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Rice and climate change: adaption or mitigation? Facts for policy designs

Last modified September 18, 2013 09:13

RICE AND CLIMATE CHANGE: ADAPTATION OR MITIGATION? FACTS FOR POLICY DESIGNS. A Choice from What Recent Summaries Say and Some Critical Additions for Use with Indonesian Farmers. Kees Stigter and Yunita Winarto



A Choice from What Recent Summaries Say and Some Critical Additions

for Use with Indonesian Farmers


Kees Stigter1 and Yunita Winarto2

1Agromet Vision, Bruchem, the Netherlands and Bondowoso, Indonesia (

2Department of Anthropology, Universitas Indonesia, Depok (



Three recent publications on rice and climate change are used that cover the way rice production (paddy as well as rainfed) contributes to climate change, through the emission of greenhouse gasses. These publications also cover the consequences of climate change for rice production. After this review some critical additions are included related to (i) increasing climate variability/disasters; (ii) changes in pests and diseases vulnerabilities; (iii) changes in rice systems and diversification in cropping; (iv) contributions of rice to greenhouse gasses. Our own experiences with rice in Indonesia are also added. Win-win situations for rice production are recognized in that (a) 5 of 8 proposed adaptations have possible mitigation components during an El-Niño period; (b) 1 of 8 proposed adaptations has possible mitigation components during a La-Niña period. We also found that for general win-win situations in rice (c) 7 out of 10 possible proposed adaptations had mitigation components, while (d) 4 out of 12 possible proposed mitigations had adaptation components. These results should now be used with our groups of farmers in Indonesia, starting with their farmer facilitators training, to see which win-win situations, in their specific conditions, are suitable to be carried out by these farmers.




A. General Introduction

The first parts of this paper were composed after sections of Thornton and Cramer (2012), PhilRice (2011) and ThinktoSustain (2012). Rice is grown on some 144 million farms worldwide in a harvested area of about 160 million ha, the vast majority in Asia. There it provides livelihoods, not only for the millions of small scale farmers and their families but also for the many landless workers who derive
income from working on these farms. The typical Asian farmer plants rice primarily to meet family needs. Nevertheless, nearly half the crop on average goes to markets; most of that is sold locally. Only 7% of world rice production was traded internationally during 2000–2009.

Rice is the world’s most important food crop for the poor. Altogether, rice provides 20%
of global human per capita energy and 15% of per capita protein, although rice’s protein content is modest, ranging from about 4–18%.


B. Biological vulnerability to climate change

B.1 Introduction

Rice cultivation has a wide geographic distribution, and climate change is likely to exacerbate a range of different abiotic stresses, including high temperatures coinciding with critical developmental stages. This will also apply to floods causing complete or partial submergence, salinity which is often associated with sea water inundation/intrusion, and drought spells that are highly deleterious in rainfed systems.


B.2 Temperature

Temperatures beyond critical thresholds not only reduce the growth duration of the rice crop, they also increase spikelet sterility, reduce grain-filling duration, and enhance respiratory losses, resulting in lower yields and lower-quality rice grain. Rice is relatively more tolerant to high temperatures during the vegetative phase but highly susceptible during the reproductive phase, particularly at the flowering stage. Unlike other abiotic stresses, heat stress occurring either during the day or the night have differential impacts on rice growth and production. High night-time temperatures have been shown to have a greater negative effect on rice yields, with a 1 °C increase above critical temperature (>24 °C) leading to 10% reduction in both grain yield and biomass. High day-time temperatures in some tropical and subtropical rice growing regions are already close to the optimum levels. An increase in intensity and frequency of heat waves coinciding with sensitive reproductive stages can result in serious damage
to rice production.

