Rice industry must be cognisant of climate change impact

Rice is a contentious issue. The recent hike in world prices has hit both the headlines and consumer pockets.

Price control of local rice has created havoc. Some unscrupulous businesses took advantage by blending local and imported rice and selling them at a higher price.

This became obvious when suddenly no local rice was available in the market. Consumers were the ones most affected. Rice farmers were not spared. Earlier, farmers complained about the delay in receiving seeds, upsetting their planting schedule. Even the best-performing rice region of Sekinchan, in Selangor, reported declining yields.

Farmers there used to report yields averaging 10 tonnes per hectare, but now lament a lower 4-5 tonnes. They blame several factors. Poor maintenance of the irrigation infrastructure is one. The ill-timed supply of seeds is another. However, experts say the uncontrolled use of chemicals is another factor.

As evidenced worldwide, the excessive use of chemicals has brought untold consequences on soil fertility, not to mention the release of nitrous oxide, a highly potent greenhouse gas. This explains why the deployment of organic fertilisers has gained momentum everywhere.

Major rice exporters like Vietnam have decided to act. They want to sustain their record of successfully turning rice into a big revenue earner.

Vietnam’s Mekong Delta hosts one of the largest rice farms in the world. Rice farming has helped stave off famine since the Vietnam War ended in 1975. Rice isn’t just a staple food. It is considered a gift from the Gods. Barges haul mountains of grain up and down the Mekong River.

Rice cannot be integrated with other crops. Seedlings must be individually planted in flooded fields. It is hard work requiring a lot of labour and water that generates a lot of methane, a greenhouse gas. It is a problem unique to growing rice, as inundated fields stop oxygen from entering the soil, creating the right conditions for methane-producing bacteria.

Rice paddies contribute eight per cent of all human-made methane in the atmosphere, according to a Food and Agriculture Organisation report. That is why Vietnam is experimenting with a different method of irrigation, known as alternate wetting and drying (AWD). This requires less water than traditional farming since paddy fields are not continuously submerged. They also produce less methane.

Drones are used to fertilise. It saves on labour costs. As experienced everywhere, no thanks to rural-urban migration, it is harder to find people to work the farms. The drone option ensures the precise application of fertilisers. Too much fertiliser makes the soil release earth-warming nitrogen gases.

Vietnam wants to move away from the practice of burning left-over rice stubble, a major cause of air pollution. Instead, it is collected and sold to companies that use it as livestock feed, and for growing straw mushrooms.

The new approach not only cuts costs, but also enables sales in European markets where customers are willing to pay a premium for organic rice. Such methods use 40 per cent less rice seeds and 30 per cent less water. Costs for pesticides, fertilisers and labour are lower.

Vietnam targets growing high-quality, low-emission rice on 1 million hectares by 2030. That would reduce production costs and increase farmers’ profits by about US$600 million. Vietnam recognised early it had to reconfigure its rice sector to meet climate demand. It was the largest rice exporter to sign a 2021 pledge to reduce methane emissions at the Conference of the Parties (COP) meeting in Glasgow.

The Mekong Delta, where 90 per cent of Vietnam’s exported rice is farmed, is vulnerable to climate change. A United Nations report in 2022 warned of heavier flooding in the wet season and droughts in the dry season.

Scores of dams built upstream in China and Laos have reduced the river’s flow and the amount of sediment that it carries downriver to the sea. The sea level is rising, turning the river’s lower reaches, salty.

Unsustainable levels of groundwater pumping and sand mining for construction have added to the problems.

If Malaysia aims to be a major rice player, we should emulate Vietnam.

Professor Datuk Dr Ahmad Ibrahim is attached to the Tan Sri Omar Centre for STI Policy, UCSI University, and is an associate fellow at the Ungku Aziz Centre for Development Studies, Universiti Malaya.

The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the writer and do not necessarily represent that of Twentytwo13.