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Netafim to introduce carbon credits for rice growers using drip irrigation

Israeli company says its pioneering technology will save water, lower greenhouse gas emissions and improve crop yields

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

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

SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt — The Israeli drip irrigation company Netafim announced Friday its first carbon credit initiative for global rice growers at the UN COP27 climate conference taking place this week in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.

Netafim — an Israeli subsidiary of the global company Orbia — revolutionized agriculture worldwide by being the first to introduce drip irrigation in the 1960s.

Through its recently introduced pioneering drip irrigation method for rice — which is usually cultivated in flooded paddy fields — the company said 70 percent of the water currently used in rice production cam be saved. According to Netafim, 1,500 liters (396 gallons) of water is required per kilogram (2.2 pounds) of rice produced when using drip irrigation, rather than 5,000 liters (1,320 gallons) with the traditional method.

The technique also uses 30% less fertilizer and 36% less energy while reducing methane emissions to nearly zero and arsenic uptake by up to 90%.

Traditionally, rice cultivation uses a staggering 30% to 40% of the world’s freshwater and is responsible for 10% to 15% of all human-induced methane emissions.

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

Illustrative: Freshly harvested rice. (Netafim)

Netafim said it is introducing its drip irrigation in Italy, Turkey, India and other parts of Southeast Asia.

But for poor farmers, the drip equipment is costly to buy, particularly where water is cheap to use in abundance. That could change with Netafim’s new program to allow rice farmers employing drip irrigation to earn cash from carbon credits.

Carbon credits are permits that are traded between businesses that allow for the lowering or absorption (sequestration) of global warming gases such as carbon dioxide and methane, and companies that need to offset emissions that are hard for them to completely abolish in order to lower their carbon footprint.

John Farner, Netafim’s global chief sustainability officer, told The Times of Israel on the sidelines of the COP27 conference that the company’s agronomists in Israel and staff in Italy and the US-based global sustainability team had linked up with the LaFagiana Farm in Venice to develop the idea.

At the beginning of the rice season earlier this year, they partnered with Turin University, which put flux chambers into the fields — devices that can directly measure emissions (flux) from the ground to the atmosphere in real time.

The company employed Italian verifiers to vouch that the measuring was being done by the book. The results will be submitted shortly to Verra, one of a handful of global verification firms that check that the methods used to absorb global warming gases meet international standards for carbon sequestration  projects.

Farmers using Netafim’s drip lines will be able to earn 10 carbon credits per hectare of land per year, Farner said. With current prices per ton of methane varying between $20 to $30, a small fortune for many smallholders.

In Italy, Netafim will serve as the project manager and will make sure that the farmers follow certain procedures and submit the necessary data for verification. The carbon credits will be issued for sale by the verifier, and once they have been bought, Netafim will pay the farmers

But access to upfront capital remains a hurdle, particularly in developing countries. Carbon credits are paid at the end of the rice season, but the equipment has to be purchased at the beginning.

Netafim is currently looking for companies willing to pre-purchase the credits, so that the farmers will be able to access that capital. It is also looking at alternative models for managing carbon credits and payments.

Drip-irrigated rice crops in Turkey. (Netafim)

The cash incentive that the credits represent offers potentially huge profits for Netafim because to access the credits, the farmers will need to buy Netafim’s equipment.

“This is a game changer. It’s a win-win for us, the farmers, the buyers of the credits, and the environment,” said Farner. “Apart from the credits, the farmer saves on water and fertilizers, and gets a better yield.”

He added that 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.

The carbon credits program will be available to farmers around the world starting in 2023.

“If just 10% of paddy rice farmers switch to drip, the drop in emissions will be equivalent to taking 40 million cars off the road,” said Gaby Miodownik, Orbia’s Executive Vice President and President, Precision Agriculture (Netafim).

“This program marks the first time a carbon credit is being generated based on the application of irrigation technology. In the face of climate change, the only surefire route to sustainable agriculture is to grow more with less — less land, less water and significantly less greenhouse emissions.”

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