The degree of high temperature damage depends to a large extent on the rice variety and stage of development. During the vegetative stage, an extremely high temperature reduces tiller number & plant height, and negatively affects panicle and pollen development. Rice plant exposure above 35ºC for a few hours could lead to increased spikelet sterility by reducing pollen viability. During reproductive stages, flowering is the most sensitive to high temperature in which heat stress might lead to stagnation in panicle dry weight. During the ripening phase, high temperature affects cellular and developmental processes leading to reduced fertility and grain quality. Decreased grain weight, reduced grain filling, higher percentage of white chalky rice and milky white rice, and reduced grain amylose content are common effects of high temperature exposure during the ripening stage in rice.

An increase in temperature will speed up crop development and eventually shorten the duration of crop growth cycles. The shortening of such a cycle could have an adverse effect on productivity because senescence would occur sooner. Temperature increases are likely to cause increased evaporation from the soil and accelerated transpiration from the plants themselves which might cause moisture stress. Intensified evaporation will also increase the hazard of salt accumulation in the soil. A higher air temperature is likely to speed up the natural decomposition of soil organic matter and increases the rates of other soil processes that affect fertility. Warming will accelerate many microbial processes in the soil-floodwater.


B.3 Carbon dioxide

For every 75 ppm increase in CO2 concentration, rice yields will increase by 0.5 t/ha. Increased concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has a positive effect on crop growth and yield, provided that microsporogenesis, flowering, and grain-filling are not disrupted by increase in temperature.


B.4 Floods

Floods are a significant problem for rice farming, especially in the lowlands of South and Southeast Asia. Since there were no alternatives, subsistence farmers in these areas depend on rice which - in contrast to other crops - thrives under shallow flooding. Complete or partial submergence is an important abiotic stress affecting about 10–15 million ha of rice fields in South and South East Asia causing yield losses estimated at US$1 billion every year. These losses may increase considerably in the future given sea level rise as well as an increase in frequencies and intensities of flooding caused by extreme weather events.

B.5 Salt

Rice is a moderately salt sensitive crop. As for drought tolerance, salt stress response in rice is complex and varies with stage of development. Rice is relatively more tolerant during germination, active tillering, and toward maturity but sensitive during early vegetative and reproductive stages. The increasing threat of salinity is an important issue. As a result of sea level rise, large areas of coastal wetlands may be affected by flooding and salinity in the next 50 to 100 years. Sea level rise will increase salinity encroachment in coastal and deltaic areas that have previously been favourable for rice production.


B.6 Drought

Drought stress is the largest constraint to rice production in the rainfed systems, affecting 10 million ha of upland rice and over 13 million ha of rainfed lowland rice in Asia alone. Dry spells
of even relatively short duration can result in substantial yield losses, especially if they occur around flowering stage. Drought risk reduces productivity even during favourable years in drought-prone areas, because farmers avoid investing in inputs when they fear crop loss. Inherent drought is associated with the increasing problem of water scarcity. In Asia, more than 80% of the developed freshwater resources are used for irrigation purposes, mostly for rice production. Thus, even a small savings of water due to a change in the current practices will translate into a significant bearing on reducing the total consumption of fresh water for rice farming. By 2025, 15–20 million hectares of irrigated rice will experience some degree of water scarcity. Many rainfed areas are already drought prone under present climatic conditions and are likely to experience more intense and more frequent drought events in the future.

B.7 Other abiotic stresses

There will be soil degradation and sea level rise resulting in loss of agricultural land and salt water intrusion.

B.8 How to adapt

Abiotic stresses outlined above are responsible for significant annual rice yield losses. However, their occurrence is often in combination in farmers’ fields, causing incremental crop losses. Breeding for abiotic stresses has typically been pursued individually. A ‘stress combination matrix’ illustrates the interactions between different abiotic stresses such as heat and drought, and heat and salinity. Combined stresses have been observed to increase negative effects on crop production—for example, combined heat and salinity stress. This suggests the need to develop crop plants with high levels of tolerance for combinations of stresses. Indeed, recent research has highlighted the physiological, biochemical, and molecular connections between heat and drought stress.

