Rice, in Texas and around the world, as a microcosm of climate concerns

The mystical English poet William Blake famously wrote about “see[ing] a world in a grain of sand.”

Blake is one of world literature’s all-time heavyweights, so we hope TCN Journal isn’t getting too big for its merely journalistic britches by citing him.

Nonetheless, recent news in Texas and beyond suggests that climate change – key aspects, at least – can be seen in a grain of rice. Or in issues surrounding rice cultivation in general, if you’re not into the whole poetry thing.

Consider the recent announcement by the staff of the Lower Colorado River Authority, which manages lakes that are the principal water-supply reservoirs for Central Texas, that it was recommending, because of eased drought conditions, that the agency not deprive downstream rice farmers of water releases for the second year in a row in 2013.

Following 2011′s brutal, record-setting Texas drought, the LCRA, for the first time ever, decided not to release water for rice production under an emergency policy keyed to low lake levels. The dramatic decision dealt a major blow to some of the state’s rice production, as expected, and at the same time trained a spotlight on what a warming climate will mean in Texas.

Harbinger of water wars ahead?

The state climatologist attributed some of last year’s punishing heat to human influence, and climate scientists widely expect an increase in hotter, drier conditions in Texas as global warming proceeds. The LCRA region is a microcosm of the stepped-up competition for chronically scarce water resources that may result – besides rice farmers, the agency serves the city of Austin, heavy industries and communities with recreation-based economies tied to the health of the Highland Lakes.

The Austin American-Statesman’s report on the LCRA staff recommendation included these forward-looking particulars:

Should water be released to rice farmers and dry conditions again choke the region, a 25 percent chance remains that lake levels will drop below 600,000 acre-feet of combined storage by the end of next irrigation season, according to LCRA calculations. If the lakes get that low, all customers, including the city of Austin and power plants, would face mandatory curtailments of water use.

As the board prepared to take action in September 2011, it faced a 33 percent chance of such a fate had it not cut off water for rice farmers, who pay $6.50 an acre-foot for water that can be interrupted, compared with “firm,” uninterruptible water rates of $151 per acre-foot, paid by cities and industry.

The American-Statesman article didn’t get into the climate-change angle. Some readers of the newspaper’s account did weigh in on the subject in online comments, however.

One reader had this to say:

People on both sides of the rice-farming issue seem to be thinking very short-term, in effect acting as if climate change is a hoax, which, sadly for all of us, it is not. The most dangerous aspect of climate change for the southern and southwestern U.S. will not be higher temperatures per se, but an increased frequency of severe drought. The rice farmers, the cities, and the LCRA all need to plan in the long term on less water being available for everything. Personally, I would prioritize water for a food crop over water for someone’s lawn or water for someone’s jet ski.

Another reader, however, echoed anti-rice-industry sentiments of several posting comments:

If we are headed into an era of persistent drought marked by occasional flooding events – as most climatologists seem to believe – then we all need to make changes in we are using water in this area.

The city needs to impose once-weekly lawn watering restrictions year round, with penalties for non-compliance.

[...]

As for the rice farms, the state should work out some incentive for those who own the land to turn it into something else. The situation has changed, and we no longer live in an all-you-can-drink world.

In further evidence of an increasingly competitive attitude on water-allocation questions, the Llano County Journal, which serves lakeside areas northwest of Austin, reported local disquiet over the LCRA recommendation:

Failure to extend or renew the drought order could lead to draining the Lake Buchanan and Lake Travis reservoirs to supply water to downstream rice farmers, further damage local businesses and deplete community water supplies, Highland Lakes stakeholders and officials said.

One disgruntled reader comment was typical of others posted on the Journal’s website:

Now is not the time to be wasting water on weed control for rice farming. Our lakes have never been this low this long. As the owner of two lake related businesses it’s killing my livelihood. Not to mention endangering the water supply for a million and a half central Texans.

