Tuesday, February 26, 2013

1008. Book Review: Big History: From the Big Bang to the Present

Cynthia Stokes Brown

By Kamran Nayeri, November 2009

Some scientists persuasively have argued that by the advent of industrialization around 1800 we have left the geological epoch, the Holocene, behind and entered the Anthropocene epoch marked by human caused global changes to the planet Earth. We can even make a more specific claim that with the Anthropocene was inaugurated by the rise of fossil fuel-based industrialized capitalism.  Powered by cheap fossil fuels, rapid technological change, and ever-expanding markets, the capitalist mode of production has supported an exponential rise in human population that on average lives longer and consumes more goods and services. Urbanization and Proletarianizition in turn have supported expansion of capitalist system. Thus, within a mere two hundred years or 8 generations we are approaching or already have reached limits to growth.  The present day combined crisis of nature and society threatens the very fabric of life on Earth. The worse economic crisis since the Great Depression is combined with global warming and catastrophic climate change, forests and oceans are literary, and the rate of species extinction is comparable to the last five extinction periods making some biologists believe that the sixth extinction already is underway.
Big History: From the Big Bang to the Present

While the immediate enforcer of the current crisis is the world capitalist economy, the very basis of this crisis was laid by the Agrarian Revolution about 10,000 years ago, when some gatherer-hunter organized the first agrarian settlements by systematically domesticating plants and animals and themselves, giving rise to class societies.  As part of this process, the idea of human superiority, the anthropocentric worldview, and human speciesism have become commonplace and the main prop of the world culture. We have grown accustomed to the idea that our history began with the “rise of civilization,” that is, class societies that emerged with the Agricultural Revolution. In the process, we forgot that for some 95% of our species’ life we lived successfully as gatherer-hunter societies and that transition to agrarian settlement was not in any immediate sense an improvement.  We also forgot that other mammals have lived for over 65 million years and life on Earth had begun four billion years ago. And, of course, we forget that our universe emerged 13.7 billion year ago.  Our ignorance and forgetting is the root-cause of our present predicament.

Big History, a relatively new multidisciplinary field, has emerged to reminds us of this history, rendering a much needed paradigm-shift in our myopic worldview, effectively taking on a subject matter traditionally left to philosophy: our place in the world.

To learn about Big History, I highly recommend Cynthia Stokes Brown’s very readable introduction to a field that takes a terrain that is usually left to philosophers. The book is divided into two parts. Part I deals with the emergence of the universe as we know it, and of our own neighborhood in the space. It then reviews the emergence of the living Earth, Homo sapiens, and gatherer-hunter societies. We learn how species depend on their non-living surroundings, how Homo sapiens is literally stardust, and how we are animals very much related to other living beings around us, and that, in a profound sense, the Earth itself is a living organism.

The much longer Part II deals with the last 10,000 years reviewing world history proper. Stokes Brown points to emerging patterns in human history as "civilization" emerges and develops up to the present. Here she is much influenced by Fernand Braudel and the Annales School of historiography. The focus is on circulation of people, animals, goods, technologies, and diseases.

I tend to believe that this approach, while closer of Systems Theory, hence more congruent with the general methodology of Big History, also creates a number of problems when the author deals with the emergence of capitalism and industrialization. The profit motive, very much in focus these days with the current massive "financial" crisis, takes the backseat to technologies and consumer behavior. Thus, solution to the current social and environmental/ecological problems become obscure. By offering a final chapter called "What Now? What Next?" Stokes Brown correctly turns our attention to finding solutions to these problems. But somehow, the powerful case she builds about our place in the universe is lost and attention is focused on the narrow debate in the mainstream. This debate not only ignores the capitalist foundation of society, it also forgets the very context of who we are. Thus the logic of the story Stokes Brown has told, that the current crisis originated in our alienation from nature and from ourselves and is enforced daily by the capitalist social order as well as it central message that to return to a society where we can live in harmony with nature (as gatherer-hunter did to a great extent without having the benefit the state of our current knowledge), is lost.

Still, this is a beautiful book with an important story and an important message for those who are looking beyond the headlines for a solution to the problems of the humanity and Mother Earth. 

Cynthia Stokes Brown is a retired professor of education ar Dominican University of California. She has written history and biography books, including the American Book Award-winning Ready from Within: Septima Clark and the Civil Rights Movement.  

