How Germany helps Asian Rice Farmers Cut Emissions

Image of Philippines Rice Terrace by lester56 from Pixabay

Methane emissions from rice play a significant but much overlooked part in global climate change, research shows. The German Development ministry supports research programs in Asia to counter the threat and help farmers.

After carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) is the most important greenhouse gas (GHG) contributing to global warming. Methane gets released into the atmosphere through fracking and when burning wood. Agriculture is also a big emitter: livestock farming releases methane into the air, while it is emitted as a result of rotting vegetation in water-soaked rice paddy fields. According to estimations from the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), global emissions from wetland rice production are responsible for about eleven percent of the total human methane production.

German ministry

In comparison to CO2, the amount of methane in the atmosphere is relatively small. But methane has thirty times more climate potency than CO2. A study published in the scientific journal Nature showed an abrupt rise in the release of methane into the atmosphere from 2007 onwards. The researchers studied satellite images showing air composition to conclude the sudden rise was related to agriculture. To be able to reach any climate goal, a reduction in agriculture-related methane emissions is necessary, the scientists underline: developing climate-smart rice growing practices could substantially lower methane emissions and help combat climate change.

According to the latest Rice Market Monitor of the UN food and agricultural organization (FAO) yearly 750 million tons of rice are produced. Most of that is grown by smallholders in Asia. To help those millions farmers in their transition to sustainability the German development ministry GIZ (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit) is cooperating with public and private partners to promote the rice sector’s sustainable development. Currently, GIZ also chairs the Sustainable Rice Platform (SRP): an international initiative launched in 2011 by the Filipino based International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP).

Under the auspices of GIZ a whole range of European ngo’s such as Solidaridad, Rainforest Alliance, UTZ, as well as the agricultural ministries of Vietnam, Sri Lanka and Cambodia cooperate under the SRP-banner. The German ministry is also establishing 375 Sustainable Rice Production Centres in Indonesia, runs and finances a farmer’s bank in Thailand together with the British government and is involved in a cooperative project to reduce the high levels of chemical residue found in rice-harvests, limiting the ability of Vietnamese farmers to export to the EU.

Most rice, however, is consumed where it is produced: only about five per cent is exported. “Most Europeans are completely unaware of the impact rice production has in Asia itself,” program director Matthias Bickel says. “Asian governments are quite hesitant to sign international agreements obliging farmers to change practices. Every policy measure combatting climate change could also impact the incomes of millions of small farmers.”

Alternate Wetting and Drying

Therefore, SRP focuses on promoting hand-on techniques that benefit farmers as well as the climate. One of the those is ‘alternate wetting and drying’ (AWD) – developed by IRRI. Dutch scientist Bas Bouman has been the director of a IRRI-coordinated worldwide rice research program for the last six years. His team tries to develop more efficient growing methods, develop better crops and plants better equipped for salinization.

“AWD was originally developed by farmers as a way to save water,” Bouman explains. “In practice it means not keeping your rice paddy flooded all the time. Depending on soil conditions, farmers can save up to fifty percent of water by practicing AWD. In a broader perspective, when farmers give the soils to soak up water every once in a while, methane emissions drop sharply.”

To promote AWD as widely as possible, GIZ is working together with big companies – for example Olam International, Ahold, Mars Foods, Nestlé and grain traders like Louis Dreyfus. Major brands and retailers can catalyse change by choosing SRP as a procurement standard among farmers, explains Bickel: “Because of their size companies like that have much better access to millions of small farmers in Asia than we do. If traders and multinationals decide to only buy sustainable rice the precedent towards farmers is huge.”

Farm income

But climate change mitigation can hardly be a success when it becomes a burden on smallholder farmers. Wet rice cultivation brings big advantages for farmers. The water kills off weeds and rice plants better absorb nutrients from wet soils. To get small farmers on board SRP also focusses on increasing farm incomes in Asia, Bickel stresses: “For smallholders in the region methods of better water management would decrease methane outputs but can also increase farm incomes up to twenty percent.”

IRRI-scientist Bas Bouman also stresses the importance of making AWD-techniques work for farmers. Draining rice paddies means risks of weeds once the waters are drained and increases the workload exponentially. According to Bouman, Climate mitigation projects only function when coupled with financial incentives for the farmers themselves, for example saving up on water in areas that are already water-stressed. “Another example of making projects like these work for farmers is the chart we made for different countries about what consumer tastes in rice are like. Then we were able to advice farmers on how to best connect their crops to what consumers want and we developed more efficient processing methods for rice. When you run a development program, you should never forget that small farmers don’t concern themselves with climate change on a daily basis. If you make sure the material conditions for smallholders get better, you’ll get the decrease in methane emissions as an extra.”

Key rice facts according to the Sustainable Rice Platform

• Serves as the daily staple for more than 3.5 billion people worldwide
• Provides 19% of the world’s calories, and represents livelihoods for >1 billion people
• Produced on 160 million hectares, mostly by 144 million smallholder farmers in Asia
• Responsible for up to 10% of global methane emissions (and up to 20% of national emissions for some countries);
Equal to 1.5% of global GHGs or national emissions of Germany
• Uses 40% of world’s irrigation water for production
• Rice fields represent 15% of the world’s wetlands, including key bird, fish, amphibia and insect species
• Rice production must increase by 25% by 2050 to meet global demand. Source

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Hans Wetzels
About Hans Wetzels 14 Articles
Hans Wetzels (1982) is a Cultural Scientist and freelance journalist from the Netherlands and living in Berlin. His work appeared in well-known Dutch magazines such as De Groene Amsterdammer, OneWorld Magazine and international outlets like Africa Renewal, MO* and Knack. The research Hans does focuses on trade policy, food system analyses and development.