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Climate-friendly rice: end of the paddy field?

Changing the way rice is grown, from planting it in flooded paddy fields to drier soil cultivation, is dramatically increasing yields and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The results of trials in eleven countries show that yields increased by an average of 60 per cent, although they varied sharply  between states, from an 11 per cent increase to 220 per cent.

A paper published in The Geographical Journal, the scientific publication of the Royal Geographical Society of London, says the System of Rice Intensification, or SRI, is having such success that 50 countries are now adopting it.

The method evolved in Madagascar over two decades but can now be applied in all rice-growing countries. Four studies in India, Indonesia, Kenya and Mali showed that production costs fell by 20-32 per cent, and profit per hectare rose between 52 per cent and 183 per cent.

In China, which has adopted SRI on a large scale, yields increased, but – just as important for a country short of water – 22.6 per cent less irrigation was needed.

SRI involves growing rice in aerated soil instead of flooded paddies. Single young seedlings are planted with regular wide spacing, and soils are kept moist but not wet. Nutrients are placed in the soil next to the plant rather than spread randomly.

The method reduces the costs of land preparation, seed, fertilizer and water use, and cuts methane emissions, while achieving the increased crop yields. Rice grown by the new method has bigger roots, and the larger plant produces more and heavier grains.

The environmental benefits, apart from the reduction in methane emissions from the flooded paddies, include a lower need for tractor power and the labour required before the crop is planted.

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