Eating less rice

Last updated Wednesday 30 April 2008

Go against the grain for less methane

Nutritious, abundant and easy to cook, nothing could be simpler than a bowl of rice, right? Wrong. Combine growing it, shipping it and cooking it and you’re looking at a giant helping of harmful emissions. Would sir or madam like to choose something else from the menu?

Rice is the main food for half the world's population; it provides more of the calories consumed by humans than any other foodstuff. And it's stinking the place up.

Why? Because when organic matter decays without oxygen, as it does in water-logged rice paddies, bacteria in the water generate methane, a greenhouse gas 21 times more potent than CO2. In fact, alongside landfill and cattle, rice paddies are one of the major sources of global methane emissions.

Eat it here in the UK and you can add in significant transport emissions too. So what can you do to mitigate the worst effects?

Read more below
Photo: Eating less rice

Saves up to kg of CO2 a year

226 Bloomers are doing this

CO2 reduction 1 out of 5

Cheapness 5 out of 5

Popularity 3 out of 5

Cost 0

About these ratings

In this article:

How will it make a difference?

Pub Fact

  • So much straw is burned and rice grain wasted globally that if it were converted to biofuel it could replace about 14% of global petrol consumption
  • It is estimated that rice farming is responsible for almost a fifth of fertiliser use globally
  • More than 40,000 varieties of rice exist
  • The manufacture, distribution and use of nitrogen in rice fertiliser accounts for 100 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent every year
  • Demand for rice will rise by 70% over the coming 30 years in Asia, according to the International Rice Research Institute
  • Since 1750, methane levels in the atmosphere have more than doubled, although the rise has tailed off in recent decades
  • Emissions of methane from rice farming are set to rise by 16% globally between 2005 and 2020, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency
  • Rice provides more than a fifth of per capita calorie intake globally
  • About 85% of the world’s rice paddies require flooding; the remainder are dry upland rice fields
  • Irrigated rice fields account for 51%, rain-fed fields for 27%, and deep-water fields for 8% of the world's total harvested rice farms
  • Dry upland ricelands (14% of the world’s total rice fields) are not flooded for any significant time and do not produce methane
  • Rice paddies emit more methane during the wet season than they do in the dry season
  • Almost one in five adult Americans now reports eating at least half a serving of white or brown rice per day
  • Nine-tenths of Cambodia’s agricultural area is dedicated solely to rice paddies
  • Almost one in five adult Americans now reports eating at least half a serving of white or brown rice per day
  • 86% of water used in Asia ends up in agriculture, according to the International Rice Research Institute
  • Reiner Wassmann from the International Rice Research Institute in the says: "There is no other crop that is emits such a large amount of greenhouse gases"
  • Rice is the most significant foodstuff in Asia, accounting for 35-80% of calories consumed
  • Irrigated rice crops are generally submerged under 5-10 cm of standing water
  • Pre-soaking rice for just 15 minutes can cut your cooking time (and emissions) by half
  • Annually harvested rice fields take up 144 million hectares of land
  • The largest two rice-exporting countries are Thailand and Vietnam
  • Getting rid of all rice paddies would reduce global man-made methane emissions by 30 to 60 million tonnes a year

Ok, so the world is not about to do without rice, but - to demonstrate the scale of the problem - getting rid of all rice paddies would reduce global man-made methane emissions by up to 30%. (By comparison, methane from the belching and manure of cows and sheep accounts for 40% of global emissions.)

It's not just the methane either: rice paddies also produce CO2 when they are burned between harvests. And if you prefer white rice to brown then you accrue even more emissions because white rice needs to be heavily processed. Rice is also quite energy-intensive to cook (though some methods are better than others - see "How do I do it?"). So the tally is really starting to stack up.

There is, as they say, another way. Rice doesn’t actually have to be grown underwater: it's just easier that way (the crops require less weeding, less fertiliser and less pesticide). Dry, upland rice fields actually produce no methane at all, while paddies that have been drained for two weeks can emit up to 60% less methane. In fact, a drained paddy field will actually absorb CO2.

Some countries, notably Thailand and Brazil, are leading the way in sustainable rice harvesting techniques. Paddy draining, combined with other sustainable farming practices, could cut rice's methane emissions by up to a fifth, according to Dr. Reiner Wassmann at the International Rice Research Institute.

Back to top

What's the debate?

A question of scale

It would be nice to think that we could just source our rice purchases more conscientiously and support less emissions-heavy harvesting. Inevitably, it isn’t that simple. Artificially irrigated, rain-fed or deep water paddies account for 86% of rice fields. The remainder are dry, upland fields, but these simply don’t produce the volume of rice to meet global demand - and any intensification of production would require more pesticides and fertilisers than on flooded fields, meaning more greenhouse gas emissions.

In any case, dry farming brings its own problems. In the uplands, rice is often farmed as the first crop after deforestation and these soils are vulnerable to erosion. Whether or not erosion increases or reduces CO2 emissions from the soil is up for debate.