A briefer version of this review was published on amazon.com in November 2009. 

1007. Maize Was Key in Early Andean Civilization, Study Shows

By Mark Kinver, BBC, February 25, 2013

New evidence strengthens the argument that maize played an important role in ancient Peruvian civilisation 5,000 years ago, a study has said.
Samples taken from pollen records, stone tool residues and fossilised faeces suggest the food crop was actively grown, processed and eaten.
The authors say it adds more weight to the argument that Andean society was agricultural, not maritime-based.
"If you look at the origins of civilisations around the world - from Egypt to China and India - they are all based on agriculture," explained co-author Jonathan Haas from The Field Museum, Chicago.
However, he told BBC News that an idea emerged that Andean early civilisation was different, and evolved from exploiting marine resources.
Power struggle
He told BBC News: "That theory has now been the dominant theory since the mid-1970s but more data has become available saying that there are not just [coastal] sites but there are some big inland sites too.
"People started to find corn at the inland sites, and the argument was that the corn was really a condiment and used for ceremonial purposes.

An agricultural system would allow leaders to exert the power needed to develop complex societies
Dr Haas said that the findings from the team's study "topples that notion".
In their paper, the team explained that the first stage of identifying the botanical remains taken from the archaeological sites was the analysis of the macrobotanical (visible to the naked eye) artefacts.
"Analyses of hundreds of samples… revealed that macroscopic remains of maize - including kernels, leaves, stalks and cobs - were rare," they wrote.
They added that the reason for the lack of such samples at the sites has "yet to be resolved", but the lack of such remains could not be seen as evidence of the absence of maize.
"It is also possible that the lack of macroscopic remains is a reflection of limited excavations at these sites, given that the more extensive excavation of sites… did yield much more macroscopic evidence of maize."
Microscopic bounty
The team commented that the scarcity of macroscopic remains was in marked contrast to an abundance of microscopic evidence of maize in the guise of maize pollen samples collected from soil at the sites.
Although there was a possibility of contamination from modern sources, the team said that there were three factors that weighed against this.
"First, modern maize pollen grains are larger and turn red when stain is applied, whereas ancient grains do not," they said.
"Second, extraction of pollen samples followed standard archaeological guidelines and all crew members were trained in taking pollen samples.
"Third, the modern samples all contained pollen from a plant not found in the area prehistorically."
Dr Haas said that the pollen record gathered from the study sites was unequalled, with the data being accessed by other scientists in their research projects.
Other artefacts the team examined included 14 stone tools, which were radiocarbon-dated to between 2090 and 2540BC.
"Eleven of the 14 tools had predominantly or exclusively maize starch grains on the working surfaces, and two working surfaces had maize phytoliths (mineral excretions by the plant)," they recorded.
The researchers also found samples of sweet potato and bean starch grains.
The team also recovered 62 coprolites (fossilised faeces), of which 34 were human specimens.
They wrote that 69% of the specimens contained maize starch grains, the dominant source of starch in the diet at that time.
Dr Haas observed: "Maritime resources were important as it was their primary source of protein. But in each one of those coprolites, there was, on average, half an anchovy - that is not your diet, that is a condiment.
"In contrast, finding corn, beans, sweet potato and a number of other things in the diet - that is an agriculturally-based society."
He added that a vibrant agriculture system would result in a surplus of food, allowing the societal leaders to attract outsiders to the area and exert power.
The team wrote: "It was during this time that large permanent communities were settled, monumental architecture first appeared on the landscape, agriculture was more fully developed and indicators of a distinctive Andean religion are manifest in the archaeological record."

