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Now being introduced in Italy, Turkey and India

Israel’s drip irrigation pioneers aim to do away with flooded rice fields

Netafim says its trailblazing drip system for rice uses 70% less water, can help slash global warming gases and cut arsenic levels associated with paddy rice

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

Drip-irrigated rice crops in Turkey. (Netafim)
Drip-irrigated rice crops in Turkey. (Netafim)

Israel’s Netafim, the world’s leading drip irrigation company, has developed a potentially world-changing drip system for rice aimed at replacing the traditional system of flooding.

Netafim revolutionized global agriculture by being the first to bring modern drip irrigation to the world in the 1960s. It says its new pioneering drip irrigation method for rice can save 70% of the water currently used in rice production — requiring 1,500 liters (396 gallons) per kilogram (2.2 pounds) of rice produced, rather than 5,000 liters (1,320 gallons) with the paddy system.

It has begun introducing the system in Italy, Turkey and India.

The technique can also help slash global warming methane emissions, conserve more than a third of the world’s freshwater, and bring potentially harmful arsenic levels down in a food that is a staple for nearly half of the planet’s population.

The demand for rice is projected to increase 28% by 2050.

Netafim, which pioneered modern drip irrigation after joining forces with Polish-Israeli inventor Simcha Blass, says that cultivating rice by drip reduces heavy metal absorption and methane emissions to almost zero, cuts down on manual labor, and offers farmers 150% more yield. This is because while flooding is usually carried out to produce one annual cycle of rice, drip irrigation means that the same land can be used again, either for a second round of rice or for a different crop with a bigger financial return, such as onions or beans.

For thousands of years, mainly in a bid to kill weeds, most rice has been grown in flooded fields called paddies. These consume 30 to 40 percent of the world’s freshwater and generate more than 10% of the planet’s human-caused climate warming methane. (Methane is produced by microbes in the anaerobic, or oxygen-free, soil submerged underwater.)

“A 10% methane contribution — and that’s a conservative estimate — is equivalent to the carbon footprint of the entire aviation industry for one day, or of 400 million cars over a year,” said Roei Yonai, Netafim’s head of crops and agricultural sustainability, who is leading the company’s rice initiative. “Paddies are a huge carbon polluter and our drip system can lead to a massive change in global warming gases and emissions.”

Roei Yonai, Head of Crops and Agricultural Sustainability at Netafim. (Netafim)

Furthermore, rice grown in paddy fields absorbs substantial amounts of arsenic and other heavy metals that exist naturally in the soil. This, said Yonai, is “a huge health concern around the world, especially when you use rice in products such as baby food.”

A 2007 study found much higher levels of arsenic in rice than barley or wheat.

And a Federal Drugs Administration report issued for public consultation in 2016 revealed that average concentrations of inorganic arsenic – the more toxic form of the chemical element – were 92 parts per billion (ppb) in white rice, 154 ppb in brown rice, 104 ppb in infants’ dry white-rice cereal and 119 ppb in infants’ dry brown-rice cereal.

Drip-irrigated rice crops in Turkey. (Netafim)

It took Netafim a decade to develop a rice irrigation system that would be both economically attractive and technically feasible.

In an orchard, plants are spaced every three to four meters, which requires the farmer to lay drip irrigation pipes in rows, with drip holes just where the trees are. This means that they don’t have to waste water or materials such as fertilizers between the trees or between the rows.

Fruit trees being drip-irrigated. (Netafim).

By contrast rice, a form of grass, is sown to totally cover a large area. “It’s tricky technically and economically to position the drip lines in a way that will water the entire field and give each plant the same amount of water, without it being too expensive,” Yonai said. “The drip lines and irrigation holes need to be much closer together. The nearest thing would be other cereals, such as corn, and sugarcane, but they’re planted in rows, while rice is all over the place.”

Adapting the pipes was the relatively easy part, though. They are the same as regular irrigation pipes, just with more closely spaced holes. “The tricky part was developing the agricultural protocols — the practical instructions for the farmer — on how to irrigate, how much water and fertilizer to use, how to deal with the weeds, ” Yonai said. An additional complication was that over thousands of years, many rice varieties have been grown with flooding in mind.

“Rice is unique [among crops] in that it grows in anaerobic conditions,” Yonai explained. “But some weeds have evolved in paddy fields too, and many farmers spray herbicides. We’ve developed a spraying protocol for the weeds that doesn’t penetrate the rice.”

Netafim’s rice irrigation system has been introduced into three countries so far. The biggest customer is Turkey, where the company was able to make inroads by empowering farmers to grow rice on marginal, hilly land otherwise used for lower income crops. There, the plan is to hit 1,000 hectares (2,470 acres) by year’s end.

In Italy, Europe’s biggest rice producer, which uses the traditional flooding system, Netafim has introduced drip irrigation to around 30 hectares (74 acres) of the roughly 100,000 hectares (nearly 250,000 acres) under cultivation. “They like to grow their own rice, for example, for risotto,” Yonai said. “It was the environmental angle that interested them. They can brand the product as sustainably grown.”

Freshly harvested rice. (Netafim)

In India, progress has been slower, with just some 200 hectares (just under 500 acres) of rice under drip irrigation. “But given that most rice farmers are smallholders, that still means a lot of people who decided to make the change,” Yonai said. “We were aiming at a big jump and then COVID-19 struck.”

India is currently in the grip of a second coronavirus surge. More than 22 million cases of the pandemic have been reported, and more than 245,000 people have died.

Asked how the company would get poorly educated Indian farmers to adopt modern drip irrigation, once the country returned to health, Yonai said, “Most rice farmers are smallholders with no access to knowhow or financing. That’s one of our big go-to-market problems. Even if you bring a fabulous idea, they can’t afford it or they don’t have the ability to adopt it. That’s where you need to develop a business model that sometimes depends on government subsidies and other partners. India has a subsidy for agricultural input and irrigation. Through that, we’re implementing our system.”

Planting rice in a paddy field in Karnataka, India. (Ramon – Flickr, uploaded to Wikimedia Commons using Flickr upload bot by Ranveig, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Without any subsidies, added Yonai, an investment in drip irrigation would normally pay itself off in two to three years.

He went on, “If you just give someone a drip system he’ll fail. We have a hand-holding program where we have agronomists and tech people working on the ground with the farmers. In India, where we’ve worked for many years, we have a few dozen Indian agronomists whom we’ve trained. They’re helping to spread the word.”

Yonai believes that Netafim’s latest innovation will be carried forward on the wings of growing concern about population growth, climate change and dwindling resources.

“When water becomes a thing and the population is predicted to hit 9 billion and people begin to worry whether we’re climate resistant enough, whether our food system will be resilient enough to cope with changes in rain patterns, they’ll ask ‘Can we afford a crop that uses 5,000 liters of water for a kilogram of yield?’ This has become a discussion. People are looking for solutions.”

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