U.S. rice production improves sustainability

Linda Benedict, Linscombe, Steven D., Harrell, Dustin L.  |  7/27/2013 1:25:16 AM

Dustin L. Harrell and Steve Linscombe

The USA Rice Federation established a Sustainability Task Force in 2010 in a first step to develop a rice industry sustainability program. The task force is made up of rice producers, university scientists, millers, merchants and industry advisors. One of the first priorities of the task force was to evaluate the progress the rice industry has made toward sustainability over the past two decades. To this end, the USA Rice Foundation commissioned a study to measure the environmental impact of rice production using five factors: land use, soil loss, water use, energy use and climate change. The benchmark study was conducted by IHS Global Insight, and a summary of the report can be found on the USA Rice Federation website (http://www.usarice. com/). The findings of the report highlight the U.S. rice industry’s commitment to sustainability over the past 20 years.

The first environmental factor evaluated in the report was land use. The study found that 21 percent less land is needed today to produce 100 pounds of rice compared with 1987. Successful rice breeding programs, such as the one at the LSU AgCenter Rice Research Station, have been instrumental in developing new and improved rice varieties that have better disease resistance and greatly outyield older rice varieties. In fact, in using today’s varieties and improved agronomic practices, U.S. rice growers can produce the same amount of rice produced in 1987 on 820,000 fewer acres.

Improvements in water and energy use were also highlighted in the report. The water needed to produce 100 pounds of rice has decreased by 33 percent over the past two decades. In fact, 20 percent of rice farms nationally are using recycled or reclaimed water on their farms. The energy needed to produce those same100 pounds of rice was reduced by 52 percent over the past 20 years. The energy used to produce the 2009 U.S. rice crop was reduced by the equivalent of 280 million gallons of diesel as compared with the 1987 crop. Improvements in diesel-fueled irrigation pump efficiency and the more recent implementation of electric pumps have been driving factors in the energy improvement. Another driving factor is the adoption of land-leveling practices in rice production over the last decade and a half. Land leveling greatly improves the rice farmer’s ability to flood and drain a rice field quickly and more efficiently.

Soil loss is another factor in measuring environmental impact. Commercial rice production in the United States has demonstrated a 43 percent decrease in the loss of soil above the tolerable level since 1987. The 2009 rice crop lost approximately 5.4 million tons less soil compared with 20 years ago.

In 2010, a summary of agriculture’s role in greenhouse gas emissions was published by the American Society of Agronomy, Crop Science Society of America and Soil Science Society. In that summary, it was determined that American agriculture is responsible for only 6.9 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. The three greenhouse gases are carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane.

The burning of fossil fuels to run agriculture equipment needed for plowing, planting, fertilizing crops, applying pesticides and insecticides, and drying grains is the major contributor of carbon dioxide in agriculture. The EPA estimates that in 2008 approximately 86 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States were attributable to energy-related activities. Reducing tractor passes over agricultural fields by the adoption of no-till or reduced tillage practices can greatly reduce carbon dioxide emissions. In Louisiana, commercial rice producers have embraced sustainability by the adoption of no-till and reduced tillage practices. No-till and reduced tillage practices in Louisiana commercial rice production have increased from 26 percent in 2000 to 41 percent in 2011.

Methane has approximately 21 times the global warming potential as compared with carbon dioxide. In agriculture, methane emissions are most prominently related to ruminant livestock production, animal wastes and rice production. The USA Rice Foundation study on sustainability found that soil methane production in rice production has been reduced by 29 percent for every 100 pounds of rice grown over the last 20 years. The reduced methane production over the 20-year period equates to a 42 percent decrease in the net climate impact from rice production.

The U.S. rice industry has made tremendous strides in sustainability over the past two decades. Working with Kellogg’s the LSU AgCenter has established the Kellogg’s Certified Rice Producers program, which rewards producers who follow sustainable rice production guidelines. Efforts such as these, along with the establishment of the USA Rice Federation’s Sustainability Task Force, will allow the rice industry to continue to be one of the commodity leaders in agriculture sustainability.

Dustin L. Harrell is associate professor and Mosaic Company Professor, and Steve Linscombe is American Cyanamid Professor at the Rice Research Station.

(This article was published in the spring 2013 issue of Louisiana Agriculture magazine.)

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