Conservation news

COP15 comment: Overlooked rice landscapes can boost biodiversity in Asia (commentary)

Sarus Crane, Thet Zaw Naing, WCS Myanmar

  • Rice covers 138 million hectares of agricultural land in Asia, which teem with life. However, current management of rice landscapes contributes to the biodiversity crisis.
  • The Post 2020 Global Biodiversity Framework being negotiated during the upcoming Convention on Biological Diversity conference in China can benefit from making rice landscapes a healthy habitat to stem biodiversity loss on the continent.
  • Redesigning public programs to discourage practices harmful to biodiversity in rice landscapes should be a priority, as research has shown nature-positive approaches can deliver the same or higher yields as unsustainable practices prevalent across tropical Asia.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily Mongabay.

Rice landscapes are overlooked biodiversity hubs that bristle with life. Rice farming systems’ unique semi-aquatic nature mean that they offer habitats to numerous endangered species and provide many ecosystem services. However, prevalent farming practices means that rice often has one of the highest ecological footprints among agricultural commodities in Asia, exacerbating the biodiversity crisis. Due to the large area under rice cultivation and disproportionate share of agro-chemical inputs used to produce it in Asia, improving the environmental sustainability of rice landscapes would significantly benefit biological diversity conservation in the region and should be part of the Post 2020 Global Biodiversity Framework.     

In Kunming, China, at the 15th Conference of the Parties (CoP15) to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), countries will convene at a critical juncture for planetary health to negotiate the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework. None of the 20 Aichi Biodiversity Targets will be met by COP 15, with the Asia Pacific Region’s Living Planet Index declining by 45% in the last 50 years. To reverse these trends and achieve CBD’s vision of “living in harmony with nature by 2050,” mainstreaming biodiversity in agriculture must be a major component of the Post-2020 Framework.

Agriculture is the largest driver of biodiversity loss. Unsustainable farming practices and agriculture-linked land conversion rapidly degrade and destroy our natural ecosystems. Among agri-food systems in urgent need of biodiversity mainstreaming, Asian countries can prioritize rice landscapes, one of the world’s largest sources of human-modified wetland habitats.

Wetlands are at grave risk globally, with 35% of these habitats lost in the last 50 years. In tropical Asia, the monsoon season limits cereal production in lowland areas to just rice. Therefore, rice landscapes sit at an intersection between achieving our food and nutrition security and safeguarding critical biodiversity.

Sarus crane. Image by Thet Zaw Naing/WCS Myanmar

In addition to feeding four billion people, rice landscapes are semi-aquatic habitats for an array of fauna and flora, such as waterbirds, aquatic insects, amphibians and fish, which also provide food for bats, birds and mammals inhabiting these areas. Many endangered species, such as the Bengal florican in Cambodia and Sarus crane in Myanmar, rely on rice landscape habitats.

In an ecosystem service context, flooded rice environments provide important support services for wildlife through their extensive water networks. Rice ecosystems link into natural wetlands, agroforestry, and forested watersheds, as well downstream into coastal marine areas.

However, our current management of rice landscapes contributes to the biodiversity crisis. Rice production often overuses pesticides and fertilizers, and applies unsustainable intensification practices and land modifications, which result in biodiversity loss. How we manage rice production has implications on the broader capacity of the landscapes to maintain land- and water-based life. For example, agricultural pollutant runoff can lead to loss of ecosystem diversity, structure and functioning, and cause coastal reef ecosystem eutrophication.

Therefore, at COP15, policymakers can consider the following recommendations to sustainably produce rice and protect biodiversity:

Although the above recommendations alone will not halt or stop all biodiversity loss associated with rice production and are not a substitute for the conservation of natural wetlands, they represent a strategic investment in maintaining healthy rice landscapes that can sustain plentiful life. Given that milled rice demand will increase by an additional 100 million tons per year by 2040 and that most of this extra production will occur in Asia, failure to act could lead to significant further biodiversity loss. Following these recommendations, COP15 policymakers can prevent this scenario and maximize rice landscapes’ role in supporting biodiversity.

Oliver Frith is the Head of Business Development at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines and has a master’s degree in Environment Change and Management from the University of Oxford.  

Alex Stuart is an International Project Manager at Pesticide Action Network-UK and has a PhD in Biological Sciences from the University of Reading.

See related: Sustainable livelihood offers a lifeline to Philippines’ dying rice terraces

Sarus crane. Image by Thet Zaw Naing/WCS Myanmar.