1006. Cuba Under Raul Castro: Economic Reform as Priority?

Economic reform has aimed to replace the black market
with regulated markets

By Arturo Lopez Levy, The Huffington Post, February 25, 2013 
Raul Castro's first presidential term was marked by economic reform and political liberalization. Over the last five years, the government created important institutional foundations for a mixed economy and a less vertical relationship between the state and civil society. Beginning in 2009, a commission to discuss and implement the reforms was created, and through its own initiative, the Council of State instituted an anti-corruption general agency, while restructuring various ministries, in particular, the Super Ministry for Basic Industry in charge of Energy and Mining, and the Sugar Industry. The institutional changes have been accompanied by fiscal, credit and migration reform, a law for cooperatives, as well as the legalization of various markets for consumer goods (real estate, used cars, fast food and restaurants) and services (transportation) directly impacting Cubans' daily lives.
The presidential succession from Fidel to Raul Castro has been complemented by an almost completely renovated Council of Ministers and an inter-generational transition in the military command at the level of regional armies and in the party and government at intermediate levels.
The Economy as Priority
The strategic nature of the economic transition is expressed in the changes in the composition of the labor force. In less than three years between 2010 and 2013, the number of individuals working in small businesses practically tripled, from around 160,000 to 390,000. The liberalization of the licensing process and the amplifying of the production scale on which these businesses operate are significant. Likewise, contracts between state and non-state sectors have been liberalized, opening the possibility for improved productive and administrative synergies between the two, as well as the creation of wholesale markets and credit mechanisms to support the emerging private sector.
By the end of 2012, the law of cooperatives was approved, indicating a move away from government control over significant areas of agricultural production, services, small industries and transportation. The legislation included mechanisms to create as well as dissolve such entities, offering a legal framework for their operation within market logic. The law allows for the creation of second degree or cluster cooperatives, a legal mechanism that facilitates amplification of production, the coordination of activities and the establishment of stable relationships between various cooperatives.
This shift away from state control is very far removed from an optimal process in economic terms. Instead of maximizing government revenue by selling or renting the assets (taxi cars, restaurants, cafeterias) to the highest bidder, the government has chosen a second best, less disruptive, option: offering the property in usufruct to the same workers who have so far been mismanaging it, with the hope that under the new conditions they will do better. It remains to be seen how emerging institutions will commit to competition and market selection of best practices and administrators, and whether hard budget constraints will be applied in order to allow those who are inefficient under the new conditions to fail.
The cooperatives law expressed a compromise between a desire to improve productivity and a political framework biased towards collectivist forms. Property rights in cooperatives are less defined than in small or medium private business. That situation makes an efficient system of contracts and rule of law more relevant than ever, an area in which Cuba is not exactly the epitome of virtue. The experience since the 1990s with the Units of Basic Cooperative Production (UBCP) illustrates that, in the absence of a market framework and the proper legal autonomy, the record for a cooperative is not substantially different than that for a State enterprise, unlike that of the private businesses.
The new flexibility of contracts between state-owned companies and the non-state sector favor the expansion of areas (such as transportation) in which private or cooperative ownership has expanded in the last three years. This expansion has already created competitive dynamics allowing good State managers to take advantage of the new conditions, and differentiate themselves from those lacking such adaptive capacities, especially at the local level. The government's discipline regarding the granting of subsidies and non-competitive contracts, controlling corruption, and promoting transparency may contribute to the creation of a labor market for administrators, in which those who are able to manage better receive better salaries.
Unfortunately Cuba lacks legal and administrative experience in the preparation and implementation of efficient contracts and this is more difficult to achieve in the short term than simply allowing the expansion of private property. As modern economic theory has shown, in contrast to that what neoliberal ideologues postulate, a better definition of property rights is associated with production increases at the level of small- and medium-sized business. However when corporate structure is more complex, the incomplete nature of contracts between a principal (shareholders, cooperative owners, the government) and its agent (managers) and an environment committed to competition become more fundamental factors.
Two notable failures of the reform so far are the lack of a substantial revival of agricultural production, including in the sugarcane industry, and the weak impulse toward export-oriented foreign investment. Even in East Asian countries, with far larger markets than that of Cuba, state promotion of foreign investment was oriented toward the promotion of exports, where competition performs with greater rigor. In the Cuban case, as University of Havana economist Juan Triana has pointed out, the very meager growth is affected by the perverse incentive that many of the foreign enterprises have, even in the midst of full reform, to increase their projections toward the captive national market. In this context, contracts with state enterprises and monopolistic chains of stores, foreign and local corporations extract the maximum rent from a basically unprotected Cuban consumer.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

1005: Big History: The History of Our World in 18 Minutes

By David Christian, TED, April 2011

1004. How human Language Could Have Evolved From Birdsong

By Christine Daniloff, phys.com,  February 21, 2013

"The sounds uttered by birds offer in several respects the nearest analogy to language," Charles Darwin wrote in "The Descent of Man" (1871), while contemplating how humans learned to speak. Language, he speculated, might have had its origins in singing, which "might have given rise to words expressive of various complex emotions."

