The most important crop in the world, consumed by 78% of the population, is rice sustainable?
Traveling throughout Asia you can’t escape rice, rice fields, bags of rice in the market and every meal accompanied with a side of rice. Though Western countries use rice in our meals or rice milk in our coffee, we don’t rely off of rice like Asia does. While the rice fields make beautiful photo opportunities, they require a lot of cultivation, land, and water, which led me to wonder how sustainable is rice?
Rice has been cultivated for thousands of years in Asia, and previous practices have been sustainable to maintain a healthy crop for millennia. However, as the population in Asia has risen and the demand for rice has exponentially increased farming and it has begun to strip the nutrients in the soil. Agriculture is one of the most polluting industries as it releases 40% of methane gas into the environment, rice is responsible for almost 20% of man-made emissions of methane. Besides the fact that rice takes an exceptional amount of water to farm, the fields are literally flooded!
There has been a large amount of research and innovation in rice research, as the impacts of a shortage of rice can mean famine around the world. Like a lot of agriculture, modern farming techniques, like inorganic fertilizers to balance soil nutrition have undermined traditional farming techniques. As more fertilizers and fields are used to create a higher yield, the less time the soil has to recover nutrients. Water shortages become a concern around the world, rice is not a feasible crop, it takes 2,500 liters of water to produce 1kg of rice. Rice also emits methane as it is transplanted from a seedling to the flooded rice
There are different techniques for planting the rice that has developed to reduce the impacts of growing rice. Dry direct seeding is one, it plants the rice directly in the field, instead of growing in a nursery and transplanted to the field. This is similar to wheat production and reduces water needed to flood the nursery and field, as well as methane gas released in replanting the seedlings. There are different techniques to grow the rice without flooding the field, but it requires a hybrid strain of rice that is resistant to drought. Both of these are simple solutions to a complex problem, the hardest part of changing to these techniques is changing a thousand years of culture.
We can’t change cultures overnight though there are still other crops we can consume! Crops like maize, wheat, and corn that require less water and less demand than rice. Agriculture hasn’t yet fixed their effect on climate change and buying any monocrop is not the top choice, if you have time check if the farmer recycles water and waste and rotates crops. These small changes can help reduce soil degradation. As consumers, remember to buy local when possible!