Wet rice cultivation is not without grave environmental costs. In fact, it comes with an enormous footprint.
Rice is a staple diet across much of the world with billions of people depending on it for their daily sustenance. Yet wet rice cultivation is not without grave environmental costs. In fact, it comes with an enormous environmental footprint.
For starters, growing rice in flooded paddies contributes an estimated 12% of global emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas that is driving global climate change. Meanwhile, rice cultivation also requires anywhere between 30% and 40% of the planet’s freshwater, which can place great strains on already depleted sources in more arid regions.
Yet rice can be cultivated in far greener ways. One solution, devised by an Israeli company, involves fitting paddies out with perforated pipes that deliver precise amounts of water directly to the plants’ roots. The result of fine-tuned drip irrigation is that less than half of the water is needed than the quantity used in a traditional flooded paddy.
During a pilot project Netafim, the company which once pioneered drip irrigation in arid landscapes around Israel, set up rice fields at various locations in Europe all the way to South Asia.
At a farm in northeast Italy, high-quality rice is grown side-by-side in paddies employing both the traditional method and the new drip-irrigation technique. Reportedly the new drip-irrigation technique has yielded rice equal in quality to crops cultivated in the flooded paddies at a much reduced environmental cost.
“We want to increase the production without increasing water use or lowering quality,” said an Italian farmer whose family has adopted the Netafim system on some of his land.
Not only is plenty of freshwater saved in the process but methane emission also goes down to zero as growing switches from anaerobic to aerobic, according to the company, which took a decade to hone its new drip-irrigation method, including the best way to plant, water and fertilize rice.
On the downside, an initial investment of pipes, pumps and filters can be pricey for farmers, but over the long term the shift away from flooding can yield great benefits for them, especially in arid regions like parts of India and Pakistan where freshwater is a prized commodity already in short supply.
If applied on a large enough scale, the new drip irrigation technique could come with enormous benefits, particularly because demand for rice is expected to rise by 25% in just three decades, experts say.
“The sector needs a transformation” so that farmers end up “getting more grain for every drop,” stresses Wyn Ellis, executive director at the Sustainable Rice Platform, which promotes more environmentally friendly growing practices.