By Emma Attwell
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If you are like a majority of the population, rice is a part of your weekly diet. In fact, rice is the most widely consumed food on Earth, feeding 3.5 billion people every day. With almost half the global population relying on this staple crop for at least 20% of their calories, there is no doubt that rice is essential for keeping the world fed.
In order to compensate for this immense demand, rice has to be grown using techniques that yield high volumes. Although highly efficient in terms of output versus land use, the amount of resources used to produce this quantity of rice is immense. Furthermore, the rice industry employs millions of people all across the globe. It is estimated that one billion people rely on rice cultivation as their livelihood and there are more than 200 million rice farms in Asia alone. Despite this massive industry, consumers are too preoccupied eating their rice and are unsuspecting of how it impacts our planet.
The global rice industry is not without consequences. The greatest issue is the release of millions of tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Approximately 11% of total global methane emissions originate from rice farming. It is estimated that 500 million tons of greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere each year as a result of rice cultivation. That is approximately one percent of total annual global emissions and equivalent to around 100 million passenger vehicles driving for a single year.
Rice farming also results in extensive water use through irrigation. Half of all water consumption in Asia is used for rice farming.
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It is estimated that approximately 1.26 quadrillion liters of water are used to grow rice each year. This is because traditional farming techniques require rice paddies to remain inundated with several inches of water all season long and require continuous re-flooding to maintain the water levels. Excess nitrogen and phosphorus compounds such as ammonium and phosphate are also problematic bi-products of unsustainable rice. These compounds are produced through the use of Nitrogen-based fertilizers used to boost crop yield. In turn, flow from fields runs off into major bodies of water. This can cause eutrophication, which when there is an excessive amount of nutrients in a body of water, often causing devastating algae blooms. These blooms may have severe impacts on the drinking water of thousands, or potentially millions of people in reservoirs and lakes, and may damage the delicate biodiversity of local ecosystems.
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Rice is a much-needed staple of our global diet, but as global temperatures continue to rise, and water scarcity becomes an increasingly likely reality, farmers and agricultural corporations must work to find new cultivation methods and irrigation techniques. These strategies are required to reduce methane emissions, as well as cut down on the overuse of valuable water. Through years of research and trial and error, several sustainable rice cultivation methods have been developed to reduce rice farming’s environmental impact.
Many of these new innovative techniques, such as Aerobic Rice Cultivation (ARC), have great potential for a future of global economic water scarcity. ARC uses between 30-50% less water than standard rice cultivation as the fields do not have to be kept flooded during the growing period. ARC is also designed to be able to grow rice in drier climates than what was previously thought to be possible. This opens up a variety of possibilities for rice cultivation as global warming becomes a more pressing issue. This could also be the key to closing the 70% food gap needed by 2050, with more land now accessible for rice cultivation. In addition, Aerobic Rice Cultivation can reduce rice paddy methane emissions by as much as 50%, significantly reducing the rice industry’s greenhouse gas footprint.
Although the traditional and most popular rice cultivation practices of the rice industry have serious long-term consequences, it will not be possible to make a change right away. Traditional rice farming techniques are passed down through generations without being adapted to fit the current environmental standards. Often farmers do not want to make changes if it is not mandatory. Millions of farmers around the world barely have enough rice paddies to feed themselves, let alone cultivate cash crops. When transitioning from traditional methods to ARC there will be materials and equipment costs as well as risks of crop failure. The livelihoods of these farmers depend on their rice paddy making change not financially viable. Without extensive funding and collaboration between nations to create educational outreach programs to instruct farmers on more sustainable cultivation techniques, it would be difficult to create an eco-friendly rice industry.
The transition of farmers and cultivators away from traditional rice-growing techniques will be crucial in the development of sustainable rice practices. Whether or not sustainable rice farming is implemented may well be a deciding factor as to whether the Paris Agreement targets are met. These changes in farming practice are rigorous. However, with dedication and drive to save the future of our planet it is possible to reform the past negative practices of rice cultivation, and move forward to a productive and sustainable industry.
Written by writer Emma Attwell