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Northern NSW growers lead the way to ‘climate-smart’ rice amid concern over crop emissions

Rice grown in paddy fields is responsible for 10 per cent of the world’s methane emissions.(ABC: Cam Lang)

With rice grown in paddy fields responsible for 10 per cent of the world’s man-made methane emissions, northern NSW farmers are hoping their rain-fed crop will appeal to people wanting “climate-smart” food.

“We get interest from all over the world for our rice,” Steve Rogers, general manager of the Kyogle-based Natural Rice Company, said.

“The big groups like Masterfoods and Kellogg’s are all out there trying to find low-emission rice.”

A vibrant green rice crop.
Methane is produced by bacteria that live in the soil of the flooded paddies.(ABC: Cam Lang)

Environmental impact

The World Bank estimates rice grown in flooded paddy fields is responsible for 10 per cent of man-made methane emissions.

While the beef industry has been subjected to some uncomfortable scrutiny about its methane footprint, rice is agriculture’s second biggest emitter, behind ruminant livestock; cattle, sheep, and goats.

“It’s something that’s not really known about, and it’s not spoken about if it is known [about], the greenhouse gas emissions that traditional paddy-ponded rice produces,” Mr Rogers said.

“Rice … has one of the worst environmental footprints in the world.”

A man stands in front of a brown coloured field of rice crops.
Steve Rogers believes big groups like Asteroids and Kellogg’s are trying to find low-emission rice.(ABC: Cam Lang)

Methane is produced by bacteria that live in the soil of the flooded paddies.

In Australia, 98 per cent of rice is grown in paddy fields in the Riverina in southern New South Wales.

Producers there rely on irrigation, but 1,100 kilometres north in the state’s warmer, wetter Northern Rivers region, growers rely on an incredible average annual rainfall of 1,000 millimetres.

Mr Rogers says non-irrigated or dryland rice produces 85 per cent less methane than paddy-grown rice while using 65 per cent less water which appeals to customers uneasy about irrigation’s impact on the environment.

A paper pack of white rice stand on a kitchen bench.
The biggest packer of “rain fed” or “dry land” rice is the Natural Rice Company.(ABC Landline: Pip Courtney)

‘Climate-smart’ rice

The biggest packer of “rain-fed” or dryland rice is the Natural Rice Company.

It grows its own, buys from 31 contracted farmers, and has a waitlist of farmers wanting to sign on.

Cane and soybean farmer Tony Carusi said rice had been a good earner.

“It’s an alternative for growers like me with low-lying paddocks susceptible to summer waterlogging [and] not suitable to soybeans,” Mr Carusi said.

Big grey silo's containing rice line down a road at the Natural Rice facility.
The Natural Rice Company gets interest from all over the world.(ABC Landline: Pip Courtney)

Mr Carusi said the emerging market in “climate-smart” foods was an exciting opportunity, but northern growers were being held back by a 70-year-old law permitting just one company, SunRice, to export NSW rice.

“It’s an antiquated law, probably the last living dinosaur in Australian agriculture,” he said.

“It’s been the biggest single thing that has restricted the development of the rice industry here in the Northern Rivers.

“All we want is a fair go so our buyer, The Natural Rice Company, if the opportunity arises, can export our rice.”

Dry rice field with a close up of a tractor wheel.
Dryland growers say their rice appeals to customers uneasy about irrigation.(ABC: Cam Lang)

Two years ago, the NSW Department of Primary Industries (DPI) reviewed vesting, also known as single-desk rice marketing.

Despite finding that “vesting restricted the growth and development of domestic supply chains, prospective new export supply chains, and inhibited innovation”, the state government approved vesting for another five-year term.

“We were pretty disappointed the decision was made to go against the NSW DPI’s paper, but we’re still waiting for the ABARES report,” Mr Rogers said.

Rice straw bales lay on the field.
Rice straw is baled after harvest and used for stockfeed.(ABC Landline: Pip Courtney)

The state government commissioned the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES) to assess the issues raised in its review.

A DPI spokesperson said the report was handed to Agriculture Minister Tara Moriarty in May.

New variety

Northern growers are also hoping research by plant breeders at Southern Cross University at Lismore will give them a new black variety sought after as a so-called superfood, as it contains anthocyanins.

“These are antioxidant purplish-coloured compounds,” plant geneticist and associate professor Tobias Kretzschmar said.

A man stand in front of a well-lit wooden house at dawn, smiling at the camera.
Tobias Kretzschmar warns it will be several years before the research project can offer northern growers a new rice.(ABC: Cam Lang)

“You might know them from red wine or blueberries. They have very strong antioxidant functions, but they also improve the gut system and allow the black rice to be digested slower, which makes it a low-glycemic index rice,” he said.

“We’re trying to get something black that’s adapted to local growing conditions containing as much anthocyanins as possible.”

If a new variety is identified, he warned it would be several years before the million-dollar research project could offer northern growers a new rice.

https://www.abc.net.au/news/2023-09-24/rice-grown-in-paddy-fields-climate-smart-crop/102861768 QR Code

Published Date: September 24, 2023

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