C. Socioeconomic vulnerability to climate change

Rice productivity and sustainability are already threatened by biotic and abiotic stresses. The effects of these stresses may be further aggravated by (further KS/YW) changes in climate in many places. The estimated cumulative net benefits of a combined drought- and flood-tolerant variety released in 2016 amounted to $1.8 billion for the whole of South Asia till 2050. This work also showed that in 2035 rice production, consumption would be higher, and retail prices lower, if such a variety were developed and released in the region, compared with the case where the variety was not developed and released.

In the long run, the returns to the investment of developing ‘climate change tolerant’ varieties are high. Otherwise, resource-poor rice farmers in South Asia will remain highly vulnerable and food safety in the region may be at stake if new multiple stress-tolerant varieties of rice are not available in the near future.


D. Some critical additions

D.1 Additions selected

Other issues related to climate change are not or only partially dealt with above:

1. increasing climate variability/disasters;

2. changes in pests and diseases vulnerabilities;

3. changes in rice systems and diversification in cropping;

4. contributions of rice to GHGs.

We will add here our own experiences in Indonesia as well.


D.2 Increasing climate variability/disasters

Among the impacts of climate change, increase in temperatures apart, there will be
other increases, in variabilities and in extreme events (disasters). A larger temperature variability will accompany changes in the intensity, timing & spatial distribution of rainfall. Farmers’ complaints about seasonality changes find their causes here.

It has also been found that global warming influences time and duration of appearances as well as strengths of El Niño and La Niña phenomena in a way that we do not understand (e.g. Stigter and Winarto, 2012a). This will cause even larger climate variabilities. Effects of El Niño may include drier weather conditions, extended dry seasons, delayed onset and early termination of the rainy season, weak monsoon activity, lesser storms and typhoons, below normal rainfall, and above normal air temperature. The effects of La Niña include wetter weather conditions, shorter dry seasons, if any, and longer rainy seasons, more storms and typhoons, early onset of the rainy season, and below normal air temperatures.


D.3 Changes in pests and diseases vulnerabilities

Rice diseases such as rice blast, sheath and culm blight, could become more widespread. Altered wind patterns may change the spread of both wind-borne pests and of the bacteria and fungi that are the agents of crop disease. It has also been suggested that crops that survive climate change may now suffer more from improved conditions for some pests and diseases (e.g. Thornton and Cramer, 2012). The possible increases in pest infestations may bring about greater use of chemical pesticides to control them. Climate change may also affect weed ecology, the evolution of weed species over time, and the competitiveness of C3 vs C4 weed species.


D.4 Changes in rice systems and diversification in cropping

In earlier work, we have shown from the existing literature that there were more than enough economical incentives to advise Indonesian farmers on actual crop diversifications (e.g. Stigter, 2007; Stigter et al., 2007). To these economical arguments for crop diversifications one must now add the environmental/climate related arguments. Depending on rice alone remains an unwise policy.

E. Contributions of rice to GHGs

This same argument we need to use in a discussion on whether and how Indonesian rice farmers need (or will be able) to adapt their rice farming to the causes & consequences of climate change.


F. GHGs and rice

Now we suddenly are in mitigation issues. This would include a diminishing of the contribution that rice growing makes to the amount of GHGs in the atmosphere. Flooded rice fields emit significant amounts of methane (CH4) to the atmosphere. More carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, coupled with rising temperatures, is making rice agriculture an even larger source of the potent GHG methane. Because global demand for rice will increase further with a growing world population, results suggest that without additional measures, the total methane emissions from rice agriculture will strongly increase. As more carbon dioxide enters the atmosphere, rice plants grow faster, experimental data showed. This growth, in turn, pumps up the metabolism of methane-producing microscopic organisms that live in the soil beneath rice paddies. The end result: more methane.

Burning of rice straw and direct incorporation of rice straw into the soil also produce GHGs. It should be noted, however, that relatively simple changes in rice cultivation could help reduce methane emissions. We will come back to that issue.

