A scientist once told him that “the rice sector is knowledge rich but solution poor,” he says, which is why he’s focused on helping growers succeed while also adopting more-efficient, greener methods. “Effectively, we’re telling the farmers, ‘Look, if you want access to finance, you need to commit to changing to sustainable practices,’” Chen says. “‘And to go one level up, if you want access to more-affordable finances, you need to make sure that your sustainable metrics keep improving.’”
The stakes are unmistakably high. It’s almost impossible to overstate the significance of the global rice crop: more than half of the world’s inhabitants count the grain as a staple, and Asia grows the vast majority of the crop worldwide. For 3 billion humans, rice is intertwined with both their diets and their culture.
The good news is that global rice production is rising. The grain’s yield is forecast to hit a record 506 million tons for 2021–2022, although those same prognostications also put global rice consumption at a record 514 million tons. And there’s an additional cloud attached to that silver lining: rising crop yields may not be sustainable over the long term because of climate change.
A looming threat
Rice is particularly and uniquely vulnerable to the whims of a warming planet. The crop needs a lot of water and is associated with elevated greenhouse gas emissions, making it both a contributor to and a victim of climate change. Rice often grows in low-lying regions, such as deltas, which are particularly imperiled by rising seas, which makes groundwater salinity a growing headache.