Picking at the fine grains of the SUPERGEN Rice Straw Project, Southeast Asia.
Gina Castell in conversation with Prof. Patricia Thornley at The University of Manchester, exposes the environmental issues, climate change benefits and social impacts.
The Rice Straw project in the Philippines is really about two things. Firstly, there is a really big problem with rice straw. Farmers only have a short amount of time before they need to grow the next crop. There isn’t enough time to let the straw degrade naturally so people take the shortcut and burn the rice straw instead, despite this being illegal. This leads to catastrophic pollution problems.
Rice straw burning happens all across Southeast Asia and India, not just the Philippines. A big part of what the project hopes to do is offer people alternatives, where waste rice straw can be quickly removed and the land freed for the next crop, without the massive pollution.
Energy access is also a big part of the project. At the moment, there are 1.2 billion people in the world with no access to clean energy. Although many have access to biomass material, most simply burn it for cooking fuel. If we can swap what goes on now for something much cleaner, then we can improve health and improve peoples lives.
Researchers believe that rice straw should be used as biomass for many purposes, including heat, light, cooking, manufacturing materials and transport fuel. Using biomass in this way leads to improved mobility, trade, educational opportunities and safer well-lit communities. This will transform rural areas and empower local people.
There is also the question of gender. Women in developing countries spend hours collecting firewood on a daily basis. But if rice straw were collected instead, the time spent and distance walked would be much less.
Expanding population in parts of the world comes as a warning. If people continue to collect firewood and use it inefficiently, deforestation will result. We are already struggling with deforestation, which is highly unsustainable for the planet. We’re not saying that all the rice straw could be used, but even if 20% could be harnessed, then we could get energy from that.
Prof. Thornley predicts that future global rice straw will occur in Vietnam and Southern India, particularly Punjab, where we see the biggest pollution problem from rice straw burning.
To sum up, the rice straw project is about resolving the environmental problem, whilst socially empowering developing countries through this new access to energy.
It’s an exciting time to be a rice farmer!
Words by Gina Castellheim