds. Given the fact that DSR fields are not flooded during the early part of the growing season and only at times thereafter, weed management is very serious concern. DSR was tried and abandoned two decades ago in part because of weed management concerns. However, modern weed-management technologies will reduce this problem substantially. A number of chemical solutions are now available that can be applied with a modicum of safety. In addition, it is possible to intercrop Sesbania as a “brown manure;” it is planted with the rice, and then killed off a month later using 2,4-D ester. The result is a nitrogen-rich mulch, which both provides nutrients to the established rice crop and suppresses new weed growth. It is also possible to leave the residue from the previos year’s winter wheat crop on the field and to direct seed into this using newly developed tilling-seeding machinery.

Recent studies indicate that DSR provides real savings in production cost, labor, and water use; it appears that it allows the production of approximately the same amount of rice as in traditional systems. Current work is focused on evaluating different DSR practices and developing a quantitative understanding of the optimal parameter values for growing DSR rice in the Indo-Gangetic plain.

My research project this summer will be an analysis of nematode activity in rice fields under different crop/management regimes. Certain nematodes are parasites of numerous plants including key crop species such as rice, and can lead to decreased crop yields. When rice is grown in flooded paddies, nematodes cannot survive and do not pose a threat to productivity. Little research has been done on the impacts of these animals under the new direct-seeded, aerobic rice cropping systems currently being developed. These systems may provide high crop yields with low water usage, but it is important to evaluate the potential downfalls of these systems before they are adopted on a large scale.

Soil sample analysis will be used to characterize nematode activity across a spectrum of cropping practices. Fields under direct seeded rice (DSR) regimes will be sampled for nematodes including those in genus Meloidogyne and Hirschmanniella. Comparisona will be made between standard DSR fields, non-DSR plots and nurseries, and DSR fields that have been planted with different cover crops such as buckwheat and Sesbania. Some of these cover crops may have nematode-suppressing effects in addition to providing green manure mulch for the rice crop and helping suppress weeds. The intention is to provide initial information on the degree to which nematodes will or will not be a problem under these various systems and provide a basis from which further focused research can be done.
It is currently my intention to carry out this research during summer and early fall of 2008. I will be taking a leave of absence from Cornell during Fall Semester 2008 in order to pursue a complete research project. I will be conducting my research under the principal mentorship of Dr. Peter Hobbs (IARD /CSS). While in India, I will be working under the guidance of Dr. J.K. Ladha of the International Rice Research Institute and Virender Kumar, a graduate student in Weed Science at Cornell. I intend to spend a portion of my time assisting with their projects; much of the travel for soil sampling will be done in conjunction with travel to assist their research.

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4 Comments

Leave a Comment
  1. BenGolas / May 7 2008 6:16 pm

    Your photo is vaguely reminiscent of Alexander Supertramp from Into the Wild. I would avoid sleeping in broken down buses in the middle of nowhere if I were you.

  2. Margaret McCandless / May 11 2008 10:07 pm

    Thank you for setting up the blog, getting the plans clear, and taking on solving big problems. We’ll want to read your descriptions when the goofy, amusing things start to happen in your travels, too.
    A friend at school says she learns Hindi best when she visits a great-aunt, near Delhi, who doesn’t speak English. Maybe you will find a great-aunt. Click your heels three times….

  3. Hannah Megan Lipshultz / May 13 2008 12:12 am

    You are one smart kid, and like Margaret said, out to solve big problems. You can do it! Just remember, sometimes sleeping in old people’s backyards in hammocks with pigs is better than a bed. Much love to you on your travels 🙂

  4. Nadia Beard / May 13 2008 2:52 pm

    So encouraging to see you embark on a journey to help solve a problem instead of taking the typical senior year tourist trek across Europe (though that’s perfectly fine too). I hope it becomes a life’s calling. Having watched you as a little boy (8 years old!) reading law books in your father’s office (when not even I wanted to read those books, and that was my job), I knew there was something special about you. Guess I was right. Good luck Caleb — thanks to this blog, we’ll all be following your travels and wishing you well!

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