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Methane, water, birds, air pollution — how can rice farmers deal with trade-offs?

This text initially appeared as a part of our Meals Weekly e-newsletter. Subscribe to get sustainability meals information in your inbox each Thursday.

Rice is the world’s most essential crop. Over half of the worldwide inhabitants depends on rice as their each day staple meals; over a fifth relies on rice cultivation for his or her livelihood, based on the Worldwide Rice Analysis Institute and the U.S. Division for Agriculture. With such an enormous footprint, it’s no shock that rice is leaving its mark on the surroundings. 

Rice manufacturing is liable for giant quantities of methane emissions. In keeping with the World Assets Institute, they equate to about 10 % of worldwide agricultural GHG emissions. It consumes 40 % of worldwide irrigation water. However nature additionally co-evolved with rice manufacturing. Particularly, waterbirds corresponding to waterfowls, wading birds and shorebirds take benefit of flooded rice fields to forage on a wide range of prey, nest and stage throughout migration. 

This relationship is turning into ever extra essential for birds as people proceed to destroy pure wetlands. However as rice-producing international locations and corporations more and more set their eyes on lowering methane emissions and water use to satisfy local weather targets and reply to water shortages, there’s a threat that this important habitat inside rice fields will even diminish. Is there a option to protect the habitat whereas additionally lowering emissions? 

I will not try to unravel the entire world’s rice puzzle in a single article, however I’ll offer you an instance the place affordable outcomes for local weather, water, biodiversity, native communities and farmers appear doable. 

A win-win-neutral for methane, water and birds 

Promising work on sustainable rice farming is occurring in Arkansas and different states within the Decrease Mississippi River Basin, residence to two-thirds of U.S. rice fields, based on the Agricultural Analysis Service. 

Most rice grows in flooded fields, requiring giant quantities of irrigation water. When the water covers the soil, it prevents oxygen from passing by way of, creating excellent circumstances for micro organism that break down natural matter and emit methane — a course of known as anaerobic digestion. Any technique that reduces water protection, permitting soils to breathe, cuts emissions. 

[Interested in learning how we can transform food systems to equitably and efficiently feed a more populous planet while conserving and regenerating the natural world? Check out the VERGE 22 Food Program, taking place in San Jose, CA, Oct. 25-28.]

Benjamin Runkle, affiliate professor on the College of Arkansas, has been researching strategies to just do that. The strategy he’s most optimistic about known as alternate wetting and drying (AWD). As an alternative of constantly flooding fields, farmers let irrigated areas dry up for one or two days earlier than pumping the subsequent spherical of water. 

“Our measurements present you could cut back methane emissions by 64 % with out impacting yield when it’s accomplished proper,” Runkle mentioned. On the similar time, water use falls by 20 to 40 %. Runkle isn’t frightened about chook habitat since neighboring fields might be dried and flooded at totally different instances, providing a mosaic of non permanent wetlands for birds to make use of. 

Different practices which are gaining recognition could pose extra appreciable dangers to birds. Row rice farming, additionally known as furrow-irrigated rice, is a follow that doesn’t require flooding of fields, enabling rice farming in areas that aren’t completely flat and saving value and labor. As an alternative, farmers plant the rice in slim soil beds and run irrigation water by way of furrows between the beds. This drier sort of rice farming doesn’t supply wetland-like circumstances that birds sometimes co-existing with rice farms must thrive. 

Farmer coaching and incentives have arrived 

The advantages of this system have been identified for some time, however the World Assets Institute (WRI) recognized too many sensible obstacles stopping the take-up of AWD in a 2014 research. 

Rice flood

Farmers don’t at all times have sufficient management over water to make sure good wetting and drying processes — for instance, in tropical areas with heavy storms or when coping with time-restricted water entry. Finished poorly, the follow can cut back yields. And at last, “farmers obtain no reward for lowering emissions and endure no penalty for rising them,” WRI concluded on the time. 

