MANILA, JUNE 4, 2007
(STAR) BIZLINKS By Rey Gamboa - Here’s a disconcerting discovery. Scientists are now saying that rice-developing countries may have to radically alter the way they produce rice: Asia ’s major staple is largely believed to be an even bigger source of global warming, possibly far more destructive than ozone-depleting carbon dioxide emissions of industrial and power plants.

At the recent United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in Bangkok, scientists noted studies that showed rice production as one of the main causes of rising methane emissions, being 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide, rising global temperatures, and harmful ozone near the ground.

On the other hand, our own scientists, working alongside prominent international rice experts at the International Rice Research Institute in Los Bańos, have in recent years been warning that global warming could have adverse effects on rice production.

IRRI in 2004 released results of a 12-year study of rice yields and 25 years of temperature data to show how they are linked. Yields dropped by an average of 10 percent for each degree of warming. That is really alarming considering a growing world population.

The study showed computer models of climate change suggesting that night-time temperatures will continue to rise faster than during the day by several degrees Celsius in the coming decades.

This is a double-whammy, researchers believe, primarily because during hot nights, rice puts more energy into respiring and less into growing. So rice, in effect, puts a stress on the environment as it struggles to cope with higher global temperatures.

The UN panel report said reforming rice production, together with changes in livestock practices, could reduce methane emissions from agriculture by 15 to 56 percent. Aside from methane emissions, rice fields also release carbon dioxide when these are burned, and nitrous oxide from utilized fertilizers.

Complete change

Scientists are insisting that for many rice-producing countries in Asia, a complete overhaul of existing rice production methods could in fact be easier to implement compared to other recommendations such as imposing costlier solutions like stopping coal-fired power plants, switching to solar power, or promoting carbon sequestration which developing countries in the region simply cannot afford.

Well, so how does that exactly jive now with the Department of Agriculture’s mantra of achieving self-sufficiency in rice through hybrid rice planting?

Since IRRI has spent so much time finding a correlation between increasing night-time temperatures and declining rice yields, shouldn’t experts also be devoting time to developing new rice production techniques that inhibit or limit methane emissions from rice paddies?

In recent years, IRRI was boasting that it was on the verge of coming up with a new rice seed variety and rice-planting technique that uses less water, and can in fact be drought-resistant. It has since then been silent on the matter.

Convincing farmers

Agriculture experts here for years have been insisting that government agriculture technologists at the local government level should persuade rice farmers to also be more conscientious in the use of precious water for irrigation. Most farmers flood their rice fields unnecessarily during the planting season, thus keeping methane-releasing elements in the ground.

Aside from burning rice straws from the harvested crop, rice farmers also, for lack of resources, cannot imagine going beyond a one-cropping season or to maximize land use by planting other crops after the peak season for rice is over.

Learning from China

Since the Department of Agriculture (DA), especially under Secretary Arthur Yap’s watch, has been fostering closer ties with China , it may be a good idea to send farmer leaders there so that they could pay attention to what China has been doing.

China, as cited in a 2005 study by Aslam Khalil and Martha Shearer of Portland State University , has adopted farming methods that stabilized methane emission rates in the air.

In the last 10 years, China which produces a third of the world’s rice supply, has considerably reduced rice hectareage, and encouraged its farmers to shift to better high-value crops and to abandon marginal rice lands.

China also replaced animal manure with nitrogen-based fertilizer, and is using less water on their fields. Flooded fields deprive organic materials such as manure, of oxygen, resulting in the emission of methane rather than carbon dioxide.

New challenges

This will really be a challenge for Yap because of the political undercurrents of rice production. In the early 1990s, then Agriculture Secretary Roberto Sebastian Jr. proposed foregoing marginal or unsuitable rice lands and focusing instead on more feasible programs such as shifting to high-value crops. Of course, such plan never got anywhere because rice farmers protested.

In this ambitious undertaking to balance the goal of achieving self-sufficiency in rice and introduce more environment-friendly methods, government has to demonstrate enough political will to do what has never been tried, with such earnestness.

Infrastructure support will be critical since this will entail putting up farm-to-market roads and post-harvest facilities in areas that are determined to give better yields in the long run.

There are a lot of success stories on upland rice farming in a number of Asian countries such as Nepal, India and Bangladesh that essentially advocate new systems of crop management that are labor-saving rather than labor-intensive, saves water, utilizes less chemical fertilizers, reduces risks of crop loss and makes land available for other crop production.

In the country, a number of farmer-based non-government organizations, are advocating the so-called system rice intensification (SRI) method. SRI involves the use of certain management practices which together provide better growing conditions for rice plants, particularly in the root zone, than those for plants grown under traditional practices.

There are many things that can be done. We just have to have the will to do them and meet the new challenges.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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