As in all natural wetlands, flooding a rice field cuts off the oxygen supply from the atmosphere
to the soil, which results in anaerobic fermentation of soil organic matter. Methane is a major end product of anaerobic fermentation. It is released from submerged soils to the atmosphere by diffusion and release of gas bubbles and through roots and stems of rice. When the fields remain flooded for the entire growing season, there is more potential for CH4 emissions than when the fields are drained or permitted to dry at least once during the season.

When CH4 is released into the atmosphere, it traps significant amounts of heat that would otherwise escape to space. Methane is more than 20 times more heat absorptive than CO2 and it has a 9 to 15 year life time in the atmosphere. Thus, CH4 is considered a greenhouse gas that contributes
to the global warming and climate change owing to its greenhouse effect. Methane production
is negligible in upland rice because the fields are not flooded for any significant period of time. In rainfed lowland fields, methane emissions are much lower and more variable due to periods of no standing water during the season. Too much use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides also emits N2O. Expansion of rice areas could also alter the earth’s land cover and eventually change its ability to absorb or reflect heat and light.

G. Adaptations/Mitigations?

G.1 Intro

The findings underscore the importance of mitigation and adaptation efforts to ensure a secure global food supply while keeping GHGs emissions in check. In earlier work (Stigter and Winarto, 2012a; Stigter and Ofori, 2013a;b;c) we have always taken the stand that only in win-win situations farmers should be encouraged to apply measures with mitigation components that reduce GHG emissions into the atmosphere.


G.2 What factors determine methane emissions?

The following factors determine methane emissions:


I. Fertilizer application

Applying chemical and organic inputs such as urea, rice straw, animal manure, and green manure generally increases CH4 emissions. This increase in CH4 emissions depends on the quantity, quality, and timing of fertilizer applications. Moreover, water management and temperature may reduce or amplify the effect of fertilizer inputs on CH4 emission.


II. Water management

Flooded soil is prerequisite to sustained emissions of CH4. When water level fluctuates between oxidative (drained field) and reductive (submerged field) conditions, depending on water management, CH4 emission also fluctuates. Thus, rice environments with unsteady supply of water, such as rainfed areas, have a lower CH4 emission potential than irrigated rice. Several authors pointed out several options available to reduce methane emissions from rice agriculture. For instance, management practices such as mid-season drainage and using alternative fertilizers have been shown to reduce methane emissions from rice paddies.


III. Soil type

Methane emission is higher in heavy clay soils than in porous soils (sandy, loamy sand, and sandy loam) because the latter have high infiltration rates.


IV. Population of methanotrophic bacteria

Biological consumption of CH4 is critical to the regulation of almost all sources. Methane-oxidizing bacteria (methanotrophs) consume a significant but variable fraction of greenhouse-active CH4 gas produced in wetlands and rice fields before it can be emitted to the atmosphere.


V. Rice cultivars

Rice cultivars showed differences in emitting CH4 gas from flooded rice fields. Morphological properties such as root, biomass, number of tillers, dry matter weight of above-ground biomass, root exudates, and growth duration play a significant role in the variation of CH4 emission among cultivars.


VI. Temperature

High temperatures in the weeks following the application of fertilizer and organic inputs result in a pronounced CH4 emission peak. The higher the temperature, the faster the decomposition of organic matter. The daily variation of methane emission is correlated with temperature. Their fluctuations are high in early rice growth stages and lower during the second half of the growing season when the soil is shaded by rice plants.


VII. Tillage

Tillage disturbs and releases stored CH4 from the soil. So no-till or low-till conservation methods also generate less methane.


The above factors must be investigated for win-win situations where mitigations are concerned. First let us see what adaptations are needed where El-Niño’s and La Niña’s are involved.


H. How can farmers help lessen the impacts (so adapt to the consequences) of El Niño and La Niña?
[You will recognize earlier given facts.]

