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Developing environmentally sustainable solutions for rice systems

This research program is focused on advancing the environmental sustainability of the rice-based system through transformative and multidisciplinary research and approaches. Focusing on the five core domains – Air & Climate, Water, Energy, Soil health, and Biodiversity & Pest ecology – this theme works on  improving the productivity and income from rice-based systems while minimizing the environmental footprints.

Challenge

Air & Climate

  • Decrease global warming potential from rice production
  • Reduce air pollution from burning rice straw

Water

  • Decrease rice production’s share of freshwater use
  • Improve water governance for food security
  • Decrease water pollution from rice-based production systems

Energy

  • Reduce energy footprint per unit rice produced and consumed
  • Reduce rice production’s share of fossil fuel use

Soil

  • Use rice systems to avoid soil degradation and improve soil health
  • Mitigate effect of contamination on food quality

Biodiversity & Pest Ecology

  • Increase biodiversity in rice landscapes
  • Increase abundance and resilience of beneficial organisms in rice

Contribution

Carbon Cycling

It is estimated that 10% of global agricultural greenhouse gas (GHG) emission is from rice production, the second biggest emitter of methane after the livestock sub-sector. While globally rice production only emits 1.5% of total anthropogenic GHGs, this share is much higher in rice-producing countries. In the Philippines and Vietnam, rice accounts for 13 and 17%, respectively, of total national GHG emissions, thus making the crop a huge factor in national GHG budgets. The outcome theme is working on climate-smart technologies to reduce GHG emissions. It also includes advocacy work to different countries to frame their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) and develops concepts for Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions (NAMA).

Rice straw is a natural byproduct of rice production. Its management is topical and can be used for a number of profitable practices. However, rice producers would prefer burning it in open fields for easier management. About 60-80% of rice straw is burned in the open field, which contributes to GHG emission and air pollution associated with respiratory health problems. Incorporation of rice straw contributes to nutrient recycling, but depending on when, and what form it is incorporated, together with water management, this can significantly induce greenhouse gas emissions. IRRI is working with national partners in Vietnam and the Philippines in finding alternative and profitable uses for rice straw like composting, mushroom production, bio-energy production and as feed for animals.

Soil organic carbon constitutes the largest pool of terrestrial carbon and hence is an important component of the global carbon cycle. The outcome theme focuses on research to understand the dynamics of soil carbon under intensive and diversified rice-based system with different management practices including submerged and aerobic soil, incorporation of straw etc.

Natural Resource Management

The outcome theme explores and innovate different technological options and enabling conditions at a different scale (field to basin) to develop a comprehensive solution for sustainable water and soil management in rice-based systems. One of the core areas of research is on digital tools to catalyze the adoption of water-saving technologies by improving access to information, effective coordination among stakeholders, and enforcing transparency in water governance. IRRI is developing an irrigation advisory service to catalyze the adoption the best water management technologies at landscape scale, To understand the trade-off of intensification on water pollution, the research program also work for understanding the water quality issues- type (pesticide, heavy metals, fertilizers), degree, and temporal variability in the kind and degree of contamination) and correlating the fate of improved agricultural practices to water quality.

Ecosystem services

“In Asia, there is 52 million ha of lowland irrigated rice. Wetland habitats are at grave risk globally and as a result, there are great concerns on the rates of loss of biological diversity. Rice agricultural systems, therefore, provide important human-modified wetlands for wildlife. In the ecosystem service context, flooded rice environments provide important “supporting services” for wildlife through their extensive water networks. In turn, the abundance of diverse species supported by the rice ecosystem provides a number of ecosystem services to humanity.  

The theme focuses on documenting the linkages between agricultural practices, biodiversity outcomes and ecosystem services they provide. Our ecologists conduct research on the amphibian community to investigate their potential as ecosystem health indicators, their provisioning service as a “wild food” source that can be sustainably harvested, and their regulating service by feeding on insect pests and golden apple snail eggs. We also work to document rice supporting service as the habitat for bird species, some acting as pest regulator while others are listed as conservation target species.

IRRI also prototypes field and landscape scale solutions that optimize biodiversity and ecosystem service outcomes in rice production. For example. a plethora of arthropods predators and parasitoids inhabit rice landscape and provide natural pest regulation service.IRRI research shows that ecological engineering and reduction of synthetic pesticide use further improve rice habitat quality for these natural enemies. Ecological engineering also potentially supports pollinator community for other crops. Rodents utilize rice landscape and they are usually depicted as pests. However, only 10% of more than 2,270 species of rodents are agricultural pests. Our research has shown that native rodent species that do not feed on rice have potential to be competitively dominant over invasive, pest rats. Here again, a heterogeneous landscape that incorporates agro-forest habitats can support native rodent species to over-compete pestiferous rat species. IRRI’s work on the temporal and spatial dynamics of biotic stressors in rice ecosystem allows for outbreak forecasting and precision management of these stressors.

Food provisioning

The outcome theme focuses on sustainable resource management through integrated approaches to land use pattern. Apart from helping farmers to sustainably improve their livelihoods, IRRI looks at the interaction among the different systems of rice, upland crops, fisheries, and aquaculture production while also suggesting socioeconomic and environmental impact interventions, we are engaged in developing an integrated land-use pattern.

This outcome theme focuses beyond field scale interventions and engages with different stakeholders and country/regional level to close the yield gaps. Using appropriate tools, the research focuses on determining the priorities and identify trade-off at a local and regional level for closing the yield gaps.

Demand Signals

  • Soil - Soil health and contaminants
  • Water - Water use, quality, and governance
  • Climate - Greenhouse gases and pollutants
  • Biodiversity - Communities and biotypes
  • Energy - alternatives sources and energy use efficiency
  • Pest ecology - pest management and resistance

Impact

Successful medium-scale pilots

  • Geospatial feasibility profile for technologies
  • Incentive mechanisms
  • Enabling policies

Change in practices

  • Policies
  • Incentives
  • Production practices
  • Behavior/coordination

Deliverables

  • Availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all
  • Sustainable consumption and production patterns
  • Combat climate change and its effects
  • Improved natural resources, system, and ecosystem services