Monday, May 23, 2011

Paddy Fields in a Globalized World

The Taipei Times ran a really great commentary today on the many benefits of paddy fields by Chan Shun-kuei, who heads up the environmental committee of the Taipei Law Association. It paints a beautiful portrait of the positive externalities of paddy fields, which account for just over half of the cultivated farmland in Taiwan:
Most think that growing rice in paddy fields uses up a lot of water and is of little economic benefit, and that devoting more land to rice would put Taiwan’s water supply under greater strain. That may be true under the current short-term conditions, but in the long term, paddy fields actually do not use a lot of water. On the contrary, they are an efficient way of circulating water.

Apart from the private benefit gained by farmers harvesting rice, paddy fields are beneficial for the whole nation. Research conducted in Taiwan and abroad confirms that paddy fields help regulate floodwater and replenish groundwater. The reservoir ponds that dot Taiwan’s countryside contribute to this effect. Other benefits of paddy fields include beautifying the environment, purifying water, regulating the temperature and generating oxygen.


In 1993, Tsai Ming-hua (蔡明華), now director of the council’s Department of Irrigation and Engineering, carried out research into the beneficial effects of paddy field irrigation. He found that, between 1982 and 1992, the reduction of land devoted to paddy fields caused Taiwan to lose 13.473 billion tonnes of groundwater that would otherwise have been replenished through paddy field irrigation — roughly 23 times the storage capacity of the Zengwen Reservoir (曾文水庫).

Fighting drought in the short term may require extraordinary means, but water resources also need to be planned over the long term. Consumption can be reduced through pricing, by charging higher, differential and progressive rates for water use. Replacing old pipes would reduce leakage. Domestic and industrial wastewater can be recycled and reused. Existing reservoirs should be preserved wherever possible. Soil and water in reservoir catchment areas could be conserved by preventing unauthorized farming and construction.

Proper care should be taken of farmers and the land. Putting fallow fields back into production would make Taiwan more self-sufficient in food, and it would also replenish groundwater, forming a natural reservoir. As well as regulating the water supply, this would reduce the problem of land subsidence. To do so would have many advantages, since it would cost less and have a smaller environmental impact than building more reservoirs, artificial lakes or desalination plants.
The author points out that the actual amount of water used to grow the crops is tiny, the rest returns to circulation, including helping to replenish groundwater resources that benefit everyone. In addition to stopping subsidence and providing continued flows of groundwater, this paper observes that paddy field water also raises the local water tables, benefiting local flora. In fact, the author argues that "conserving water" during wet months is counterproductive:
Thus, from the viewpoint of effective utilization of water resources, it is meaningless to save water during wet months. On the contrary, if the excess water is available in rivers, it should be timely delivered to the paddy field to enhance the storage function of the paddy field, maintain adequate percolation and replenish ground-water, without having to follow the strict water conservation measures.
Experiments on using paddy fields to artificially recharge groundwater were conducted in Taiwan beginning in the 1980s (for example). The author also advocated over-irrigation as a way to replenish lost groundwater on the Changhua plain. Severe subsidence continues, however.

Paddy field water effects are so powerful that as rice imports drive paddies out of business, this author argued for converting fallow fields into wetlands to preserve their important externalities for the island's water circulation: wildlife benefits, groundwater replenishment, and flood mitigation. Sadly, it seems unlikely that anything so rational will occur.

Rice paddy field areas in Taiwan (source). How many of you would have guessed that Taoyuan has more paddy fields than Pingtung?

In Taiwan the government runs a set-aside program for farmland under which large quantities of farmland lie fallow. In some years the amount set aside exceeds the amount planted in rice (!). This program has come under much criticism, since sometimes farmland becomes unusable after being set aside and land lying uncared for invites pests that affect nearby farms. This results in abandoned land, 50,000 hectares by one 2004 estimate. When land leaves the market, it drives up the price of remaining land, pushing up rents -- and many farmers are renters, not owners. Further, for many observers it makes little sense to set aside good farmland in the lowlands while permitting farming on slopes. The set aside program is also driven by shortages of water, diverted for industrial and residential needs. Everything is exacerbated by the lack of government oversight and monitoring, a persistent problem in all areas of government policy in Taiwan.

Paddy fields have other important benefits that Chan's piece was too short to mention. This paper observes that paddies cool the air around them, saving electricity:
When water evaporated from the ponding surface of paddy, it takes up heat from surrounding air, lowering the air temperature, especially in the summer. Using the thermal band of Landsat 7 satellite image, Tan (2004) has shown a 7.81 C temperature difference between paddy field and urban land cover. To evaluate the air-cooling effect, Wu (2003) shown that the net electric power saving of rice paddy is 4,497 unit power/ha/day.
Rice paddies also purify water and release oxygen. Their single negative environmental effect is methane emissions, methane being 20 times more powerful a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. The IPCC estimates that 20% of total global methane emissions are from rice paddies.

One study looked at the total external benefits of rice paddies in two agricultural plains in Taiwan. It calculated:
Moreover, the internal value of rice production ranges from 1.332 to 1.886 billion NT$ and the
external value of rice paddy ranges from 5.836 to 9.851 billion NT$ in the Ping-Tung plain.
The internal value is basically what you can sell the rice for, while the external value represents the benefits to the local ecology as a whole.

Such values should spark thoughtful contemplation of the poverty that imperils many rural communities in Taiwan: as their paddies are taken out of production or converted to factories and cookie-cutter housing developments, many positive externalities that raise living standards and local incomes are lost. For this reason some academics have proposed a green subsidy for farmers because paddy field benefits are so economically important and externally beneficial.