Now researchers from MIT, along with a scholar from the University of Tokyo, say that Darwin was on the right path. The balance of evidence, they believe, suggests that human language is a grafting of two communication forms found elsewhere in the animal kingdom: first, the elaborate songs of birds, and second, the more utilitarian, information-bearing types of expression seen in a diversity of other animals.

"It's this adventitious combination that triggered human language," says Shigeru Miyagawa, a professor of linguistics in MIT's Department of Linguistics and Philosophy, and co-author of a new paper published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.
The idea builds upon Miyagawa's conclusion, detailed in his previous work, that there are two "layers" in all human languages: an "expression" layer, which involves the changeable organization of sentences, and a "lexical" layer, which relates to the core content of a sentence. His conclusion is based on earlier work by linguists including Noam Chomsky, Kenneth Hale and Samuel Jay Keyser.

Based on an analysis of animal communication, and using Miyagawa's framework, the authors say that birdsong closely resembles the expression layer of human sentences—whereas the communicative waggles of bees, or the short, audible messages of primates, are more like the lexical layer. At some point, between 50,000 and 80,000 years ago, humans may have merged these two types of expression into a uniquely sophisticated form of language.

"There were these two pre-existing systems," Miyagawa says, "like apples and oranges that just happened to be put together."

These kinds of adaptations of existing structures are common in natural history, notes Robert Berwick, a co-author of the paper, who is a professor of computational linguistics in MIT's Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems, in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

"When something new evolves, it is often built out of old parts," Berwick says. "We see this over and over again in evolution. Old structures can change just a little bit, and acquire radically new functions."

A new chapter in the songbook
The new paper, "The Emergence of Hierarchical Structure in Human Language," was co-written by Miyagawa, Berwick and Kazuo Okanoya, a biopsychologist at the University of Tokyo who is an expert on animal communication.

To consider the difference between the expression layer and the lexical layer, take a simple sentence: "Todd saw a condor." We can easily create variations of this, such as, "When did Todd see a condor?" This rearranging of elements takes place in the expression layer and allows us to add complexity and ask questions. But the lexical layer remains the same, since it involves the same core elements: the subject, "Todd," the verb, "to see," and the object, "condor."

Birdsong lacks a lexical structure. Instead, birds sing learned melodies with what Berwick calls a "holistic" structure; the entire song has one meaning, whether about mating, territory or other things. The Bengalese finch, as the authors note, can loop back to parts of previous melodies, allowing for greater variation and communication of more things; a nightingale may be able to recite from 100 to 200 different melodies.
By contrast, other types of animals have bare-bones modes of expression without the same melodic capacity. Bees communicate visually, using precise waggles to indicate sources of foods to their peers; other primates can make a range of sounds, comprising warnings about predators and other messages.

Humans, according to Miyagawa, Berwick and Okanoya, fruitfully combined these systems. We can communicate essential information, like bees or primates—but like birds, we also have a melodic capacity and an ability to recombine parts of our uttered language. For this reason, our finite vocabularies can generate a seemingly infinite string of words. Indeed, the researchers suggest that humans first had the ability to sing, as Darwin conjectured, and then managed to integrate specific lexical elements into those songs.

"It's not a very long step to say that what got joined together was the ability to construct these complex patterns, like a song, but with words," Berwick says.

As they note in the paper, some of the "striking parallels" between language acquisition in birds and humans include the phase of life when each is best at picking up languages, and the part of the brain used for language. Another similarity, Berwick notes, relates to an insight of celebrated MIT professor emeritus of linguistics Morris Halle, who, as Berwick puts it, observed that "all human languages have a finite number of stress patterns, a certain number of beat patterns. Well, in birdsong, there is also this limited number of beat patterns."

Birds, bees—and dolphins?
Norbert Hornstein, a professor of linguistics at the University of Maryland, says the paper has been "very well received" among linguists, and "perhaps will be the standard go-to paper for language-birdsong comparison for the next five years."

Hornstein adds that he would like to see further comparison of birdsong and sound production in human language, as well as more neuroscientific research, pertaining to both birds and humans, to see how brains are structured for making sounds.

The researchers acknowledge that further empirical studies on the subject would be desirable.