Earlier this year, the LCRA issued [PDF] a report that detailed how it divvied up its water in 2011. Agriculture, with 529,580 acre-feet, got more than all other categories combined, including cities, with 246,601 acre-feet, and industries, with 60,272 acre-feet.

Andrew Sansom, executive director of Texas State University’s River Systems Institute and formerly the longtime head of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department under Republican and Democratic governors, explained the conundrum’s historical backdrop for PBS in March:

At the time that our water rights system was created, there was not only no one living on these lakes, they [the lakes] weren’t here… So the water flowed down to rice farmers on the southern part of the basin and they got all they needed. Today, the economic engine engendered by recreation, residential growth, and tourism up on [Lake Travis] far exceeds the [size of the] rice industry, and so there is a pitched battle underway as to who should get the water and it’s going to get worse. Essentially, we’re struggling with a system [created] hundreds of years ago… and bears no resemblance to what we look like [today].

Contributor – and vulnerable – to climate change

The impacts of climate change on rice production appear to be far more profound and complex than localized, drought-magnified competition over limited water resources, a major study released this month indicated.

Researchers in the U.S. and Ireland concluded that a warming climate and the principal pollutant driving that trend, carbon dioxide, are causing rice production to become a bigger contributor to that warming. In the study, they analyzed and synthesized all previously reported experiments, mainly conducted in North America and Asia, on the effects of increasing temperatures and atmospheric CO2 on rice yields and on the amount of methane (an even more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide) released by rice paddies.

The University of Dublin’s Trinity College summarized the findings in an announcement:

More carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and rising temperatures cause rice agriculture to release more of the potent greenhouse gas methane (CH4) for each kilogram of rice it produces, new research published recently in the online edition of Nature Climate Change reveals. “Our results show that rice agriculture becomes less climate friendly as our atmosphere continues to change. This is important, because rice paddies are one of the largest human sources of methane, and rice is the world’s second-most produced staple crop,” said Dr. Kees Jan van Groenigen, Research Fellow at the Botany Department at the School of Natural Sciences, Trinity College Dublin, and lead author of the study.

The study authors noted, however, that various management options can limit emissions of methane, which comes from microorganisms in rice paddies.

In September, the international relief and development organization Oxfam released the results of a computer-modeling study it had commissioned by British researchers, which projected impacts on food prices in 2030 of extreme weather events, such as the 2011-12 drought in Texas and other parts of the U.S., which scientists expect to be increase in a warming world.

The study, carried out at the Institute of Development Studies of Britain’s University of Sussex, indicated that “future extreme weather events, like the U.S. drought, could spike prices drastically with devastating consequences for the poorest people in the world,” Oxfam said in publicizing the findings.

A key finding with regard to rice prices in 2030, according to the organization:

A nationwide drought in India and extensive flooding across South East Asia could see the world market price of rice increase by 22 percent. This could see domestic spikes of up to 43 percent on top of longer term price rises in rice importing countries of such as Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country.

In “a conservative scenario” involving a U.S. drought in 2030, the modelers projected that “the price of corn could rise by as much as 140 percent over and above the average price of food in 2030, which is already likely to be double today’s prices,” Oxfam said.

Climate impacts don’t operate alone, of course, but in combination with other forces. In August, journalists for Germany’s Spiegel magazine concluded that while rising food prices were being blamed largely on the U.S. drought, other factors were also propelling the price trend, including diversion of crops to production of biofuels, financial speculation and changing dietary habits.

Regarding rice and speculation, the reporters wrote:

Since the beginning of the agricultural crisis in 2008, there have been price surges that cannot be explained by normal factors. Market prices for rice, for example, sometimes shoot up by 30 percent in a single day.

Such movement is likely the result of financial market speculation. Investors, especially investment banks and pension funds, don’t trade in real goods. They have no interest in physically owning corn, soybeans or wheat. By entering into futures contracts, they are merely speculating on changes in the prices of food commodities. Trading in agricultural commodity futures almost tripled between June and July.

– Bill Dawson

Image credit: Texas A&M AgriLife