Fifty years on, the magic of IR8 is still felt in the everyday life of almost half the world’s population. No longer are we bothered about our next meal, which has been possible due to the magic of IR8. This has allowed us to focus on other purposes such as progress in science and technology, lifestyle, medical science, health, etc. In a way, the modern developments in every aspect have been possible due to the miracle rice, IR8. But, we are now facing climate change that has the potential to cause human extinction if we do not act on time. I believe that once again, rice can come to the rescue as it did earlier about a half century ago. Last time it was the grains that made the difference; this time, its straw can help save the human race through biofuel.
Rice straw is the most abundant agricultural residue worldwide. It is estimated that annual production of rice straw worldwide is about 731 million tons, which has the potential to produce 205 billion liters of bioethanol per year (Mustafa Balat, 2008). Although rice straw has been used as animal feed or for papermaking, most of the straw is unused and burned, thereby increasing the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. But, surprisingly, the potential of rice straw has remained untapped as we can still benefit in many ways.
First, the production of greenhouse gases can be reduced from the use of rice straw as biofuel. When rice straw is burned, it releases methane, contributing to global warming. In addition, the smoke released pollutes the atmosphere and leads to respiratory health problems. Use of rice straw means less production of methane and smoke. Second, we can reduce our dependency on fossil fuels for energy. Fossil fuels are the largest source of emission of carbon dioxide, which is one of the greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. A study in 2005 revealed that fossil fuel is responsible for 73% of the total carbon dioxide production (T. Wildenborg, 2005). When we use biofuel from rice straw, we reduce the use of fossil fuels. Third, rice straw is better than other crops used for biofuel production because it doesn’t compete with our food. With our limited land, we are not in the position to reduce food production in favor of biofuel crops. We need more food, yet we need biofuel as well, which is not possible with other biofuel crops. This problem is solved if we use rice straw as biofuel. If we plant more rice, we get more grains for food and more straw for biofuel—a win-win situation!
Rice has the potential to change our world once again through biofuel. We can hope positively say that rice will once again be our savior. But, we are not without challenges. Rice straw is composed of carbohydrate polymers such as cellulose and hemicellulose, which are protected by layers of lignin. This leads to difficulty in enzyme activity in producing ethanol from the straw. Various researches are being carried out to ensure easier break down of rice straw. Physical, chemical, and thermal pretreatments are being formulated and rice with low lignin content is being developed. So, we can be hopeful that, one day, we will be using bioethanol from rice straw, thus contributing to the reduction of greenhouse gases. Apart from biofuel from rice, it is necessary to improve the nutrient content of rice so that our children do not suffer from micronutrient deficiency, such as deficiency in zinc, iron, and different vitamins. Rice still has a lot to offer in terms of nutrition. Still, I think that biofuel is how rice can change the planet and our way of living.
Note: The views and opinions on this essay are those of the author's and do not reflect those of the institute and its partners.
Bikram Poudel is currently a graduate student at the University of Arkansas. He is from Nepal.