Eight years later, the excellent news is that no less than the incentives have modified. Kellogg just lately completed a three-year collaboration with The Nature Conservancy in Arkansas, Michigan, Illinois and Nebraska that supplied technical and monetary help to undertake conservation practices on rice fields. One facet of this system was putting in 180 irrigation pump timers on farms in Arkansas, saving over 8 billion gallons of water.

Subsequent, Kellogg will associate with the greenhouse gasoline measurement startup ReGrow and Syngenta on a $2 million, five-year program in Northeast Louisiana to measure the local weather impression of higher irrigation, nutrient and soil well being administration and obtain Scope 3 emissions reductions on rice fields. Along with offering coaching alternatives, the pilot financially rewards farmers for emissions reductions to make adopting new practices much less monetarily dangerous. 

Different giant meals corporations corresponding to Mars have additionally adopted AWD, amongst different sustainable rice farming practices. 

What’s behind ‘carbon impartial’ rice?

AgriCapture, a Nashville, Tennessee-based carbon measurement startup, is embarking on the same journey. This month, it launched a “carbon impartial” rice certification to permit distributors and restaurant teams to cost shoppers a premium for rice grown based on the corporate’s climate-friendly rice commonplace. It contains practices corresponding to AWD, extra environment friendly nutrient administration and no discipline burning.

Why don’t we simply embrace the 50% to 80% emissions reductions as that’s a powerful and extra simply verifiable achievement?

AgriCapture claims that its licensed product has between 50 to 80 % decrease greenhouse gasoline emissions than typical rice manufacturing within the area. This is able to be a considerable achievement, however it doesn’t make the rice inherently carbon impartial. Nearly no meals merchandise truly are due to all of the land and vitality assets used to farm and manufacture them. The startup plans to offset the opposite half. 

I’m not a fan of such offset-based carbon neutrality claims since offsets are a tough enterprise. This framing can create false impressions for shoppers unaware of the complexity. Why don’t we simply embrace the 50 to 80 % emissions reductions as that’s a powerful and extra simply verifiable achievement?

Ultimately, AgriCapture plans to create a carbon offset market primarily based on methane and carbon reductions achieved on rice farms as a second enterprise line along with licensed rice. However at present, it’s nonetheless engaged on fine-tuning the underlying measurement, reporting and verification protocols. 

Weighing tough trade-offs  

AgriCapture doesn’t understand a biodiversity trade-off by way of its practices as a result of there’s much less overlap between the rice farming season and chook migrations within the Southwestern United States. “So far, we’re not conscious of great trade-offs like on the West Coast, however we’re finding out the difficulty carefully,” mentioned Sami Osman, president and chief coverage officer at AgriCapture.

This may be true for fields utilizing AWD. However as defined above, there’s doubtlessly extra biodiversity threat related to row rice farming which the startup additionally encourages as a part of its certification program. This problem nonetheless requires a greater understanding. 

For now, what to do with leftover rice stubble within the fields after harvest is inflicting greater complications. Stubble is the straw-like decrease a part of the rice plant that is still on fields after harvesting the highest portion containing the rice grains. When left on fields, stubble can enhance soil well being and supply feed for birds. However extra natural matter results in elevated methane emissions within the subsequent rising season, amongst different issues. That’s why farmers generally burn leftover stubble, which, in flip, creates carbon emissions and harmful air air pollution for close by communities. 

Runkle has studied the professionals and cons of various approaches for rice stubble with out coming to an easy greatest follow suggestion. “For this problem, it actually relies on the way you weigh the totally different trade-offs,” Runkle mentioned. AgriCapture is dedicated to lowering burning as a consequence of its social implications and is exploring various makes use of for the biomass. 

This brings us again to the customarily too acquainted notion of sustainable agriculture: it’s sophisticated. There are at all times trade-offs concerned, however they’re not an excuse for inaction. Fairly,  we should consider carefully about tips on how to perceive and weigh them.



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