The southernmost rice industry in the world is adapting to climate change

Parral, Chile, 27 April 2021 (IICA) – David Castillo and Washington Hernández are rice farmers in Parral – a town in the Maule region, located approximately 350 km south of Santiago de Chile. For more than 20 years they have been producing rice under flooded conditions, which is the traditional method associated with rice cultivation.

This type of cultivation has the highest water footprint in the world, as approximately 1,700 liters of water are needed to produce half a kilogram of rice – an unsustainable requirement in the context of water shortages and climate change.

The Maule region is located on the fringe of an area hit by a mega drought that has been advancing for the last 12 years and which has become a critical issue for many producers. David and Washington recognize that they must begin to adapt and to adopt new technologies to continue producing.

Karla Cordero, researcher in charge of the Genetic Rice Improvement Program of Chile’s Agricultural Research Institute (INIA), is known as the Queen of Rice. Cordero has spearheaded the country’s implementation and adoption of the System of Rice Intensification (SRI), which has been proposed as a concrete solution for producers in the zone, as it allows them to employ intensive and direct dry-seeding practices.

Cordero explained that currently more than 10 million producers in 54 countries are benefitting from this methodology. Having originated in Africa, SRI has successfully been introduced in countries with warmer climates in the Americas. The challenge was to adapt it to a temperate climate, such as Chile.

She indicated that, “The prevailing climate conditions in the national rice zone only allow for the cultivation of japonica rice, which has made Chile the southernmost rice producer in the world. This cold climate promotes the growth of a rice crop that is pest and disease free, given that these scourges do not prosper in cooler temperatures. Thus, the crop can be cultivated with minimal use of chemicals and free of pesticides and fungicides. This characteristic differentiates our rice from the rice cultivated elsewhere in the world, which requires multiple pesticide applications, in order to enable a profitable level of production”.

The researcher has been working for more than 4 years in generating relevant and valuable data and information to develop this system in Chile and in other temperate climate countries.

The application of this methodology was recognized by the prestigious Cornell University, in the United States, which stated, on its SRI International Network and Resources webpage, that, “SRI is part of a reorientation towards sustainable production, since it will allow advances in the reduction of chemical products used in the crop, eliminating the use of herbicides, and, at the same time, saving a significant amount of water currently used for rice”. 

For many years, the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA) has been working with countries, such as Nicaragua, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Colombia, in promoting, adapting and validating the SRI methodology, as a possible alternative to foster a more productive, competitive, resilient and low-emission rice sector.

In Chile, production promotes four basic principles: early cultivation (flexibility in the date of planting); reduced competition among plants, through the mechanical control of weeds; the maintaining of healthy soils (aeration and oxygenation of roots); and alternating between dry and wet soils.

These principles, in addition to the use of high-yield seeds, better industrial quality, short duration cultivars and adaptation to the new restricted water conditions, have enabled the creation of a climate-smart rice cultivar which, after two years of testing and experimental studies, is available for use on a mass scale by producers.

Fernando Barrera, Rural Extension Specialist at IICA, said that the challenge in this phase of the process is to continue the participatory research process with the farmers, extension officers, researchers and development agents.

“We are going to work to devise an irrigation strategy at the farm level that will facilitate an efficient 50% reduction in water consumption, as was already achieved at the experimental level, by adjusting the direct dry-seeding system to utilize the seed more efficiently and to produce more vigorous, resilient and high yield cultivars”, he explained.

Barrera also remarked that, “We will continue work to develop a mechanized weed control system that will reduce dependency on herbicides and provide environmentally-friendly solutions. We will also identify the genetic lines that are most suitable for SRI, while also implementing production management practices to enable better adaptation to water stress conditions. The aim is also to devise marketing strategies that highlight the value of a more sustainable production system and that represent the best of our rural world”.

According to the IICA specialist, after the experimental phase there will be a period in which the technology will be transferred to farmers, as well as an extension services phase, focusing on equipping farmers with tools and knowledge tailored to their needs, with a view to creating an impact and ensuring acceptance of this new form of sustainable production.

Regional project, innovation and applied science for climate change adaptation  

The initiative, which is funded by the Innovation Fund for Competitiveness (FIC for its Spanish acronym) of the Regional Government of Maule, is promoting research, innovation and competitiveness in the sector. The project seeks to benefit close to 1,100 rice farmers, as well as the chain associated with this sector, which includes technical advisors to farmers; companies; and also Chilean public entities, such as ODEPA and INDAP. It will also create indirect benefits for all national rice consumers.

Rodrigo Avilés, Regional Director of INIA Quilamapu/Raihuén, indicated that the Parral zone boasts the highest level of rice production in Chile, accounting for approximately 60% of the total. “Given what we have been experiencing in recent years, due to water restrictions and precipitation, INIA’s genetic rice improvement program, in a bid to assist farmers to adapt to the new agricultural scenario—characterized by climate change, limited water for irrigation and increased environment-related market demands—has identified this alternative that we are demonstrating on an experimental farm in Digua, in collaboration with IICA”.

The INIA and IICA teams invited David and Washington to see for themselves the strides being made with this cultivation system, in an open-air laboratory just a few kilometers away from their rice paddies, where project researchers are testing irrigation systems, seeds and agricultural management.

More than anyone else, both producers from the Cuyumillaco region are keenly aware of the water shortage problem and are cultivating close to 100 hectares that they sell directly to the mills.

Having been introduced to the methodology, they have both committed to implementing it on one hectare of their fields, with a view to progressing rapidly towards a complete migration to this production method, which will yield climate-smart rice that has been adapted to climate change.

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