Tackling Food Security with Climate-Smart Rice
This post is written by Jennifer McCallum, Program Director, SRI-2030
Farmer Miyatty Jannah from Indonesia demonstrates the difference in yields using SRI (left) and traditional practices (right)
(Image credit: Sato Shuichi )
- The problem: Rice is key to food security, providing the livelihood and being the staple crop for billions, but rice cultivation is also the second biggest emitter of methane in agriculture.
- Why it matters: Food security and climate change mitigation and adaptation are essential to the survival and prosperity of every nation.
- The solution: SRI: A proven, cost-effective, and scalable approach to rice cultivation that increases yields and returns for farmers while reducing greenhouse gas emissions and water consumption.
Rice is the staple crop for over half of the world’s population and provides a livelihood for around one billion people. Traditional rice cultivation is, however, the largest crop contributor to greenhouse gases (GHG), with up to 12% of global methane emissions coming from flooded rice paddies. Rice cultivation covers some 167 million hectares and with our population estimated to reach 9.6 billion by 2050, demand for food and agricultural land will increase without radical change to the way we farm.
Small-holder farmers produce 90% of rice, living on the front-line of the changing climate, trying to secure food and income.
SRI: A triple-win
Fortunately, the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) addresses the challenges of climate, food security, and poverty and delivers many other social and environmental benefits. SRI is currently practised on an estimated 7 million hectares in over 60 countries, with the potential to be scaled much further.
Identified by Project Drawdown as one of its top 50 climate solutions, SRI is a method of rice cultivation that leads to larger yields per hectare, mitigates GHG emissions, reduces inputs such as water, seed, and energy and reduces the need to expand land for cultivation.
Farmers improve their crop production by using available resources more productively, reducing the need to purchase external inputs and helping poor and marginalised households to improve their economic situation.
- Yields by at least 25-50%, with many examples well beyond 100%
- Climate resilience of the rice plants, able to withstand pests and diseases, extreme temperatures, droughts, and storms better
- Food security, with larger and more nutritious yields
- Women’s health, well-being, and status
- Soil health and biodiversity
- Farmer incomes
- Local and national economies
- Net GHG emissions by 50% or more per kilogram of rice produced
- Methane emissions by up to 70%
- Water consumption by up to 50%
- Seed usage by between 80-90%
- Dependence on chemical fertilisers
- Land clearing requirements
- Water resource pressure
Adopting SRI is about changing practices. It requires minimal investment and in fact immediately reduces input costs as it requires much less seed and promotes organic rather than chemical inputs. It is a matter of knowledge and skill rather than capital inputs. Farmers improve their crop production by using available resources more productively, reducing the need to purchase external inputs and helping poor and marginalised households to improve their economic situation.
How does SRI work?
SRI follows four key principles that support the best conditions for rice plant growth:
- Start with young, healthy plants
- Optimise spacing to minimise competition between plants
- Build up healthy and fertile soil
- Apply only the minimum amount of water needed
(Image credit: Jennifer McCallum)
Plant density is reduced with greater spacing between each plant. This provides better access to sunshine, water, and soil nutrients, which in turn supports larger root systems and enhanced growth. Water is provided intermittently, rather than flooding, also known as alternate wetting and drying (AWD). AWD keeps the soil in a mostly aerobic condition, meaning more oxygen reaches the roots, which promotes plant growth and sustains larger populations of beneficial soil organisms. AWD alone has been shown to mitigate methane emissions by anywhere between 30-70%, but it does not offer farmers the improved yield of SRI. Organic matter enhances the soil nutrients as well as improving its structure and functioning, making the soil more porous and better able to absorb rainwater, which also reduces water requirements and reduces erosion.
SRI in Action in the Lower Mekong Basin (LMB)
The SRI-LMB project gives a striking example of what is possible with SRI when coordinated action is taken at scale. Applying SRI principles, 15,000 smallholder farmers in Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand succeeded in improving their yields by 52%, reducing energy consumption by 34%, water productivity by 59%, and economic returns by 70%. Even with rainfed rice, the farmers achieved a 17% reduction in GHG emissions. This project showed that emissions fell by reducing plant density and inorganic fertiliser alone, without the benefits of AWD.
Considering all this, why is SRI not already a mainstream practice? Aside from the natural tendency of farmers to be conservative and cautious about changing well-established practices, one reason is the “Green Revolution” assumption that higher inputs are the only means to increase yields and the bias towards technology as the solution to all problems. But with the food crisis, the high costs of chemical and fossil fuel inputs and a shortage of water, we have no choice but to adopt and adapt.
SRI is ready – backed by over 30 years of substantial evidence and validated in 60 countries globally by millions of farmers. SRI has mostly spread through farmer-to-farmer networks and grassroots movements, but with stronger institutional support SRI can now be scaled up rapidly.
Policy for SRI
Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) are one way that countries can mobilise action. Ten countries currently include SRI as either a mitigation or adaptation action in their NDCs. But the majority of top rice-producing countries do not include quantified measures for rice mitigation and only 14% of countries that have signed the Methane Pledge hold rice mitigation actions.
Beneficial policies depend on local context but may include financial incentives through schemes or subsidies, better management, infrastructure in irrigation, and supporting quality training through extension work. Most fundamentally, farmers need to be encouraged to try out SRI, starting with a visit to another practitioner and then being helped along the journey.
SRI-2030 has adopted Project Drawdown’s target of reaching 50 million hectares of SRI coverage by 2030. This will produce an extra 1 billion tonnes of rice, reduce emissions by 8.5 billion tonnes CO2e, and increase farmer profits by $1.6 trillion by 2050. The opportunity to achieve multiple policy goals for people, planet and prosperity awaits thoughtful policymakers.
Most of the people reading this article may not be directly working on agriculture. But perhaps you have someone in your network who is – and you might share it with them.