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Is Climate Change Threatening Our Rice Consumption?

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Though mostly unpredictable, the weather has its patterns; Hot during summer and cold during winters. Farmers used these patterns way back in ancient times to determine when to plant their crops, a practice that continues even until today.

However, as days go on, the weather seems to have increased in intensity and unpredictability. The effects of these extreme weather patterns greatly affect food production, as crops that require an equal amount of sun and rainfall are now subjected to heatwaves and floods. One of these said crops is rice.


Importance of Rice

Early rice farming has been documented in several cultures, including Southeast Asian civilizations. However, the earliest archaeological evidence is from 7000–5000 BCE and originates from central and eastern China. The phrases for agriculture and rice culture are equivalent in ancient Chinese, showing that rice was already the predominant crop at the time the language was formed. Additionally, the terms for rice and meal are nearly the same in various Asian languages.

Many ceremonies have sprung up in conjunction with rice planting and harvesting, and the grain and plant are traditional subjects in Oriental art. In the modern world, rice is considered a staple food in roughly one-half of the world, including almost all of Southeast and East Asia. It’s one of the world’s most significant food sources, feeding more people than any other crop. More than 90% of the world’s rice is produced in Asia, though rice is grown in portions of Europe, North and South America, and Australia as well.

Given its significance, the United Nations recognized 2004 as the International Year of Rice. The United Nations General Assembly‘s 57th session affirmed the need to focus world attention on the role rice can play in providing worldwide food security and eradicating poverty and malnutrition.

Between 1961 and 2010, global rice output more than quadrupled, with a compound annual growth rate of 2.24 percent, and 2.21 percent in rice-producing Asia. The majority of the rise in rice production was attributable to greater yields, which climbed at an annual average rate of 1.74 percent compared to 0.49 percent for the area harvested.

As the world’s population grows, millions of people will need to be fed, and output may be outstripped by demand. With this predicted growth, rice will continue to be a staple.


Rice and Climate Change

Striking the correct balance between too much and too little water may be difficult for many rice producers, particularly in Asia, which produces more than 90 percent of the world’s rice. This difficulty is even more pronounced as the world’s climate changes.

The majority of rice plants are grown in fields, known as paddies, that are normally filled with 10 millimeters of water. This continual, modest flooding helps to keep weeds and pests at bay. However, if water levels rapidly rise, like during a flash flood, the crops can die. On the other hand, too little water and the rice plants wouldn’t have enough moisture to continue thriving.

Some farmers in South and Southeast Asia plant their rice in low-lying deltas, which provides a flat fertile ground perfect for rice growing. However, these low-lying places are vulnerable to changes in the water cycle and, because deltas are located on the coast, continuous floods and drought introduce a new threat — salty soil. A salty paddy can significantly lower rice yields, as rice is one of the many crops that can’t tolerate salt.

Water extremes aren’t the only thing farmers need to consider. Rice grows best in areas with hot days and chilly nights. However, temperatures are becoming uncomfortably high in many rice-growing regions, even during the night. Rice crops are most vulnerable to extreme heat during the middle stages of their growth, which is right before they begin to develop their grains. Extreme heat, exceeding 35° Celsius, can reduce grain yields in mere weeks, if not days.

Extreme temperatures can harm the plants, floods can ruin paddy fields, and heatwaves can prevent them from growing at all. Diseases can also spread if the environment becomes too humid. All these take a toll on rice yields, and given the increasing demand, innovations are necessary to keep supply sufficient.


Rice Innovations

The demand for innovation is increasing as climate change accelerates. Rice producers, engineers, and academics have turned to water-saving irrigation routines and rice gene banks. These banks contain hundreds of thousands of variations ready to be disseminated or bred into new, climate-resilient forms.

The world’s biggest rice storage facility is located in the Philippines, at the southern rim of Laguna de Bay, in the city of Los Baños. The International Rice Genebank, which is administered by International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), houses more than 130,000 types of rice seeds from farms all over the world. Backup seeds are maintained at the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation in Fort Collins, Colo., and the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which is hidden beneath a Norwegian mountain.

These banks are created to maintain rice biodiversity and gather a treasure trove of genetic material that may be utilized to breed future rice varieties. Farmers are abandoning many of the older, preserved types in favor of newer, higher-yielding, or sturdier strains.

Additionally, experts are finding ways to reduce the carbon footprint emitted by rice productions. While rice plants suffer from climate change, it also contributes to it. Traditional farming practices, such as flooding paddy fields and burning rice straw in open fields, produce around 10% of worldwide man-made methane, a strong greenhouse gas.


Final Note: Is Climate Change Threatening Our Rice Consumption?

It’s undeniable that the weather would continue to be inconsistent as climate change worsens, and rice production may suffer as a result. While rice innovations and planting trials are being conducted in many areas of the world, it’s too soon to determine if these attempts can be successful, particularly if the weather intensity continues to worsen.

However, rice production is predicted to be steady for the next few years, which may give experts and scientists enough time to lessen the carbon footprint of this said crop, and develop better strains that can handle salty soil, flash floods, and extreme drought.

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Hui Yin

Hui Yin moved from Hong Kong 🇭🇰 to the USA 🇺🇸 when she was just 8 years old. Now in her late 20's she enjoys writing and taking long walks in the park to burn off the copious amounts of rice she eats for dinner.

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