"It's just a hypothesis," Berwick says. "But it's a way to make explicit what Darwin was talking about very vaguely, because we know more about language now."

Miyagawa, for his part, asserts it is a viable idea in part because it could be subject to more scrutiny, as the communication patterns of other species are examined in further detail. "If this is right, then human language has a precursor in nature, in evolution, that we can actually test today," he says, adding that bees, birds and other primates could all be sources of further research insight.

MIT-based research in linguistics has largely been characterized by the search for universal aspects of all human languages. With this paper, Miyagawa, Berwick and Okanoya hope to spur others to think of the universality of language in evolutionary terms. It is not just a random cultural construct, they say, but based in part on capacities humans share with other species. At the same time, Miyagawa notes, human language is unique, in that two independent systems in nature merged, in our species, to allow us to generate unbounded linguistic possibilities, albeit within a constrained system.
"Human language is not just freeform, but it is rule-based," Miyagawa says. "If we are right, human language has a very heavy constraint on what it can and cannot do, based on its antecedents in nature."

Provided by Massachusetts Institute of Technology
This story is republished courtesy of MIT News (web.mit.edu/newsoffice/), a popular site that covers news about MIT research, innovation and teaching.
"How human language could have evolved from birdsong." February 21st, 2013. http://phys.org/news/2013-02-human-language-evolved-birdsong.html

