More rice with less water


More rice with less water

The cultivation of one kilo of rice currently requires up to 5.000 litres of water. However, freshwater is becoming increasingly scarce. Is there a more efficient way, requiring less water? Prem Bindraban about his search for new cultivation methods and new strains of rice.

Rice has been cultivated in water for thousands of years. For a scientist educated at Wageningen UR, this is not a reason to think that it cannot be done differently. “And it has to be done differently,” Bindraban argues. “Already, food production takes up 75% of all freshwater available.” Regardless of rice being the largest crop in the world, there is little fundamental knowledge present of its cultivation.

“The research so far has led to water savings of a maximum of 50%, but also brings higher cultivation risks to the rice farmer. That does not seem to work. We really need new breakthroughs. But rice farming is done on a small scale, rice farmers are mostly poor and there is little to be earned by the industry. This is why little research is being conducted.” Bindraban wants to understand how the rice plant differs from wheat. “What causes rice to grow in water, what happens at the bottom? With that knowledge, we can look for rice strains that need less water but produce high yields. And do not forget the social and economic effects that such a change will have. The great thing about Wageningen is that we have all the knowledge in-house. And we work together with all the rice institutes in the world.”

“One thousand litres of water per kilo of rice must be feasible. We need more brainpower and that costs money. Partners may also finance a lab, or for instance, adopt a paddy field. You can make your support very substantial.” Prem Bindraban, Director ISRIC Prem Bindraban, Director ISRIC

Importance of the research

Prem Bindraban: 'We want to search for solutions at several levels and encourage young researchers, already active at tropical institutions, to carry out their doctoral research in:

1. Adaption of the rice plant

Rice is not an aquatic plant but has adapted to wet cultivation over thousands of years. If we want to save on water usage, we will need to cultivate new strains of rice. We must do so at the plant sciences’ level and develop rice plants that are less sensitive to dryness. Then we will look at the structure of the roots and the absorption of nutrients, as well as at the evaporation via the stoma. 

2. Research of the cultivation system

Adapting a cultivation system is incredibly complex. If you change one thing, the rest will need to be changed too. It is not just about water, but also about combating weeds, tillage and fertilisation. The efficiency of chemical fertilisers on wet rice is very low. From the 100 kilos of nitrogen applied, only 25-30% is absorbed by the plant. This compared to 70% absorbed during the cultivation of wheat in the Netherlands. An obvious proficiency can thus be gained herein. 

3. Social-economic research

Research of its implementation, the institutional context, is also required. As long as water is free, the farmer will not be quickly inclined to save on water usage. How much should and could water cost to make a new cultivation system attractive? Labour is also a dilemma. If cultivation becomes more efficient then less labour will be needed. This is a positive development because it raises the farmer above the poverty level, especially since there is little to be earned from the cultivation of small-scale wet rice. But it also has a large impact on farming life, especially on that of the women'.


What is the contribution to the global food problem?

Prem Bindraban: “As far as I’m concerned, water and food belong to the same denominator. At 70%, the agricultural industry is the largest consumer of water. If you wish to produce more food then you will need more water. Therefore the food problem is also a water problem.

Scientists have calculated that we will need an average of 2.7 kilos of grain per person and how much water per grain equivalent would be required. In 2050, we would need 5.000 – 6.000 cubic kilometres of additional water to be able to feed 9 billion people. That means that we will need an extra of one billion hectares of farming land to collect the water needed for food production. We currently count 1 ½ billion hectares of farming land across the world. Saving on water usage is thus very important and very urgently needed.”

What can this project mean to society?

Prem Bindraban: “If we could cultivate rice in the same manner as wheat then the impact on the world food production would be enormous. It would also affect the quality of life and the availability of water in villages and cities. But we cannot change a system of a thousand years in a few years time.

The knowledge and experience that we acquire through this project must be the beginning of the transition. If we can prove that it works and publish its results, it will act as a catalyser. Governments feel the crunch when it comes to providing solutions to the food and water problems. The continual expansion of hectares for cultivation and the collection of water for food are not the real solutions.”


Prem Bindraban: “We carried out field experiments cultivating rice with less water in 2000 and were able to save on water usage by a maximum of 50%. The yield started to decrease, however, when we used even less water because the roots only grow along the surface.

