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Technologies and methodologies for low-emission rice cultivation can open doors to climate financing for smallholder farmers

MANILA, Philippines (17 October 2023) — Farmers who practice low-emission rice cultivation could soon be able to augment their incomes by selling carbon credits on the global carbon market. This was the potential scenario presented by climate scientists during the discussion on rice farming and carbon markets at the 6th International Rice Congress.

A  2022 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report called for various sectors to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by half by 2030. This includes rice farming, which is a significant contributor to anthropogenic emissions. But how do you incentivize rice farmers to take up sustainable rice farming methods without any apparent benefit to gain?

Climate scientists from the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), Gold Standard Foundation, CarbonFarm Technology, and Rikolto discussed opportunities for bringing climate investment and funding to rural communities and smallholder rice farmers.

“Globally, rice cultivation is the third-largest source of non-CO2 GHG emissions in agriculture, next to livestock and all croplands,” said Katherine Nelson, a climate scientist from IRRI. “However, the relative mitigation potential for rice, at 36%, is much higher than that of livestock and all croplands, which are at 9% and 3%, respectively (Roe et al., 2021; EPA, 2021). This presents immense opportunities for channelling climate investment and funding to rural communities and smallholder rice farmers,” Dr. Nelson added. “With already existing low-emission technologies, over 50% reduction can be achieved (IPCC, 2019).”

However, converting offset emissions into carbon credits requires a standardized way to quantify and certify emissions.

Building on the efforts of the Business Partnerships Platform (BPP), a program that collaborates with businesses to address development challenges to scale carbon market access for smallholder farmers in Vietnam, Gold Standard launched a universal methodology for quantification of emission reductions from water management measures that reduce anaerobic decomposition of organic matter in rice-cropping soils. The methodology was developed with inputs from IRRI and technical contributions from Eurecat Centre Tecnològic de Catalunya.

“This methodology is applicable to all irrigated rice geographies and can be applied to large, small, or micro-scale projects,” said Mr. Ashwin Shailaja, manager of the Development and Innovation Team at Gold Standard. “Interventions and technologies in the methodology include changing water regimes from continuously to intermittently flooded conditions; adopting aerobic rice cultivation methods; and switching from transplanted to direct-seeded rice.”

Supporting this methodology, CarbonFarm Technology uses remote sensing and artificial intelligence to develop the world’s first satellite-based measurement, reporting, and verification (MRV) solution for rice. Estimated to be 20 times more cost-effective than traditional methods, the technology suite detects and identifies sustainable agricultural practices and accurately estimates emission reductions to provide a comprehensive, rigorous, and transparent source of data.

“Collecting ground data consistently and scientifically from smallholder farmers is expensive and operationally difficult,” said Mr. James Hastwell, chief technology officer at CarbonFarm Technology. “Satellites offer an efficient and cost-effective means of collecting near-real-time data at scale, while our machine learning models estimate GHG emissions based on various factors, including observed practices, growing conditions, soil type, and more.”

To expand low-emission rice farming practices to scale, international network organization Rikolto developed a holistic systems approach to engaging with farmers and facilitating access to carbon markets. This includes coaching and monitoring on sustainable practices, capacity building, market linkages and innovation, and incentivization.

“Rikolto is committed to enabling farmers to adopt practices that sustainably increase rice productivity while reducing environmental impact,” said Tuan Le, Rikolto’s senior rice program manager for Vietnam. “As the implementing partner, Rikolto will conduct training for 2,000 farmers, organize data collection, provide technical assistance, and closely monitor all aspects of the project.”

Funding for these transformative climate projects is led by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade through BPP. The German Corporation for International Cooperation (GIZ) provided co-funding. The goals are to develop a digital platform that simplifies the process of registering and assessing mitigation projects under the new methodology and deliver training and capacity-building tools to guide widespread use of the methodology and platform, enabling smallholder rice producers to engage in carbon markets.

Access to carbon credits could provide a tipping point to incentivize farmers to switch to lower-emitting protocols. This will not only contribute to reducing emissions on a global scale but also uplift the livelihoods of millions of farming families around the world.