The importance of paddies in local environmental and water regulation also raise the issue of farm subsidies in global trade agreements, the impoverished and destructive way "competitiveness" is defined, as well as the actual cost of importing agricultural goods. From the ecological perspective farm subsidies may just be one way society can return to the farmer some of the benefits the farmer gives all of us, while the loss of groundwater, flood control benefits, local cooling, wildlife, and continued subsidence are some of the hidden costs of the globalization and commodification of agricultural products that don't show up in the lower prices of imported goods, and are not recouped by local society in its interaction with global trade networks.
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Anonymous said...

I would be very, very careful about how any rice paddy subsidy would be designed; the farm subsidies in the United States were once sensible, but were captured by agribusiness and now promote environmental destruction, not stewardship, on the whole. Somehow, I don't think Taiwanese leaders would be sufficiently careful.

I wonder why a disproportionate amount of the organic rice I see for sale comes from the east coast (Yilan, Hualien, and Taitung). Perhaps because the people who are inclined to practice organic agriculture prefer living on the east coast?


D said...


Okami said...

Odd, rice is at an all time high and will continue for the foreseeable future. It would seem that the agricultural subsidy is also impairing the cultivation of farmland. I know some farmers throw seed on their land just to collect the subsidy with no intention to harvest. I often wonder why they don't gear up for a less water intensive crop like sorghum or millet.

I can't see them turning it into wetland because land is expensive and the govt is broke. I'd love to see more wild wetland areas that were well patrolled to deter trash dumpers.

I don't expect much to happen unfortunately as there's no money in it. It's hard enough to get them to clear out the reservoirs of silt. You are also dealing with competing areas and ministries. They've pretty much ended the "sea of flowers" campaign in Changhua except for a few farmers who do it on their own or are near major roads. Shame too, it made driving around the countryside splendid during the winter months. You don't see many fallow fields in Changhua except near the worst subsidence areas.

Michael Turton said...

Perhaps because the people who are inclined to practice organic agriculture prefer living on the east coast?

Perhaps, but also because on the west coast the soil has been farmed longer and perhaps its basic fertility is lower, meaning it has to have fertilizers.

I can't see them turning it into wetland because land is expensive and the govt is broke. I'd love to see more wild wetland areas that were well patrolled to deter trash dumpers.

Good idea.

I've often wondered about the crop choices here too. The law actually requires land to be farmed in rice, as I recall. But you'd think the government would have them put in more dryland crops to lower the agricultural demand for water. I guess it comes down to the strong cultural preference for rice...


Anonymous said...

Also, does Taiwan practice rice straw burning? If so, that's a major negative environmental externality as well. In California, pollution from burning rice fields was so bad they eventually banned the practice, except when significant levels of disease is present in the field.


Michael Turton said...

Oh yes, thanks MSK. I forgot about that. One of my chief complaints is burning season. The EPA has tried to get people to stop, but without enforcement...

Okami said...

Farm subsidies were never sensible. Farms are first and foremost businesses. Amish farmers now model a dairy cow's output as an annuity based on the inputs of care. When you subsidize a business you get waste, fraud and misallocation of capital. It also prevents new entrants to the field who may alleviate supply problems or use alternative methods.

Organic rice works on the east coast because the price paid is higher offsetting the increased transportation costs. In large scale industrial farming, infrastructure is king and last I checked you almost never see rail cars for the rice crop. Rail is almost always cheaper than by road. They also can set up individual districts much easier due to the lower number of farmers so the normal and organic rice doesn't get mixed together. In modern farming, fertilizers are almost always needed. The east coast has a great abundance of fish meal and seaweed for organic fertilizer. It's kind of hard to overstate how great fish meal is as a fertilizer, though your wife may divorce you if you don't shower before you enter the house.

I knew land had to be farmed if classed as agricultural, but I didn't know if rice is mandatory to plant. I'm guessing it's a KMT policy from the 50-60's that has never been changed. It's never been my experience that people value culture over money. I'm guessing a lot of changes are coming in the next 2 decades as the population ages and shrinks along with skyrocketing govt debt.

Rice burning is a pita. Which is really odd as it's a valuable commodity and one of the few things that could benefit a migrant worker program. I'm guessing the cost of picking it up doesn't outway the cost of burning it. Not really a problem in Changhua since they tend to pick it up for the grape vineyards and mushroom farms. It may also be a pest/disease/fungal eradication effort as well. Read up on ergot claviceps growth cycle on rye to get a better idea.

vin said...

Great post, great comments, and superb photo.

Waltzin' Jaloma said...

Lovely post.

While working in Niger with a team of Japanese agronomists, I once met a local rice expert who advocated taking advantage of the “tapkis” (seasonal ponds) at the head of “wadis” (seasonal streams) to grow flood rice.

It calls for the sowing of a variety of rice growing long stalks. The stalks can bend rather than get uprooted under the pressure of rushing waters. It can survive submerged a while. That hastens its growth. It then ripens as the riverbed dries up. The humidity the subsoil retains will sustain maturation.

That character was of particular interest to me. Yes, we congratulated each other’s mastery of a Mandarin we both spoke haltingly after so many years of disuse. He had learnt his trade in the early 1960s in Taoyuan, Changhua and Miaoli.

His mandarin training was irrelevant once in the local farmer’s paddy, he averred. He is a living testimony that there has been a ROC, once. Taiwan folded its last West African rice cultivation program in Burkina Faso two years ago, I believe. It was deemed a huge success.

Note to self: Before digging in your evening bowl, say grace. Here goes:
Hitotsubu no kome ni komoru bannin no chikara wo omoute, hashi wo toran.
Itteki no mizu ni komoru ame tsuchi no megumi wo shashite, kono jiki wo uku.

Mind only the hanzi, you’ll suss out the meaning..