H.1 During El Niño:

1. Plant drought-tolerant or early maturing rice varieties.

2*. Practice no-tillage technology and modified dry direct seeding technology. [* means win-win situation with also mitigation components.]

3*. Practice water-saving technologies such as controlled irrigation, aerobic rice, and drip irrigation.

4*. Apply mulch to conserve soil moisture, moderate soil temperature, prevent weed infestation. Mulch can be in the form of rice straws or hay, grasses, plastic sheets and any other layer of suitable material that isolates the soil.

5*. Plant other crops (i.e. vegetables) instead of rice in areas that do not have enough water supplies.

6*. Plant high value commercial crops (water melon, squash, melon) for extra income, or plant drought-resistant crops such as cassava, sweet potato, and yam.

7. Keep a regular monitoring of the field for possible attacks of new pests and diseases brought by warm climate condition.

8. Always keep updated on weather forecasts and climate prediction scenarios for planning and executing farm activities.

H.2 During La Niña:

1. Plant submergence-tolerant rice varieties.

2. Adjust planting calendar where flowering, grain filling, and harvesting should not fall in periods of heavy rainfall or be caught by strong winds. [Easier said than done! KS/YW]

3. Repair dikes, drainage, and irrigation canals.

4. Drain excess water from rice fields before and after heavy rains. [Means always during La-Niña periods. KS/YW]

5*. Use windbreaks structures to protect crops from strong winds. Planting other vegetation or trees along the bunds is another option.

6. Use mechanical dryers, especially during weeks of nonstop rainfall, to dry grain.

7. In water-logged areas, plant crops through a floating garden.

8. Practice rainwater harvesting and use small farm reservoirs.

The above were all adaptations.


H.3 What are the possible strategies to reduce other impacts of climate change on rice production?
We shall call these also adaptations!

1*. Adoption of diversified integrated rice-based farming systems. Think about farming systems that highlight the purposive integration of various farm components. [Again an * for win-win situations] We are talking about systems such as rice and other crops, livestock, aquaculture, biomass waste recycling, and other income-generating means. Farmers’ benefits include continuous food supply, higher income, increased farm productivity and sustainability, reduced production risks, better resource allocation, and enhanced diversity and ecological balance.

2*. Adoption of rice integrated crop management systems. This must be compared with Participatory Farm Management approaches as were successfully carried out in Africa (Stigter and Ofori, unpubl.). They present easy-to-follow practices to achieve respective key checks and to improve crop yields and input use efficiencies. This promising technology has also high potential for climate change adaptation in irrigated lowland rice farming systems.

3*. Genetic enhancement of local rice varieties with higher yield potential and better tolerance to adverse conditions. Development of high-yielding and stress-tolerant varieties is the frontline defense of adaptation to climate change.

4*. Adoption of water-saving technologies such as controlled irrigation, aerobic rice, hydroponic seed establishment, small farm reservoirs, and rainwater harvesting. These are all water saving methods of which some also reduce methane emission, so for the latter we have here again a win-win situation with adaptations with mitigation components.

5*. Improvement of design, construction, and maintenance of irrigation and water control infrastructures.

6. Development of weather-proofed farm equipment and post-harvest facilities.

7*. Shifting of planting dates and adjustments in cropping calendars.

8. Adoption of risk sharing and transfer schemes such as crop insurance, compensation, and calamity funds.

9. Improved extension services to the farmers. This includes using information and communication technology (ICT) tools such as internet (for a few) and SMS (for many), while radio and television may play important roles as methods of mass communication. We should realize, however, that results in Africa (Stigter et al., 2013) and Asia (Stigter and Winarto, 2012a, 2012b, 2013; Winarto and Stigter, 2013; Winarto et al., 2011, 2013) have learned that personal contacts with well-trained extension intermediaries is a condition for success, because advisories and services have to be established in farmers’ fields.

