Mae Rim (Thailand) (AFP)

To fight against drought, debts and the ravages of pesticides, rice growers in northern Thailand are experimenting with a more environmentally friendly farming method, despite the powerful interests of the agro-industrial sector in the country, the world's second largest exporter. rice.

In the heart of the rice terraces of the hamlet of Ban Pa Pong Piang (north-west), the harvest is in full swing. About twenty farmers, protected from the sun by large colored hats, cut with a sickle the stalks of rice, the staple food of more than three billion human beings. But, while some ears are vigorous, others have few grains, withered by the drought that has struck the region for several months.

A hundred miles away, Sunnan is also preparing to mow his field. Here, despite the lack of rain, the situation is quite different and the modest farmer of 58 years smiles zigzagging between robust plants of intense green, where the grains hang heavily.

He practices, in a small experimental organic farm, the "System of intensive rice cultivation" (SRI), invented in the 1980s in Madagascar by a French Jesuit priest and spread slowly in Africa and Asia.

In July, applying the principles of the "Intensive Rice System", so called because it promises better yields, Sunnan has planted each ear more widely than in traditional agriculture. Objective: to allow the stem to absorb more light, water and nutrients so that it produces more grains.

Then, unlike millions of rice growers, he regularly dried his field, limiting the influx of water to encourage the appearance of microorganisms that grow in the open air and act as natural fertilizers.

Supported by a French company, Pur Projet, he also planted trees around the plot to reinforce the water tables.

Since then, "my harvest has jumped 40% (...) I no longer need chemicals bad for my health," he notes.

It also uses less seeds and water. Suddenly, his expenses have decreased: unlike many Thai rice farmers who earn about 3,000 baht a month (less than 100 euros) and are heavily indebted, he was able to "pay 100,000 baht" (3,000 euros) to its creditors.

- Vicious circle -

Sunnan has long practiced traditional culture.

But, "our rice fields are exhausted by chemicals," he points out, pointing at farmers who cut sun-blasted ears in a nearby field.

And rice farmers are locked in a vicious circle: affected by climate change that causes drought and floods, they themselves contribute to this disruption because their fields release methane and nitrous oxide, two greenhouse gases.

With SRI, as the rice field is not permanently flooded, "methane emissions are reduced by 60%," says Tristan Lecomte, founder of Pur Projet. As for yield, "depending on the zone, it can jump from 20 to more than 100%" compared to the traditional method.

More than two million farmers have already been trained in Southeast Asia, according to the American University of Cornell which created in 2010 a specialized international center.

In the province of Bac Giang, in northern Vietnam, net profits for farmers "jumped by 113% or even 226%," enthuses Abha Mishra who piloted a large project in the country for the Asian Institute of technology.

The Philippines, which grows rice but is also one of the world's leading importers, is also interested in this method. The Ministry of Agriculture has started training rice farmers and SRI plantation ceremonies are being organized.

- pressure of lobbies -

However, the technique is struggling to become democratized.

"Pretty complex, it requires a lot of knowledge.It is necessary to plant the plants one by one, closely control the water, it also gives more work," said Tristan Lecomte.

Some prefer not to try the experiment or give up and go back to the traditional method.

The main obstacle remains the pressure of agribusiness unfavorable to a method that offers no new hybrid seed or fertilizer for sale.

Especially since industry lobbies are very present in Southeast Asia, particularly in Thailand, one of the largest users of pesticides in the world.

The agribusiness has just won a new battle.

The Thai authorities, which had committed to ban glyphosate, backtracked in late November, deciding that "limited" use would eventually be allowed. The use of two other highly controversial herbicides has also been extended.

© 2019 AFP