Introduction and context
Rice is more than just a staple food; it contributes almost a fifth of all calories consumed by humans worldwide. The dependence on this grain provides a clear picture of its indispensable role in ensuring food security, especially in developing countries. Today, rice consumption is increasing worldwide, while productivity is decreasing due to many factors.
Of 90% of the world’s rice Because production is concentrated in Asia, countries such as China, India, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Vietnam are crucial to the global rice supply. However, rice consumption is largely decentralized and globally distributed.
Smallholder farmers are an integral part of this supply chain, making it essential to address their challenges and opportunities. Because global demand for rice is expected to rise 25% in the next 25 yearsUnderstanding the dynamics of rice supply chain sustainability is not only timely, but also crucial.
Following the COVID-19 pandemic, many countries have decided to drastically reduce the number of infections limit their exports To strengthen their stock of food security, they used more than ever the political leverage that rice represents, especially in Asia. Southeast Asian countries had different rice policies: Vietnam had to limit exported volumes to safeguard local consumption, while exceptionally securing some reserves for the Philippines, which usually imports 90% of its rice from the country. On the other hand, Thailand used export restrictions in neighboring countries to its own advantage. By utilizing the surplus rice available throughout the country, Thailand was able to meet its import needs and a temporary increase in demand for Thai rice was observed.
Global dynamics of rice cultivation
Rice cultivation is the lifeline of billions of people worldwide. The country’s dominance in the global food landscape and cultivation practices have evolved, in response to both the changing environment and socio-economic factors. The current paradigm of rice farming is characterized by the extensive use of the green revolution package, while the natural resources context has been radically changed. Originally designed to maximize yields, these seeds are a double-edged sword, as their productivity is linked to a greater reliance on herbicides, water, fertilizers and pesticides. While such practices have increased production rates, today they pose environmental and health challenges that have become priorities over the past decade.
- When floods persist, rice cultivation is a potent source of methane – a greenhouse gas with 25 times the global warming potential of CO2 over a century. Methane emissions from rice land are responsible for approx 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions in agriculture. With countries like Vietnam attributing 50% of their agricultural emissions to rice farming, it is clear that tackling methane emissions is both an environmental and economic priority.
- Higher temperatures observed due to climate change, especially during the flowering stage of rice cultures, cause flower sterility. This has direct consequences for the pollination and development of the crops, resulting in reduced yields.
- Rice cultivation is inherently water intensive. It is estimated that the production of 1 kg of rice requires approximately 2,500 liters of water. In regions like India, where 44% of the land is drought-prone, such consumption is unsustainable and is sometimes exacerbated by government policies to reduce production costs. Indeed, regulations for water conservation in agricultural systems in India remain lacking. Farmers have access to free water, and development projects up to 218 focused on building water canals for irrigation, which proved to be very wasteful. Moreover, excessive water extraction for rice cultivation in countries such as China has led to a drop in water levels, further exacerbating the water crisis. As the world moves towards potential water scarcity, sustainable water management in rice farming is not only desirable; it is absolutely necessary.
The majority of rice is grown by smallholder farmers, who face several challenges.
- The aging of the rural population, complemented by the migration of young people to urban centers, threatens the future of rice farming.
- Fluctuating global prices have a direct impact on the prosperity of these farmers. They are often dependent on monsoon rains, with some regions already experiencing water scarcity, which is expected to increase due to predicted climate changes.
- As rice becomes less profitable for farmers, it is used as a secondary crop for household consumption. Smallholder farmers are switching to more profitable cash crops and using the yield for daily consumption.
The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) estimates that traditional rice growing landscapes could see a decline in yields up to 40% due to climate change caused by severe drought such as that experienced in some states in India, while demand is constantly growing. These figures not only underline the vulnerability of rice farmers, but also emphasize the need for adaptive and resilient agricultural techniques and attractive purchase prices, which do not yet include the high environmental costs associated with this crop.
By means of observing global rice trade flows Over the years, notable events can be noted:
- Severe droughts in 2018 have had a major impact on overall production and exports, reflected in a reduction in trade friction between major countries.
