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Rice Farming A Major Source Of Global Warming?

December 6, 2009

Though you may not hear much about them in talks of the effect they have on global warming, Asian rice farmers actually have a vital role in helping the world reduce the output of greenhouse gases.

When it comes to the fight against global warming, the world has mainly focused on the burning of fossil fuels and the logging of rainforests. However, water-logged rice paddies also put out a great deal of methane, which is known to cause global warming.

“If you step through a rice field, there is a lot of gas bubbling out and the large bulk of that is methane,” said Reiner Wassmann, a biologist specializing in climate change at the International Rice Research Institute.

Carbon dioxide may be the most infamous of global warming-causing gases, but methane is at least 20 times more effective at trapping heat in the earth’s atmosphere, reported AFP.

In an interview with AFP from the institute’s headquarters in Los Banos, a farming area on the Philippines’ main island of Luzon, Wassmann said that methane was to blame for one-fifth of all greenhouse gas emissions.

Rice farming is responsible for approximately 10 percent of the methane released, while the flatulence of cows and decomposing landfills also add to the problem.

According to Wassmann, it was extremely important for rice farmers in Asia and across the globe to do their part in contending with climate change , but he said it was wrong to lump them together with the more obvious “culprits” of climate change like the burning of fossil fuels.

“Culprit gives an emotional tone to it that is not necessary,” he said, calling the demands of green organizations as extreme, who are asking the billions of people depending on rice as a staple to eat less of it.

“I have heard suggestions like that but I don’t think that makes sense. The key is on the production side, not on the consumption side,” he said.

Trinidad Domingo, a 57-year-old rice farmer with a 6-acre plot of land in northern Luzon, said it does not seem fair to ask people such as herself to make sacrifices as part of the climate change fight.

“If we are contributing to this problem, we are just trying to survive and don’t do this intentionally,” Domingo told AFP.

“The big factories and industrialists should be the ones to be blamed. Why pick on peasants like us? They are the big contributors to the problem.”

And Domingo’s carbon footprint would certainly appear to be a fraction of that of an average businessmen in the United States or other parts of the developed world, especially considering the fact that she does not even own a car.

“I am a simple rice farmer, a peasant who just wants to eat three times a day,” she said.

Wassmann gave hope when she said that cutting greenhouse gas emissions from rice fields did not have to require a sacrifice, but just merely finding smarter and more efficient farming methods.

Since methane is created when submerged organic material breaks down, the first thing to be done is for farmers to use less water.

Wassmann said this was a reasonable request regardless of the climate change issue because water would only become harder to come by as the world population increases.

The rice fields could be drained regularly during the growing seasons, but it’s a catch 22 because nitrous oxide, which is an even stronger gas that mostly originates from widely used nitrogen fertilizer, is released from drained rice fields.

“The only solution to that we can see is that we couple water saving…with increasing efficiencies of nitrogen fertilizer,” he said, adding that this is possible without sacrificing yields.

The real challenge comes in talking rice farmers into using less fertilizer, considering Domingo’s response to whether she would be willing to alter her farming techniques.

“If it contributes less to climate change, we are willing to cut down on using it, but I am afraid my crops won’t grow as fast, leading to lesser yields. There could be a problem there,” she said.

“We are willing to find alternatives but, at the end of the day, we are just small farmers.”

Wassmann also said that there is yet to be a combined effort among the world’s rice farming industries to push for the education and assistance for farmers.

“As far as methane is concerned, there is not a single project in the real world, outside of the experimental farms, where there are programs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from rice,” he said.

Wassmann said that he does not expect rice to be brought up at this week’s much awaited climate change summit in Copenhagen, but that it would be discussed in depth at more technically focused follow-up meetings.

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