10*. Development of rice monitoring, rice and climate forecasting as well as mapping of rice areas that are most adversely affected by drought, floods, salinity, sea level rise, and other negative impacts of climate change.


H.4 What are the technologies or best practices that can reduce GHG emissions from rice fields? [Now with an * for serious adaptation components]

1. Practice mid-season drainage. Draining rice fields midway through the rice growing season is a better practice than continuous flooding. Practicing mid-season drainage has been found to reduce methane emissions to as much as 80%, without having any significant effect on rice yield.

2. Adopt alternate wetting and drying or controlled irrigation. Studies in India, Philippines, Japan, Indonesia, among other countries, have shown that controlled irrigation can effectively reduce methane without affecting yield.

3. Avoid water logging in off-seasons.

4. Practice direct seeding. Direct seeding of crop establishment has been shown to reduce emission of methane owing to shorter flooding periods and crop maturity, and decreased soil disturbances.

5*. Use temporary vegetative cover. This could be done between successive agricultural crops or between rows of trees or vine crops. It increases the soil carbon storage and reduces carbon losses from soil erosion and nitrous oxide emissions. Other benefits include improvement of soil quality and water retention, prevention of soil erosion, and enhancement of biodiversity conservation by favoring soil microbial communities.

6*. Improve nitrogen use efficiency. This technique includes the placing of nitrogen more precisely into the soil to make it more accessible to crop roots (precision farming), and slow or controlled release of nitrogen fertilizer. Improved timing such as applying nitrogen when least susceptible to losses, and applying the right amount of nitrogen fertilizer based on immediate plant requirements. The Leaf Color Chart (LCC) and Minus-One Element Technique (MOET) are easy-to-use and inexpensive diagnostic tools for monitoring nitrogen requirement as well as nutrient deficiency of the plants.

7. Use chemical fertilizers and nitrification inhibitors. The use of sulfate-containing fertilizers like ammonium sulfate reduced CH4 emissions by around 30%. Applying phosphogypsum in combination with urea has been determined to reduce methane emission by more than 70%.

8. Use rice varieties with low methane emission potential. Rice varieties with small root systems, high root oxidative activity and harvest indices, and productive tillers produce somewhat less CH4 than other varieties.

9. Improve tillage practices. Methane emissions are very intense during the tilling stage of rice field preparation. Soil-entrapped CH4 from previous crop residues that have been tilled under is released during rice field preparation. Carbon is conserved by growing crops using minimal or reduced tillage or without tillage at all. In irrigated areas, the use of no-tillage technology results in the lowest CH4 emissions compared with conventional tillage system. But integrated pest management is compulsory.

10. Improve crop residue management. Using compost instead of fresh rice straw in a continuously flooded field could reduce methane emission by 60%.

11*. Enhance carbon impounding through agro-forestry, land use change, crop diversification, and restoration of degraded lands. These practices promote an increase in vegetation/biomass stock, which often leads to increase in soil carbon storage and reduction in direct nitrous oxide emission.

12*. Use farm waste and biomass. Farm by-products such as rice hull, corn cobs, coffee hull can be used as fuels for heating and drying. Farm waste can be recycled into organic fertilizer; therefore, reducing the chemical inputs. Technologies utilizing rice hull biomass include the Rice Husk Gasifier Engine System, the Maligaya Flatbed Dryer, and the Maligaya Rice Hull Stove. These technologies are environment-friendly and economical.

I. Concluding remarks

Win-win situations for rice were recognized above in:

@ 5 of 8 proposed adaptations have possible mitigation components during an El-Niño period;


@ 1 of 8 proposed adaptations have possible mitigation components during a La-Niña period;



We also found that for win-win situations in rice:

@ 7 out of 10 possible proposed adaptations had mitigation components, while

@ 4 out of 12 possible proposed mitigations had adaptation components.

These results should now be used with our groups of farmers in Indonesia, first with their farmer facilitators training, to see which win-win situations, in their specific conditions, are suitable to be carried out by these farmers.



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