Thursday, February 21, 2013

1003. New York's Victory Against Big Gas

By Peter Rugh, occupy.com, February 14, 2013

Road sign in upstate New York
A major battle in America's frack war came to a head in New York this week. Opponents of drilling in the state, which sits on hefty reserves of methane gas locked within the Marcellus Shale formation, mobilized by the thousands to successfully maintain a 2010 moratorium on hydraulic fracturing -- a victory that could have wide implications on the fight to curb and ultimately ban the extraction method elsewhere in the country.
The moratorium initially went into effect under former New York Governor David Paterson. And the state's current governor, Andrew Cuomo, who received more energy industry contributions than any gubernatorial candidate in the 2010 election, was expected to lift the moratorium by the end of this month.
But in order to issue drilling permits, Cuomo needs a "doctor's note": a review of fracking's potential health impacts, issued by the New York Department of Health. The Department of Environmental Conservation must receive the health study before it can finalize its environmental impact review of proposed fracking regulations.
And here's the news: the deadline for the DEC to publish the impact statement came, and passed, on Wednesday after the Department of Health announced it was delaying the release of its study. Without the doctor's slip it is reasonably certain Cuomo will miss the February 27 deadline by which he must file rules for fracking.
If February 27 comes and goes without regulations being filed, the approval process begins anew.
Interestingly, Cuomo and his administration have kept mum on the subject in the run-up to the deadline. The governor made no mention of fracking in his State of the State address last month, even as delegates entering the convention center where Cuomo delivered his speech passed several thousand protesters chanting the words “Ban fracking now!”
Nor was there any mention of fracking from DEC chief Joseph Martens when he read from a prepared statement about the department's activities at a budget hearing before Albany lawmakers earlier this month. On that occasion, a large crowd of drilling opponents were repeatedly warned to pipe down in the chamber. But pressed by lawmakers, Martens refused to say where his department stood on the issue.
If you want a hint, consider that emails obtained last June by the non-profit Environmental Working Group revealed that the DEC's deputy commissioner, Steven Russo, had submitted potential regulations to lobbyists representing hydrofracking drillers.
Despite what felt like a sustained campaign to publicly ignore them, anti-frack activists are now breathing a little easier. “I feel like we overcame a huge hurdle,” said Russell Mendell, who helped organize a large demonstration against drilling last summer in front of the Governor's mansion.
Fracking wouldn't be under the scrutiny it is in New York, added Mendell, without the massive public pressure that's been put on Cuomo and the health and conservation regulators in his administration. Hundreds of rallies have taken place across the state. At a policy summit the governor hosted last summer in Manhattan, activists dropped a 30-foot banner from the Sheraton Hotel that read, “Cuomo, Don't Frack New York!” More than 6,000 people have pledged to take nonviolent direct action should he issue permits.
Adding to the likelihood that the February 27 deadline will be missed, the DEC received more than 200,000 written comments, the bulk of them from drilling opponents, during its recent public commenting period on proposed regulations. The agency will have to respond to each comment before regulations can be issued.
The groundswell of resistance has countered more than $3 million that companies with a stake in hydrofracking have pumped into the state to purchase influence. Cuomo himself has reportedly received between $150,000 and $200,000 from the pro-drilling lobby.
As DeSmog recently revealed, Cuomo's top aid Lawrence Schwartz owns stock in several energy companies whose share price will rise or fall depending on whether or not fracking in New York goes ahead.
And then there's Cuomo's own lobbying group, the Committee to Save New York. As Kevin Conner, co-director of the Public Accountability Initiative, writes:
"Four Committee backers identified in the press have a stake in the fracking debate, either directly or through businesses they represent: Con Edison, the Partnership for New York City, the Business Council of New York State, and the Buffalo Niagara Partnership. These organizations are major Committee backers, having either donated directly or 'bundled' significant contributions to the Committee."
And those are just the Committee donors we know about. If you're a fracker and you want to pass funds Cuomo's way, the “Committee to Save the 1%” will help you with that, says the Public Accountability Initiative. Millions of dollars from undisclosed special interests have been funneled into the group's coffers from other Wall Street players looking to profit from the frack market.
Fracking in context
The hydraulic fracturing technique -- which involves pumping a highly pressurized concoction of water, sand and hundreds of toxic chemicals, known as frack fluid, deep into the earth to break up shale deposits and release natural gas -- has been around for decades. But it was considered too costly to undertake due to federal environmental standards; that is, until Congress passed legislation in 2005 exempting the fracking practice from regulations protecting air and water.
Drafted by former Halliburton executive and then-Vice President Dick Cheney, the Halliburton Loop-Hole, as it came to be known, shifted much of the burden of regulating fracking from the federal to the state and municipal level.
Local officials at that time had no idea what was about to hit them. Industrial scale drilling spread to 31 states, and into regions poorly equipped to monitor what was going into the ground. Gas production has shot up 20% since 2005, and oil production by 10%.
Yet in some of the most densely fracked regions of America, there remains on average only one inspector for every 2,000 wells. In New Mexico, the ratio is one inspector per 4,500 wells.
Along with frack fluid, too, have come greenbacks. Lots of them. Money from hydrofracking interests has decided political races that came down to a few thousand dollars, and has lured many ranchers and farmers to lease disused lands where crop yields were precarious.
However, many of those who decided to lease to drillers have subsequently found their water contaminated (and in some cases inflammable) and the air on their property thick with cancerous hydrocarbons. With vampiric efficiency, fracking firms have managed to suck oil and gas out of the land and left the rest to rot, while the bulk of profits have evaded the communities.
And nowhere has the process of gas industry colonization been more fruitful than in the Empire State's southern neighbor, Pennsylvania. The state rests on the Marcellus Shale in the Appalachian Basin, which stretches from the southern United States all the way north to Ontario and contains an estimated 163-313 trillion cubic feet worth of gas.
Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett took over $1 million dollars in contributions from gas drillers during his 2010 campaign. In return he's been doling out favors, vetoing legislation that would impose taxes on gas extraction, and issuing thousands of permits with little environmental oversight.
Drillers would no doubt love to overtake New York in the way they've conquered Pennsylvania. But events this week demonstrated people's power to organize and beat back entrenched fossil fuel interests.
Now it's time for communities engaged everywhere in grassroots campaigns for ecological and social justice to do the same.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

1002. India's Rice Revolution

Sumant Kumar
Sumant Kumar photographed in Darveshpura, Bihar, India.
Photograph: Chiara Goia for Observer Food Monthly

By John Vidal, The Guardian, February 16, 2013
Sumant Kumar was overjoyed when he harvested his rice last year. There had been good rains in his village of Darveshpura in north-east India and he knew he could improve on the four or five tonnes per hectare that he usually managed. But every stalk he cut on his paddy field near the bank of the Sakri river seemed to weigh heavier than usual, every grain of rice was bigger and when his crop was weighed on the old village scales, even Kumar was shocked.
This was not six or even 10 or 20 tonnes. Kumar, a shy young farmer in Nalanda district of India's poorest state Bihar, had – using only farmyard manure and without any herbicides – grown an astonishing 22.4 tonnes of rice on one hectare of land. This was a world record and with rice the staple food of more than half the world's population of seven billion, big news.

