Innovative Rice Cultivation Is Producing Positive Economic and Environmental Results


“Half of humanity eats it. Climate change is wrecking it. And around the world, people are finding creative ways to grow it.”

That’s the dramatic start to a recent story in the New York Times about the challenges of rice production in the 2020s. The article reports on the activities of rice farmers in Bangladesh, the United States, and Vietnam as they confront a changing climate.

The world’s supply of rice, the article warns, will shrink in 2023 “largely because of extreme weather.”

As a rice farmer in the Punjab region of India, I’m reluctant to comment on what’s happening in other parts of the world—but I know that a growing global population in a time of food inflation can’t well afford a decrease in rice production.

I’m also pleased to confirm that many farmers in my area are working hard to grow a food that feeds billions in a sustainable way, all by taking advantage of new practices and technologies. I’m trying to do my part on my farm and constantly sharing with others what I am learning.

Rice isn’t my only crop—I also grow wheat, potatoes, and seasonal vegetables—but it’s my most important crop.

I’m always striving to become a better farmer, but climate change makes this more challenging. Rice farmers have had to cope with just about every aspect of this dilemma: high and low temperatures, droughts, salinity, osmotic stress, heavy rains, floods, and frost. This is in addition to the traditional enemies of pests, weeds, and disease.

Yet climate change lately has become so intense and unpredictable that responding to it never has been harder. Every part of rice production suffers from new threats. My biggest problem has been rising temperatures during rice’s reproductive stage. This is a critical period when the crop grows and forms its grain, which is the part that people eat.

Many people assume that the work of farmers is just the drudgery of manual labor. And I won’t deny that it involves a lot of physical effort.

Yet it’s also about solving problems through adaptation—and this gives agriculture an intellectual dimension that rewards innovative thinking.

We’ve adapted to our circumstances with a series of strategies, starting with mulching and leaving crop residue on the field to increase organic matter in the soil and hold water in place. We’ve experimented with rainwater harvesting, cover crops, no-till and minimum tillage, crop diversification, rotation methods, and boosting soil health.

The future of agriculture will become ever more technologically enhanced, as we use information from satellites and GPS, sensors, smart irrigation, drones, automation, and more. Our work will become more precise, allowing us to conserve our resources and become more efficient and sustainable.

Becoming a better farmer isn’t a burden, but rather part of the joy that comes from work well done.

This year, we tried a new variety of rice that grows faster following its transplantation. This strain possesses a long, slender, clear and translucent grains that keeps its length during milling, which contributes to its market value. It also resists ten common types of bacterial plight.

Unfortunately, high temperatures led to more attacks from pests, which lowered our yield. So not every test succeeds—but if it did, there would be no need for tests. We’ll try another approach soon.

One emerging technology that we are anxiously waiting to take up is gene editing, which allows scientists to adjust traits that are already in the seeds of crops. We’re especially looking forward to the advent of gene-edited rice that reduces methane emissions.

Methane is a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change, and about 8 percent of the world’s methane emissions come from rice, according to the World Meteorological Organization. The source of the methane is not the rice itself, but rather the bacteria that accumulates around its cultivation.

a close up of a blue and purple structureThe gene editing of rice is a promising hope for the future. We’re also taking concrete steps right now. Rice farmers are moving away from traditional flooded-field methods and letting the soil dry out regularly, which reduces the bacteria that produce methane. Another positive step in some acreage is to replace the transplantation of rice seedlings with direct seeding of germinated rice, in a technique that requires less flooding and lower soil disturbance.

The New York Times says that “people are finding creative ways to grow” rice. That’s what I’m seeing here, in my country and on my farm.

Malwinder Singh Malhi

Malwinder Singh Malhi

Third generation farmer growing rice, wheat, potatoes, peas and fodder crops of oats, rye grass and mustard on their 25-acre family farm in Punjab State. He's a strong supporter of GM and hybrid crops. Has over 30 years of experience working with farmers on the transfer of agricultural technologies to increase productivity.

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