Thai farmers are trying a new, climate-friendly way to grow rice

Photo: PxFuel

A new initiative in central Thailand is getting farmers to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions from rice paddies—a significant source of methane—by changing the way they farm. The new practices save water and money and make more efficient use of fertilizers and herbicides.

By Skylar Lindsay

A new agricultural program in central Thailand is working with farmers to change the way they grow rice, in a bid to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from rice paddies while saving water, time and money.

The program, backed by the Thai government and German development agency GIZ, aims to get 100,000 households in the plains of Thailand to adopt a rice farming method called alternate wetting and drying, in which paddies are only flooded intermittently, rather than for most of the season.

Traditional lowland rice farming releases a significant amount of greenhouse gases, as organic matter decomposes under the water of flooded paddies and emits methane.

Alternating between wetting and drying means the rice farms emit less methane and use less water—water that would often be piped in using diesel-powered pumps. Though the emissions from rice farming are dwarfed by those from fossil fuels or the livestock industry, farmers who change their practices can still have an impact.

“Farmers are a small player, but we want to take part in the fight against climate change,” said Sawanee Phorang, a farmer in Suphanburi taking part in the project.

According to the groups behind the new program, changes to farming practices could cut methane emissions from rice paddies by up to 70%. GIZ estimates the project will cut emissions by the equivalent of 1.73 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide over five years.

After a successful pilot last year, the new program is rolling out across Chainat, Ang Thong, Pathumthani, Suphanburi, Ayutthaya and Singburi provinces, with the help of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI).

“In other commodities like cocoa and coffee, there is a more developed sustainability standard,” said GIZ’s Suriyan Vichitlekarn, a Bangkok-based agriculture and food expert. “For the rice sector, until about 10 years ago, there wasn’t any clear standard.”

While addressing methane emissions is an important step, sustainability standards for rice would also have to address the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and the fact that farming practices vary widely between lowland and upland Southeast Asia.

New rice farming practices make better use of water and reduce the need for pesticides

The program, called Thai Rice NAMA (Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Action), also includes water conservation and biodiversity initiatives as well as other tools for farmers.

One key piece is the introduction of laser land levelling, in which farmers use laser measurements to make their rice paddies flatter. The process is normally expensive, but a Thai state-owned bank has pledged to grant farmers interest-free loans for the program.

Level rice paddies are more efficient, allowing farmers to use far less water, fertilizer and pesticides. This last benefit is especially important given the high levels of synthetic pesticide and fertilizer use in Thailand.

Thailand backed down late last year from its attempt to ban pesticides that contain the cancer-causing chemical glyphosate. Glyphosate is the main ingredient in the controversial herbicide Roundup, once sold by Monsanto and now owned by Bayer.

The Thai government moved to ban the chemical because it endangers both farmers and consumers, as the carcinogenic residue remains in fruits, vegetables and grains even as they arrive at market.

But the campaign was met with strong opposition and intervention by the US government, which promotes food policies primarily shaped by the lobbying and interests of agrichemical firms.

Under the Thai government’s ban, nearly 70% of US agricultural exports to Thailand would no longer comply with the country’s health requirements. The US government’s opposition to the chemical ban was driven largely by this potential loss of trade worth 51 billion baht (US$1.65 billion).

Reducing the need for pesticides, especially those that contain carcinogenic chemicals, could prove crucial for Thai farmers and consumers. According to the Thai government’s Rice Department, the country has 3.7 million farming households, cultivating 10 million hectares of rice paddies.

Program part of broader push for sustainable rice

The initiative is backed by a 530 million baht (US$17.1 million) budget as part of the broader Asia-wide Sustainable Rice Landscapes Initiative, which aims to cut greenhouse gas emissions from rice cultivation, restore degraded land and conserve biodiversity. Backed by IRRI and UN Environment, it focuses on farming practices—like new paddy management techniques—alongside government policy changes and private sector incentives.

In Thailand, the program also promotes locally-tailored nutrient and pest management practices. “They allow the farmers to enjoy such benefits as higher crop yields and reduced farming costs,” said Doojduan Sasanavin, Thailand’s deputy permanent secretary of the Minister of Agriculture and Cooperatives, at the program’s launch last year.

Though the program asks farmers to change the way they’ve grown rice for generations, some are drawn to the benefits from alternate wetting and drying, as well as leveling.

“Although we have an adequate supply of water through the Chao Phraya River, we don’t have enough during the dry season so we need to take measures,” explained Winai Jaengan, head of Phraojen village in Chainat.

Farmers use underground irrigation to make it through until the next rainy season. “This is costly for us because it needs more fuel to pump the water out. Additionally, the farmers use small walking tractors which takes time and more cost to level the field,” he added.

As the program’s backers work to spread the climate-friendly practices beyond the initial 100,000 households, this efficiency argument will likely prove crucial in scaling up their impact.

About the Author

Skylar Lindsay
Skylar Lindsay is a writer and photographer focused on development, the envrionment and conflict, primarily in Southeast Asia.