It beat not just the 19.4 tonnes achieved by the "father of rice", the Chinese agricultural scientist Yuan Longping, but the World Bank-funded scientists at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, and anything achieved by the biggest European and American seed and GM companies. And it was not just Sumant Kumar. Krishna, Nitish, Sanjay and Bijay, his friends and rivals in Darveshpura, all recorded over 17 tonnes, and many others in the villages around claimed to have more than doubled their usual yields.
The villagers, at the mercy of erratic weather and used to going without food in bad years, celebrated. But the Bihar state agricultural universities didn't believe them at first, while India's leading rice scientists muttered about freak results. The Nalanda farmers were accused of cheating. Only when the state's head of agriculture, a rice farmer himself, came to the village with his own men and personally verified Sumant's crop, was the record confirmed.

The rhythm of Nalanda village life was shattered. Here bullocks still pull ploughs as they have always done, their dung is still dried on the walls of houses and used to cook food. Electricity has still not reached most people. Sumant became a local hero, mentioned in the Indian parliament and asked to attend conferences. The state's chief minister came to Darveshpura to congratulate him, and the village was rewarded with electric power, a bank and a new concrete bridge.

That might have been the end of the story had Sumant's friend Nitish not smashed the world record for growing potatoes six months later. Shortly after Ravindra Kumar, a small farmer from a nearby Bihari village, broke the Indian record for growing wheat. Darveshpura became known as India's "miracle village", Nalanda became famous and teams of scientists, development groups, farmers, civil servants and politicians all descended to discover its secret.

When I meet the young farmers, all in their early 30s, they still seem slightly dazed by their fame. They've become unlikely heroes in a state where nearly half the families live below the Indian poverty line and 93% of the 100 million population depend on growing rice and potatoes. Nitish Kumar speaks quietly of his success and says he is determined to improve on the record. "In previous years, farming has not been very profitable," he says. "Now I realise that it can be. My whole life has changed. I can send my children to school and spend more on health. My income has increased a lot."

What happened in Darveshpura has divided scientists and is exciting governments and development experts. Tests on the soil show it is particularly rich in silicon but the reason for the "super yields" is entirely down to a method of growing crops called System of Rice (or root) Intensification (SRI). It has dramatically increased yields with wheat, potatoes, sugar cane, yams, tomatoes, garlic, aubergine and many other crops and is being hailed as one of the most significant developments of the past 50 years for the world's 500 million small-scale farmers and the two billion people who depend on them.

Instead of planting three-week-old rice seedlings in clumps of three or four in waterlogged fields, as rice farmers around the world traditionally do, the Darveshpura farmers carefully nurture only half as many seeds, and then transplant the young plants into fields, one by one, when much younger. Additionally, they space them at 25cm intervals in a grid pattern, keep the soil much drier and carefully weed around the plants to allow air to their roots. The premise that "less is more" was taught by Rajiv Kumar, a young Bihar state government extension worker who had been trained in turn by Anil Verma of a small Indian NGO called Pran (Preservation and
Proliferation of Rural Resources and Nature), which has introduced the SRI method to hundreds of villages in the past three years.
While the "green revolution" that averted Indian famine in the 1970s relied on improved crop varieties, expensive pesticides and chemical fertilisers, SRI appears to offer a long-term, sustainable future for no extra cost. With more than one in seven of the global population going hungry and demand for rice expected to outstrip supply within 20 years, it appears to offer real hope. Even a 30% increase in the yields of the world's small farmers would go a long way to alleviating poverty.

"Farmers use less seeds, less water and less chemicals but they get more without having to invest more. This is revolutionary," said Dr Surendra Chaurassa from Bihar's agriculture ministry. "I did not believe it to start with, but now I think it can potentially change the way everyone farms. I would want every state to promote it. If we get 30-40% increase in yields, that is more than enough to recommend it."
The results in Bihar have exceeded Chaurassa's hopes. Sudama Mahto, an agriculture officer in Nalanda, says a small investment in training a few hundred people to teach SRI methods has resulted in a 45% increase in the region's yields. Veerapandi Arumugam, the former agriculture minister of Tamil Nadu state, hailed the system as "revolutionising" farming.

