Rice, Global Food Systems & ‘Race to Zero’

Rice is one of the most widely consumed grains in the world. In the 2021/2022 crop year, about 509.87 million metric tons of rice was consumed worldwide, up from 437.18 million metric tons in the 2008/2009 crop year. It comes as little surprise that the impact of rice farming is evidently reflected in the rise of carbon emissions.

At the very minimum, agriculture globally needed to reduce its non-CO2 emissions by one gigaton a year by 2030 in order to meet signed Paris Agreement back in 2015. However, which such a high dependency on the current structure of our agronomic and policy interventions compatible with food production would only achieve only 21 to 40% of the needed mitigation to meet these targets.

The global emissions mitigation potential contributed by agriculture, estimated between 10-12%, is too great to be ignored. Following the Paris conference, over 119 countries had pledged to include reducing agricultural emissions in their action plans. Willpower for change was evident – but did these countries hold the necessary tools to make this happen?

Following the publication of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 4th Assessment Report estimating that 90% of agriculture’s climate change mitigation potential lies in capturing carbon in soils, an initiative proposed by the French government at the Paris climate conference was put in action aiming to increase soil carbon by 0.4% a year, which was estimated to be enough to offset atmospheric carbon emissions. Yet this also failed.

The question remains: how to bring these improved regenerative nature-based management practices across global agricultural practices?

Reducing emissions in rice farming through smarter regenerative practices.

Rice paddies account for around 9% or the world’s cropland area and are characterized by environmental conditions promoting soil organic carbon storage, methane emissions and to a lesser extent nitrous oxide emissions.

A study published in Communications Earth & Environment identified results from 612 sites across 51 countries to estimate global carbon stocks in paddy soils and determine the main factors affecting paddy soil carbon storage. Paddy soils (0–100 cm) contain 18 Pg carbon worldwide. Paddy soil carbon stocks decrease with increasing mean annual temperature and soil pH, whereas mean annual precipitation and clay content had minor impacts. Meta-analysis shows that paddy soil carbon stocks can be increased through several management practices. However, greenhouse gas mitigation through paddy soil carbon storage is generally outweighed by increases in methane and nitrous oxide emissions. Results for that study emphasized the key role of paddies in the global carbon cycle, and the importance of paddy management in minimizing anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.

One type of management in particular is called AWD, where emissions were cut when farmers monitored water levels above and below the soil surface and only irrigated when they fell below a certain point, rice management practice used in irrigated lowlands called Alternate Wetting and Drying (AWD). This saves water and along with controlled disposal of rice straws, reduces greenhouse gas emissions while maintaining yields.

Unlocking financial incentives

Financial incentives remain top priority for farmers and other actors throughout the food chain, requiring incentives to reduce emissions. Following on from the ratification of Article 6, layout out the framework for an international carbon market, green bonds or auctions of the future value of GHG reductions have been mushrooming. Incentives for governments and the private sector to meet sustainability standards that include mitigation are also making a significant impact in this recent paradigm shift.

If we are to meet the 2C climate target, we must seize the opportunity that mitigation in agriculture presents. Developing a globally recognised target for emission reductions in the sector is the first step to guide countries towards a more sustainable future for our food systems, and our planet as a whole.

Grace Smith

Business Development & Communications Director