Back to top

What's stopping me?

"Brits don't eat nearly as much rice as lots of other countries so what's the point denying myself something I enjoy now and again?"

It's true our consumption - about 4.4kg of rice per person per year - is dwarfed by countries such as China (96kg), India (81kg) and Japan (60kg), but while we don't eat much rice, relatively speaking, what little we do consume has higher proportionate emissions from transport. The closest rice is grown to the UK is probably long-grain risotto rice from Italy, but even then road freight is ten times worse in terms of CO2 emissions than shipping, so that doesn’t score highly on climate-friendliness either.

And, of course, if you're eating rather more than the average, your personal savings will be more significant.

On that score, it's worth noting that while rice consumption actually fell by 10% in China between 2001 and 2007, according to data compiled by Kyushu University in Japan, global consumption is rising: almost one in five adult Americans now reports eating at least half a serving of rice a day.

And research shows that while traditional paddies are bad for the climate, rice grown in the West can be even worse because they use more energy-intensive machinery. According to Jules Pretty and Andrew Ball of the University of Essex, rice grown under irrigation in California uses up to 25 times as much energy to grow as it does in the relatively low-impact system of Bangladesh: 11,000 megajoules per tonne compared with 400.

"I can’t eat meat, soya, rice, anything flown in from overseas... what's left? I'm wasting away here!"

Oh, come on, it’s not as bad as all that. Here, have a carrot.

More seriously, these are not absolute rules. It's often a case of cutting back and substituting more climate-friendly alternatives - more chicken and less beef, say - while sometimes overseas goods are produced so much more efficiently than here that the imported goods are actually better for the climate. But at the very least, consumers can start to make informed choices about what foods they buy and when.

Back to top

How do I...

…buy it?

  • Opt for Indian breads rather than rice if you're eating curry
  • Consider substituting home-made pasta or some other kind of local, seasonal carbohydrate
  • Avoid American long-grain rice, which is produced in a particularly heavily mechanised way and said to be among the worst for the climate
  • Buy brown rice - it’s better for the climate because it requires less processing and healthier for your bowels too. On the other hand, it does take a little longer to cook, which uses more energy, so it might be worth developing a taste for rice al dente

...cook it?

  • Soak the rice for about 30 minutes before cooking - it cuts cooking time and energy use, and may even taste better
  • Cook it with just enough water - another way to cut cooking time and hence emissions
  • In terms of energy-efficiency, the electric rice cooker beats the microwave or a pan on the hob, but - because electricity is far more carbon-intensive than gas - using a rice cooker on a gas flame has a lower carbon-footprint still (unless you get your electricity from solar panels or you live in a windy enough area to justify a wind turbine)
  • Read our article on cooking tips

Back to top

or

If you like this action send it to a friend

Share this

Back to top

Comments

Woodcrafts, Staffs. 2009-01-21

Just goes to show what you think is a good basic food can have such implications. I was totally unaware of the methane from paddy fields. I used to eat a lot of rice as I thought it was relatively green, not any more!! Back to good old British (yes, locally grown) spuds!!!

Flower representing the 'Eating less rice' action

People using this site

3% of Bloomers are doing this action

Less than 1% of men in their 70s are doing this action.

Top 3 popular actions that males aged 70-79 are doing

More about actions by people of this age and gender.

Latest actions on Bloom

Latest related BBC News stories

RSS icon | News feeds | View all stories

[an error occurred while processing this directive]

Related links

Elsewhere on the web

Related links open in a new window. The BBC is not responsible for content on external sites.

Browse all actions

Glossary terms used on this page
Fertiliser
Fertilisers are given to plants to promote growth. They can be naturally occurring compounds (such as peat) or they can be manufactured - either through natural processes (such as composting) or chemical processes. Fertilisers commonly contain nitrogen, and the use of such fertilisers emits the potent greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide (N20). Using animal manure as fertiliser, though organic, releases another potent greenhouse gas, methane into the atmosphere.
Methane
Methane is a hydrocarbon, the main component of natural gas and among the six greenhouse gases to be curbed under the Kyoto protocol. As a greenhouse gas it is estimated to have a warming effect about 25 times as great as CO2. (Compared to CO2 its effects are greater but last for a shorter period). As a fuel, it is used in electricity generation and in the form of compressed natural gas it can be used as vehicle fuel. Methane is produced during the decomposition of many materials in landfill, while about 16% of methane emissions are caused by livestock's digestive processes.
Methane
Methane is a hydrocarbon, the main component of natural gas and among the six greenhouse gases to be curbed under the Kyoto protocol. As a greenhouse gas it is estimated to have a warming effect about 25 times as great as CO2. (Compared to CO2 its effects are greater but last for a shorter period). As a fuel, it is used in electricity generation and in the form of compressed natural gas it can be used as vehicle fuel. Methane is produced during the decomposition of many materials in landfill, while about 16% of methane emissions are caused by livestock's digestive processes.

bbc.co.uk navigation

BBC © MMXI

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.