SRI's origins go back to the 1980s in Madagascar where Henri de Laulanie, a French Jesuit priest and agronomist, observed how villagers grew rice in the uplands. He developed the method but it was an American, professor Norman Uphoff, director of the International Institute for Food, Agriculture and Development at Cornell University, who was largely responsible for spreading the word about De Laulanie's work.

Given $15m by an anonymous billionaire to research sustainable development, Uphoff went to Madagascar in 1983 and saw the success of SRI for himself: farmers whose previous yields averaged two tonnes per hectare were harvesting eight tonnes. In 1997 he started to actively promote SRI in Asia, where more than 600 million people are malnourished.

"It is a set of ideas, the absolute opposite to the first green revolution [of the 60s] which said that you had to change the genes and the soil nutrients to improve yields. That came at a tremendous ecological cost," says Uphoff. "Agriculture in the 21st century must be practised differently. Land and water resources are becoming scarcer, of poorer quality, or less reliable. Climatic conditions are in many places more adverse. SRI offers millions of disadvantaged households far better opportunities. Nobody is benefiting from this except the farmers; there are no patents, royalties or licensing fees."

For 40 years now, says Uphoff, science has been obsessed with improving seeds and using artificial fertilisers: "It's been genes, genes, genes. There has never been talk of managing crops. Corporations say 'we will breed you a better plant' and breeders work hard to get 5-10% increase in yields. We have tried to make agriculture an industrial enterprise and have forgotten its biological roots."
Not everyone agrees. Some scientists complain there is not enough peer-reviewed evidence around SRI and that it is impossible to get such returns. "SRI is a set of management practices and nothing else, many of which have been known for a long time and are best recommended practice," says Achim Dobermann, deputy director for research at the International Rice Research Institute. "Scientifically speaking I don't believe there is any miracle. When people independently have evaluated SRI principles then the result has usually been quite different from what has been reported on farm evaluations conducted by NGOs and others who are promoting it. Most scientists have had difficulty replicating the observations."
Dominic Glover, a British researcher working with Wageningen University in the Netherlands, has spent years analysing the introduction of GM crops in developing countries. He is now following how SRI is being adopted in India and believes there has been a "turf war".

"There are experts in their fields defending their knowledge," he says. "But in many areas, growers have tried SRI methods and abandoned them. People are unwilling to investigate this. SRI is good for small farmers who rely on their own families for labour, but not necessarily for larger operations. Rather than any magical theory, it is good husbandry, skill and attention which results in the super yields. Clearly in certain circumstances, it is an efficient resource for farmers. But it is labour intensive and nobody has come up with the technology to transplant single seedlings yet."

But some larger farmers in Bihar say it is not labour intensive and can actually reduce time spent in fields. "When a farmer does SRI the first time, yes it is more labour intensive," says Santosh Kumar, who grows 15 hectares of rice and vegetables in Nalanda. "Then it gets easier and new innovations are taking place now."

In its early days, SRI was dismissed or vilified by donors and scientists but in the past few years it has gained credibility. Uphoff estimates there are now 4-5 million farmers using SRI worldwide, with governments in China, India, Indonesia, Cambodia, Sri Lanka and Vietnam promoting it.

Sumant, Nitish and as many as 100,000 other SRI farmers in Bihar are now preparing their next rice crop. It's back-breaking work transplanting the young rice shoots from the nursery beds to the paddy fields but buoyed by recognition and results, their confidence and optimism in the future is sky high.

Last month Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz visited Nalanda district and recognised the potential of this kind of organic farming, telling the villagers they were "better than scientists". "It was amazing to see their success in organic farming," said Stiglitz, who called for more research. "Agriculture scientists from across the world should visit and learn and be inspired by them."

Bihar, from being India's poorest state, is now at the centre of what is being called a "new green grassroots revolution" with farming villages, research groups and NGOs all beginning to experiment with different crops using SRI. The state will invest $50m in SRI next year but western governments and foundations are holding back, preferring to invest in hi-tech research. The agronomist Anil Verma does not understand why: "The farmers know SRI works, but help is needed to train them. We know it works differently in different soils but the principles are solid," he says. "The biggest problem we have is that people want to do it but we do not have enough trainers.

"If any scientist or a company came up with a technology that almost guaranteed a 50% increase in yields at no extra cost they would get a Nobel prize. But when young Biharian farmers do that they get nothing. I only want to see the poor farmers have enough to eat."