Achieving Climate-Friendly Low-Carbon Rice through Digital Innovations

Climate change and global disruptions undeniably affect Asia’s rice production. Although stakeholders strive to develop solutions, they have only attained small-scale pilots to date. This article offers a perspective on the significance of a digital innovation hub for a more sustainable tomorrow.

By Lesly Goh, Senior Technology Advisor, World Bank

 

Climate change—rising temperatures, shifting rainfall patterns, and increased pest and disease pressures—has cast a shadow over rice production in Asia.

Given that 50% of the global population relies on rice for 80% of their dietary needs, this is a matter of global significance. Moreover, disruptions like the COVID-19 pandemic and geopolitical conflicts have sent food prices skyrocketing and pushed millions into hunger and poverty.

Researchers, agronomists, technologists, and policymakers strived to find solutions but only achieved small-scale pilots in different countries so far. We need a digital innovation hub for low-carbon rice to make big bets and think on a large scale. This hub could be pivotal in promoting digital solutions to incentivize smallholder farmers to adopt climate-smart agriculture practices.

 

How Important is Rice?

Rice is a vital food crop, feeding over 3.5 billion people globally, predominantly in Asia.

However, it also poses a significant environmental challenge, contributing to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

The majority of rice production occurs in Asia, led by countries like China, India, Vietnam, and Bangladesh. This crop is a lifeline for around 150 million smallholder farmers, many of whom live in poverty and cultivate rice on less than 1 hectare of land.

Traditional rice cultivation practices, like flooded paddy fields and open burning of rice straws, are responsible for substantial GHG emissions.

In countries like Vietnam, rice cultivation accounts for a significant portion of overall emissions, with approximately half of the agriculture emissions and 75 per cent of methane emissions stemming from rice farming.

Methane and nitrous oxide, produced during these processes, are potent greenhouse gases, with global warming potentials 28 and 250 times greater than carbon dioxide (CO2), respectively.

Addressing rice cultivation’s environmental impact is crucial for food security and climate mitigation.

 

Critical Components to Create a Digital Hub

With rice demand projected to increase by over 25 per cent by 2035, we desperately need sustainable rice production. A digital innovation hub could offer solutions at scale by integrating key stakeholders to provide tools, data, and resources for sustainable rice farming. It also could link to systems that generate and sell carbon credits, incentivizing low-carbon practices and significantly changing farmer planting methods.

Three critical components are needed to create a digital hub:

  1. Climate Smart Agriculture (CSA) Methods – to enhance productivity, boost resilience to climate change, and cut greenhouse gas emissions. Some key methods include Alternative Wetting and Drying (AWD) to optimize water use and reduce methane emissions; System of Rice Intensification (SRI) to decrease water consumption; Conservation Agriculture to minimize soil disruption; and Agroforestry to integrate trees with rice cultivation to sequester carbon and enhance soil fertility.
  2. Digital Measurement, Reporting, and Verification (MRV) Systems – to leverage technology to monitor productivity, resource efficiency, and environmental sustainability, ensuring transparency throughout the supply chain.
  3. Carbon Credits – to represent the reduction or removal of greenhouse gas emissions. In the context of a digital innovation hub, they can be generated through adopting climate-smart agriculture methods. Farmers can earn carbon credits by implementing these practices and selling them to organizations looking to offset their emissions. This financial incentive could lead to sustainable farming practices and reduce GHG.

 

Countries Making Strides

Several countries have made strides in low-carbon rice production already, yet most are small-scale pilots. A digital innovation hub could scale on the successes below:

Creating a Network

The success of the digital innovation hub hinges on collaborative efforts among an intricate and trusted network of key stakeholders, encompassing both the public and private sectors.

These essential players include:

  • The government, which offers Digital Public Infrastructure, funding, and regulatory frameworks to promote sustainability.
  • NGOs that contribute technical expertise, capacity building, and knowledge exchange for farmers. Funders, such as Multilateral Development Banks and Philanthropy Funds, provide financial support and technical assistance.
  • AgriTech companies that work on digital tools and innovative solutions. Smallholder farmers stand at the core, benefiting from support and access to climate-smart agriculture.
  • MRV Systems are vital for verifying carbon credits while academia conducts research and seeks breakthroughs.
  • Finally, the carbon markets offer a platform for carbon credit trading, drawing investment into low-carbon rice production.

Creating a low-carbon rice digital innovation hub comes with its fair share of hurdles. First, we need to bridge the technology gap, ensuring access for all stakeholders, especially smallholder farmers, through investments in digital literacy.

Addressing farmers’ resistance to change requires financial incentives and training programs.

To overcome collaboration barriers, stakeholders must develop a strong partnership with a suitable incentive model and patience capital. This partnership requires building financial sustainability and effectively tapping into public and private funding, grants, and partnerships.

“The changing climate will only add to the complexities. But while challenges exist, they can be overcome through targeted strategies and interventions. It’s time to make big bets on low-carbon rice and pave the way for a more sustainable future.”

Lesly Goh, 2023 Bellagio Center Resident

 

 

About the writer

Lesly Goh is a World Bank Senior Technology Advisor and former World Bank Group Chief Technology Officer. She is a Fellow at Cambridge Centre for Alternative Finance (CCAF) at Cambridge University’s Judge Business School and Senior Fellow at National University of Singapore (NUS) Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

This article was first published as a blog on The Rockefeller Foundation website.

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Mouna Aouri

Programme Fellow

Mouna Aouri is an Institute Fellow at the Tech For Good Institute. As a social entrepreneur, impact investor, and engineer, her experience spans over two decades in the MENA region, South East Asia, and Japan. She is founder of Woomentum, a Singapore-based platform dedicated to supporting women entrepreneurs in APAC through skill development and access to growth capital through strategic collaborations with corporate entities, investors and government partners.

Dr Ming Tan

Founding Executive Director

Dr Ming Tan is founding Executive Director for the Tech for Good Institute, a non-profit founded to catalyse research and collaboration on social, economic and policy trends accelerated by the digital economy in Southeast Asia. She is concurrently a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Governance and Sustainability at the National University of Singapore and Advisor to the Founder of the COMO Group, a Singaporean portfolio of lifestyle companies operating in 15 countries worldwide.  Her research interests lie at the intersection of technology, business and society, including sustainability and innovation.

 

Ming was previously Managing Director of IPOS International, part of the Intellectual Property Office of Singapore, which supports Singapore’s future growth as a global innovation hub for intellectual property creation, commercialisation and management. Prior to joining the public sector, she was Head of Stewardship of the COMO Group and the founding Executive Director of COMO Foundation, a grantmaker focused on gender equity that has served over 47 million women and girls since 2003.

 

As a company director, she lends brand and strategic guidance to several companies within the COMO Group. Ming also serves as a Council Member of the Council for Board Diversity, on the boards of COMO Foundation and Singapore Network Information Centre (SGNIC), and on the Digital and Technology Advisory Panel for Esplanade–Theatres on the Bay, Singapore’s national performing arts centre.

 

In the non-profit, educational and government spheres, Ming is a director of COMO Foundation and Singapore Network Information Centre (SGNIC) and chairs the Asia Advisory board for Swiss hospitality business and management school EHL. She also serves on  the Council for Board Diversity and the Digital and Technology Advisory Panel for Esplanade–Theatres on the Bay, Singapore’s national performing arts centre.

 

Ming was educated in Singapore, the United States, and England. She obtained her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Stanford University and her doctorate from Oxford.