Rice, everyone knows about rice, it is a grain that is eaten almost everywhere in the world. It can be cooked to be firm, soft and sticky or somewhere in-between. Boiled or steamed, it can be plain, cooked with salt, or sweet flavourings to make a pudding. As well as being tasty, rice can also be very nutritious. White rice is the least nutritious as the outer hull of the grain is removed, this takes away a lot of the fibre but also strips the grain of many vitamins and minerals. Darker coloured rice, such as brown or black rice, is intact so contains it's full nutritient profile. Among other nutrients rice contains vitamin B1, B2, B3, B6, vitamin E and zinc, so, depending on how you cook it, rice is a healthy thing to eat.
Rice is grown in rice paddies, these are areas of flooded fields where the rice grows under the water level. Because of the amount of water needed to grow rice it can put stress on the environment around it, growing rice uses almost a third of the planet's fresh water. Another problem with growing rice is that the flooding of the fields means that the soil is always under water, the soil gets no air, no oxygen. This leads to anaerobic fermentation of organic material in the soil, which is where plant and animal waste in the soil, such as dead leaves, rot down without oxygen and this produces methane. Rice paddies are the largest source of methane gas on the earth and methane is a greenhouse gas that is worse for the environment then carbon dioxide.
One of the problems with greenhouses gases when growing rice is that as levels increase in the atmosphere above the rice paddies they produce more methane and this methane has the effect of making the temperature go up, it heats the air over the rice paddy. This higher temperature is bad for the rice and makes production levels go down, but people still want rice. To increase the amount of rice more fields are planted, more methane, temperature goes up, rice yield goes down, it's a vicious cycle.
What Can Be Done
There are a few changes that can be made to minimise the impact that rice agriculture has on the environment. One is to grow varieties of rice that are less temperature sensitive at cooler times of year, this would mean that rice yields remain the same even if the temperature goes up. Another option is to change the fertilisers that are used, different fertilisers will lead to different amounts of methane being produced from the soil, choosing fertilisers that create less methane, but are still effective would help to keep temperatures lower. Fields could also be drained to a schedule to allow the soil to dry out a little and absorb some oxygen. This would require more labour and use a lot of energy, but, when weighed up against the damage done by not draining the fields, it would be worth it.
But, what about us? What can we do? Well, the obvious is to cut down on the amount of rice that you eat. Rice, particularly brown rice, is a very healthy food. It contains fibre, minerals and phytonutrients, but so do many other grains. Millet, quinoa and bulgar wheat have similar nutrition profiles and are cooked in similar ways, too. Another important thing to think about is waste; are you in the habit of cooking more rice than you need and throwing the rest away? Consider adjusting how much you cook or freezing the extra so that you don't have to cook more next time you want a meal. This will keep the demand for rice down and put less pressure on the rice fields and the planet.
Another way to make the most of rice when you are cooking is to cook it with lentils, this adds nutrients to your meal, tastes great and save rice - a win win.