Climate Friendly Rice: The End of the Paddy Field?

February 19, 2013


One of the biggest challenges of adapting to and mitigating climate change will be adjusting agriculture to the demands of a changing climate, feeding an expanding population, and finding a way to reduce climate impacts of key food crops. The following news item offers hope on all three fronts.

Eco Business:

Changing the way rice is grown, from planting it in flooded paddy fields to drier soil cultivation, is dramatically increasing yields and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The results of trials in eleven countries show that yields increased by an average of 60 per cent, although they varied sharply  between states, from an 11 per cent increase to 220 per cent.

A paper published in The Geographical Journal, the scientific publication of the Royal Geographical Society of London, says the System of Rice Intensification, or SRI, is having such success that 50 countries are now adopting it.

The method evolved in Madagascar over two decades but can now be applied in all rice-growing countries. Four studies in India, Indonesia, Kenya and Mali showed that production costs fell by 20-32 per cent, and profit per hectare rose between 52 per cent and 183 per cent.

In China, which has adopted SRI on a large scale, yields increased, but – just as important for a country short of water – 22.6 per cent less irrigation was needed.

SRI involves growing rice in aerated soil instead of flooded paddies. Single young seedlings are planted with regular wide spacing, and soils are kept moist but not wet. Nutrients are placed in the soil next to the plant rather than spread randomly.

The method reduces the costs of land preparation, seed, fertilizer and water use, and cuts methane emissions, while achieving the increased crop yields. Rice grown by the new method has bigger roots, and the larger plant produces more and heavier grains.

The environmental benefits, apart from the reduction in methane emissions from the flooded paddies, include a lower need for tractor power and the labour required before the crop is planted.

Climate News Network:

Less seed is needed for fewer, stronger plants.  Achieving this with less fertilizer means saving greenhouse gases in production, and less irrigation also saves the amount of fuel needed for water pumps.

In areas where arsenic in water is a problem – like Bangladesh – this new method reduces arsenic contamination in crops and soil. There are also health benefits to farmers and labourers working in dry fields rather than flooded ones. SRI also reduces the mosquito population and therefore malaria.

It is proving a success in all 50 countries which have adopted it across Asia, Africa and Central America. Despite this, one obstacle to exploiting this potentially huge boost to yields is getting the message to farmers, say the researchers, Amir Kassam, convener of the Land Husbandry Group at the UK  Tropical Agriculture Association and Hugh Brammer, former United Nations agricultural development adviser to Bangladesh.

Educating the poor farmers who will benefit most is an uphill task because in many African and Asian countries they have little or no institutional backup, or sometimes because governments have collapsed altogether.

The researchers suggest that modern communication devices – mobile ‘phones, computers and television sets – could be used to educate the farmers. Non-governmental organisations “with their closer contacts with rural people than most government officials” could play a valuable role both in testing ideas and obtaining feedback.


5 Responses to “Climate Friendly Rice: The End of the Paddy Field?”

  1. andrewfez Says:

    Or for less energy and maintenance, one could grow sweet chestnuts, which, according to the video below, have a similar nutritional value to that of rice. The part I’m referencing is 42:30 to 43:05 minutes in the video. Not the best research to go by what one person in a video is saying, but satisfactory to a mild curiosity:

    That’s actually a pretty cool video. If y’all have time, go from like 36 minutes forward to hear about food forests. Or watch the entire thing on the weekend.

    • MorinMoss Says:

      Very interesting but it also drives home the point of the multiple avenues of disaster lying in wait for us all.

      Can we cope with climate change / food shortages / high energy prices / aging population all at once?

      My fear is we cannot.

      All that aside, I was truly impressed by the foresight and doggedness of some of the farmers interviewed and particularly so by that amazing Shropshire pasture that was “intelligently designed” by Arthur Hollins.

      In an era of instant gratification, where overnight success is the hallmark of achievement, it’s heartwarming to know there are still people who’ll devote themselves over many decades in pursuit of a worthwhile goal, not caring about recognition.

  2. patricklinsley Says:

    For people more interested in the research on this and scientific paper on SRI you can visit the Cornell site that is chock full of the research and findings on SRI at
    Also the site has research on other crops that are using the same method, but there it is called SCP (strategic crop production) and less research has been done in that area.

    Here’s another article on the application of SRI worldwide called ‘How Millions of Farmers are Advancing Agriculture For Themselves’ about recent trials producing record yields with little fertilizer, no pesticides or GMOs, and hand tools rather than giant tractors.
    It will be amazing to watch this movement grow and enrich the people who actually work the land rather than the ag wheelers and dealers who end up enriching themselves by getting poor farmers on the treadmill of high cost seeds, fertilizer, pesticides and diesel year in year out. And apparently this is being used by an NGO that Jim Carey is working with in Haiti to help poor farmers there after the 2010 earthquake.


  3. […] 2013/02/19: PSinclair: Climate Friendly Rice: The End of the Paddy Field? […]

  4. andrewfez Says:

    Yup. Recently, I’ve been purchasing tools to trim out my doors and walls at my place. I was thinking it’s probably good to get a miter saw now, while it’s only 270 bucks, instead of what it will cost in 2040, as we surf down the tail of the Hubbard curve, which one could only guess at, but would not do wrong to guess high.

    I’m eventually gonna move back to the east coast, and get enough land that i can garden as sustainably as i can, when i’m older. I’ll start small and try to supplement 5% of my food, then gradually as food prices rise, I’ll scale up my garden to hedge against that. I like apples, but apples don’t like large, erratic seasonal anomalies. They like it cold when it’s supposed to be cold and warm when it’s supposed to be warm.

    It’s been a while since I’ve watched the video, but yeah, I liked the multi-variety pasture also. Being innovative in an energy expensive environment; coming up with solutions that don’t fall towards the simplistic ‘cheap oil’ card we’ve played so many times in the last 100 years – that’s the ticket.

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