Whether one grew up in an Asian household or chose to hop on the growing trend of vegetarianism or veganism, having rice as a staple part of one’s diet, unfortunately, hurts the environment.
According to nonprofit group Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), global rice cultivation poses the same catastrophic effect on climate change as 1,200 average-sized coal power plants, at least in the short term, Bloomberg reported.
Rice is the most polluting grain to date, emitting twice as much of the harmful gases as wheat.
Over time, its farming is just as threatening as annual carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels in several countries combined, including Germany, Italy, Spain and the U.K.
The problem stems from flooding paddy fields, a strategy farmers all over the world have practiced for thousands of years to prevent growing weeds.
Apparently, submerging the crop allows underwater microorganisms to decay organic matter, which produces methane — a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
Methane, naturally found below the ground and under the sea floor, stays in the atmosphere for a much shorter time, but it is blamed for around a quarter of human-caused global warming.
Twelve percent of its global emissions reportedly come from the said farming practice, while polluters such as hard coal mining and gas production each account for less.
On the flip side, rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere make rice less nutritious.
A 2018 research published in the journal Science Advances shows that exposing the grain to levels expected before the end of the century will result to lower levels of protein, iron, zinc and a number of B vitamins.
Needless to say, rice — sticky as it is — has consumers in a bit of a bind. Growing the grain contributes to global warming, which in turn decreases its nutritional value.
Researchers are currently developing ways to address these problems. For one, the Sustainable Rice Platform (SRP), overseen by the United Nations and International Rice Research Institute, has released guidelines on growing rice more sustainably, which includes alternately wetting and drying the crop instead of keeping it flooded.
Other means include not burning what is left of the crop after harvest and using organic fertilizers.
For now, the SRP is working with countries like India, Thailand and Vietnam to score them based on such factors, which will eventually become standards for rice that can carry an “SRP-verified” logo.
Meanwhile, ensuring that rice remains nutritious amid worsening climate change requires just as further research and innovation. Scientists recommend studying the causal relationship between carbon dioxide and nutrient levels, as well as developing types of rice that stay nutritious even with global warming.
Still, consumers may choose to drop rice altogether and shift to alternative grains like maize and wheat, which both leave less of a footprint, according to EDF scientist K. Kritee. It would also be interesting to see if climate change affects the nutritional components of such alternatives.