In coordination with the University of Tamil Nadu, I tested the new method with 100 farmers. It became evident, however, that they did not wish to adopt the new method. It does not matter to the farmer if he saves on water usage or not. It does not have an impact on his business yet he is required to make many changes. Therefore the farmers’ water suppliers must also change their approach.

I was shocked when I visited India in 2004. Rice fields remained untouched because there was not enough water. The watering holes that were 20 metres deep 25 years ago were now 70 metres deep. In my whole life, I have never seen coconut trees and mangos dry out. The urgency to adapt cultivation methods is direly needed.”

Prem Bindraban’s dream

“My personal drive has always been food production. I became fascinated with production systems during my studies at Wageningen. I was standing at the edge of a rice field in 1991 working for the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines when I wondered aloud: Who can tell me why rice grows in water? They all looked at me sceptically, thinking, a young researcher from Wageningen who does not know how to cultivate rice… But the question also holds the key to the solution, namely, rice is not an aquatic plant. It must be possible to cultivate it in the same manner as wheat.

There are historical reasons why rice is cultivated in water. Usually, the heavy clay grounds were too difficult to manipulate by hand. But if the land was flooded with water then oxes could be used for tillage. A fern grows in water that in the past took care of the nitrogen supply. Water also helps to suppress the growing of weeds. Many of these reasons are no longer applicable today. We have tractors that replace the oxes and use chemical fertilisation in combating weeds. Therefore, the system needs to be adapted.

When I started out with this work, I saw that there are two ways to be able to make a contribution. You can stay in the tropics and try to help a local community. Or, you can work on finding fundamental solutions. I decided to do the latter. That is my dream.”

The strength of Wageningen UR

Why specifically Wageningen UR to contribute to finding a solution?

Prem Bindraban: “We have a deep-seated knowledge and the facilities to conduct fundamental research on plants, for instance, in isolating genes for dryness resistance from wild strains. But we are really fantastic in the aspect of integration. We review the behaviour of the whole system in order to analyse the consequences of the changes.

Big problems demand fundamental solutions. Carrying water to the sea is not going to solve anything for us. In order to take a great leap forward, you must apply fundamental changes. This is a typical case of: If we can make it clear at Wageningen that it can and must be done differently then it should act as a catalyser to bring the transition of the entire system to its feet.

”Who are the partners of this project?

This type of research is done through consortia. We work together with IRRI that has collected hundreds of wild rice strains in India, China and Indonesia. Together, we can search for specific genes to, for instance, change the roots structure. Not all the local partners have the necessary facilities for this.

We also work with economists, sociologists and others. Together with Delft University of Technology, we calculated the amount of water that would become available for Jakarta if we were to cultivate the rice surrounding the city in this manner. The amounts are gigantic.

Your gift

How can you contribute?

Prem Bindraban: “It depends on the donator’s goal. We need brain power to be able to do the research. This project is only the beginning but many people and institutes are needed to work, think and calculate along. You can do test cases in a specific irrigation area and then we can implement it. Or people can think along at a conceptual level. A donator can invest in trainings and help educate people to take the knowledge back home to try to implement it there themselves.”

What do we offer you?

Prem Bindraban: “All donators can become directly involved in the project. I enjoy showing our work in- and outside of Wageningen. We can visit a project if something is happening at farm level. We offer networking opportunities with the WUR Board of Directors and other donators. I can hold lectures or masterclasses about rice cultivation. We can make reference of companies and people if so desired on our website and in other publications related to the project. 

The Wageningen University Fund is a charitable organisation and has been denoted as an ‘institution for general benefit’ (ANBI status) in the Netherlands. Your donation may be tax deductible and please refer to the website for more information.

The budget

Research has been divided into three elements and is being carried out by four doctoral students directly related to Wageningen University and 10 doctoral students from local research institutes being coordinated by Wageningen.

We can forward you a detailed budget upon request.

Video: Growing Rice Like Wheat

In this video on the website of The Water Channel, scientists working on the project, like Prem Bindraban, discuss some basic ideas it is based on. And why they matter to the public at large.

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