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Product, Service & Design Innovation
How Netafim Is Helping Build Resilience in Rice Production

Through a partnership with Regrow Ag, precision-agriculture business Netafim is helping rice farmers worldwide to seamlessly adopt climate-smart farming practices.

Rice is one of the world's most popular staple crops: Over 50 percent of the world relies on it for nourishment, and it provides 20 percent of the world’s calorie intake. However, rice production poses significant environmental challenges due to its resource-intensive cultivation practices and growing global demand. One of the primary environmental concerns is its heavy water usage — rice is predominantly grown in flooded paddies, accounting for roughly 40 percent of the world's irrigation water usage. And the flooded fields release methane, a potent greenhouse gas, during the decomposition of organic matter — further contributing to climate change. It's estimated that rice cultivation is responsible for approximately 10 percent of global methane emissions.

“Rice is probably the most important crop for humans, consumed almost everywhere, with billions of people relying on it. But we also know it's one of the largest polluters in greenhouse gas emissions and uses huge amounts of freshwater for irrigation,” Max Moldavsky, Director of Innovation and Climate Solutions at Netafim, tells Sustainable Brands®.

Netafim — a precision-agriculture business owned by Orbia, a global leader in irrigation solutions for sustainable agriculture — has introduced precision-irrigation technologies tailored to rice cultivation — such as drip-irrigation systems that dramatically reduce water consumption, compared to traditional flooded paddies. By delivering water and nutrients directly to the roots of rice plants, Netafim's systems increase water efficiency, minimize water wastage, and significantly lower the environmental impact of rice farming.

“Netafim has been a pioneer of drip irrigation for almost 60 years now; and we took it upon ourselves to bring a revolution to rice production,” Moldavsky says. “It has taken many years, trials, adaptations of products and agronomical protocols; but in the end, we can grow rice under drip irrigation. And the impact of this transition is immense — we eliminate almost 100 percent of the methane emissions, and cut water usage by 70 percent, compared to traditional flood irrigation.”

The value of data

Netafim recognizes the challenges faced by rice farmers in adopting advanced irrigation methods. These methods — while highly effective — require investment, which can pose difficulties for rice farmers and smallholders. Moreover, there can be a perceived complexity in transitioning to drip irrigation — especially when compared to traditional methods.

To address these challenges, Netafim not only provides agronomic guidance and support to farmers but also seeks innovative solutions on the financial front. This commitment has led to Netafim’s mission to assist farmers in securing carbon credits for their adoption of climate-smart rice cultivation practices. The availability of data is pivotal for this, as it quantifies and verifies the reduction in methane emissions associated with these practices — thereby attracting the necessary investment and incentivizing sustainable rice farming for both environmental and financial benefits.

Netafim and Regrow Ag — a leading agricultural MRV (Measurement, Reporting, and Verification) software provider — have been partnering since 2020, developing innovative agronomic decision-support tools to make a range of agricultural systems more resource efficient and resilient. Most recently, Netafim and Regrow expanded their partnership to drip-irrigation-based rice-production systems.

Regrow Ag uses remote-sensing technology and environmental modeling to scale climate-smart rice production. Together, they kicked off a pilot project at La Fagiana farm in Venice, Italy — where they measured and verified the environmental impact of traditional rice-production methods compared to Netafim's drip-irrigation system.

Soil nutrient modeling: an essential part of sustainable rice production

Understanding the impact of various rice practices requires a deep understanding of nutrient cycling in agricultural soils. Changing a single practice in rice paddy soils can impact both methane and nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions — each of these having a different effect on our environment. Therefore, it’s essential to understand the impacts of adopting new practices from multiple angles.

For example, we know that drip irrigation can significantly reduce methane emissions. However, we also need to pay attention to the impact of this practice on N2O emissions, and apply fitting fertilization protocols to ensure N20 emissions are reduced as well.

Regrow gives its exclusive commercial rights to DNDC — an industry-leading environmental model that estimates nutrient cycling in soils to model the interactions between irrigation practices and methane / N2O emissions, which enables full GHG accounting and allows Regrow to optimize emissions reduction for both methane and N2O. This environmental model is essential for programs such as Netafim’s to be successful.

Securing credit for sustainable production

The Netafim and Regrow teams are now approaching the final stages of the pilot — preparing to submit it to carbon-offset verifier Verra to secure carbon credits.

“This milestone is pivotal in expanding the adoption of drip-irrigation practices around the world — making rice cultivation more sustainable and financially viable. This is the first project ever that generates carbon credits for farmers through the adoption of drip-irrigation methods. So, this is a unique achievement both for Netafim and Regrow,” Moldavsky explains. “Moving one hectare of rice from flood to drip irrigation is like removing 2.5 cars from the road. We have more than 140 million hectares of rice around the world — just imagine the impact that can have.”

Rice production's supply chain has previously lacked traceability — with irrigation methods, water usage and methane emissions unknown. However, with Regrow’s support, rice traceability has significantly improved: Moldavsky says every hectare of rice enrolled in this pilot can now be fully traced and the growing practices verified — so, food companies, retailers and consumers can confidently ascertain that the rice is sustainably produced.

“Rice production accounts for a significant percentage of global methane emissions,” said Regrow co-founder and Chief Strategy Officer Bill Salas. “Regrow’s partnership with Netafim continues to expand and promote resilience in agriculture while ultimately supporting Paris Agreement goals.”

Moldavsky explains that many farmers are less likely to adopt climate-smart programs without substantial support from companies such as Netafim. Adopting a completely new irrigation system, enrolling in carbon-credit programs, and adapting to new ways of data collection may not be possible for them without the support of a solid MRV system. Netafim, therefore, aims to assist them with the tasks that fall outside their core business.

“It’s been a long journey; but now, I'm really happy to say that we are about to scale up to a fully operational commercial solution. In Italy, farmers are already able to sign up to the program for the next season of rice cultivation, which will start in April 2024,” Moldavsky says.

Building resilience

In recent years, increasing droughts linked to climate change have posed a significant challenge to traditionally water-intensive rice cultivation. Italy, Europe's top rice producer, has experienced a reduction in rice output over the past two years due to water shortages — leading to abandoned fields and economic losses. India, another major rice producer, has also faced climate-related droughts — prompting the Indian government to ban non-basmati white rice exports.), impacting importing nations.

Transitioning to drip irrigation offers a sustainable solution by providing consistent water access for rice fields, mitigating the impact of unpredictable weather patterns — a shift that not only ensures stable yields but also reduces greenhouse gas emissions.

“I hope that very soon we will see many more farmers using climate-smart practices globally — helping us, themselves and life around the world,” Moldavsky explains. “Our plan with Regrow is to continue to grow together, go to new geographies, new crops — any crop that can adopt drip-irrigation systems — and to be the driver for change, reducing emissions and water consumption, and improving the livelihood of farmers and communities.”