- Following the COVID-19 pandemic, several countries reduced their exports to ensure national food security, leading to a rise in international rice prices.
These price fluctuations not only threaten existing political synergies and trade networks, they also impact the countries in question that rely on rice to ensure nutritious intake and food security for the most vulnerable communities.
Towards net-zero cultivation: opportunities and routes
The journey to net zero in the rice farming sector is a colossal task given the complexity, variability and scale of its production. Due to methane emissions, rice fields emit two to five times as much as other staple crops. Recognizing rice as a crop with high greenhouse gas emissions opens doors to climate finance. Targeting these funds to rural communities and smallholder farmers can promote climate-resilient farming practices, furthering the move to net-zero emissions. *Link to the article on carbon sequestration
Paddy cultivation, especially when flooded, makes a significant contribution to methane emissions. While traditional rice farming relies on constant flooding, alternative methods such as the Alternate Wetting and Drying (AWD) technique can reduce methane emissions by up to 50%. AWD means that the rice fields can dry for certain periods before being flooded again, disrupting the methane production cycle. The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) has played a crucial role in promoting AWD, noting that, in addition to methane reduction, AWD can save up to 30% of water use in cultivation. This methodology has been tested by Ksapa’s agronomy expert in Thailand, as part of a project to improve the livelihoods of smallholder farmers.
It is essential that farmers receive knowledge and skills. In addition to AWD, programs that focus on educating farmers on good agricultural practices, including soil preparation and fertility management, seeding and weeding, sustainable inputs, homemade production and residue management, can pay significant dividends.
Since rice is a high greenhouse gas emitting crop, there is a tangible opportunity to leverage climate finance. Farmers and cooperatives can transition to sustainable practices like the AWD described previously, leading to reduced carbon emissions and earning carbon credits.
Case studies: insights and lessons
Efforts in Africa to improve the nutritional value of rice produced
The African continent has significant potential for rice cultivation. Yet vast areas suitable for rice production remain underutilized. It is estimated that more than 230 hectares are suitable for rice production, while only 12 hectares are actually used. Current yields are worrying, especially given rising demand in regions such as Sub-Saharan Africa. However, initiatives in countries such as Burundi, where improved rice varieties and extensive farmer training on Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) have led to a 73% increase in production, demonstrate the transformative potential of targeted interventions.
Because rice production is a major contributor to Vietnam’s greenhouse gas emissions, the country’s commitment to the Paris Agreement’s emissions reduction targets is notable. Vietnam has included sustainable agricultural practices in its National Development Agenda and is working with international partners to promote sustainable rice farming. Efforts include creating private sector toolkits for sustainable rice value chains and developing monitoring, reporting and verification (MRV) frameworks.
The Philippines is demonstrating the benefits of technological integration in sustainable rice farming. Their national pest surveillance and early warning system, along with a shift to direct-seeded dry rice, has led to a 23% drop in methane emissions.
Challenges and interventions
Today, most projects, including rice production, are very rare or implemented very slowly or on very limited areas of land. Due to the political dimension, projects related to the rice value chain typically involve a large number of stakeholders with different interests. There is an urgent need to establish light implementation processes with rapid impact to encourage smallholder farmers to adopt sustainable GAPs en masse. These sustainable practices will have a huge impact due to the large number of rice farms around the world. Over the past decade, Alternate Wetting and Drying (AWD) and System of Rice Intensification (SRI) have been among the most popular and effective production systems showing positive effects on water use and soil fertility management, but these systems have not yet been adopted en masse due to limitations on several levels: awareness, managerial or operational, that prevented farmers from understanding, owning, adopting and transferring this type of low-tech innovation. Even if carbon finance were to accelerate the transition to more efficient practices, the technical and administrative implementation prevents most supply chain stakeholders from taking large-scale action.
The complexities surrounding rice farming, from environmental impacts to socio-economic and political challenges, require a multi-faceted approach to sustainability. As global demand for rice will continue to grow, forging sustainable pathways is not only preferable but essential. Understanding these challenges and opportunities is a key to guiding companies towards sustainable decisions and practices in the rice sector.