The Promise of Rice-Fish Culture

I love it when simple yet groundbreaking ideas are applied to common and pressing human problems. From rates being used to accurately and safely detect landmines, to a cheap iron tablet helping to stave off the scourge of anemia, there seems to be no problem too big or complex for an easy fix. Such resourceful solutions are more feasible and accessible for the impoverished communities that need them most. Rice-fish culture is one such indispensable approach: creative, novel, yet surprisingly simple.

Merging agriculture with aquaculture — two of the prevailing industries that sustain poor communities across the world — it basically entails creating a self-sustaining ecosystem that saves input costs while maximizing both food and income for farmers. Practical Action, a British NGO that propagates this practice across the developing world, explains it thusly:

This technique is good for both the fish and the rice. Safely hidden from birds, the fish thrive in the dense rice plants, while they in turn provide a source of fertiliser with their droppings, eat insect pests and help to circulate oxygen around the rice field. Farmers tell us that keeping fish in rice fields can increase rice yields by up to 10% – plus they have the additional supplies of fish.

These lifesaving crops are doubly good for poor families struggling to deal with the global food crisis. A diet of fish is an excellent source of protein and so improves people’s health. Extra rice yields, meanwhile, not only put meals on tables but enable families to sell surplus food at market.

Pretty neat stuff, no? As someone who loves both aquarium-keeping and gardening, I find the idea of merging the two practices to be quite intriguing. Of course, rice-fish culture is more than just a neat curiosity: it can improve and save the lives of millions of impoverished people, and in a pretty easy and sustainable way.

Here is nifty infographic for the more visually inclined.

Rice-Fish Culture

As Practical Action explains, the process is fairly easy to implement.

The farmer plants the rice in rows that are roughly 35cm apart, then fills 50% of the ditch with water. The water is purified with a small quantity of lime, and a little organic fertiliser is added. Then, when the rice starts to shoot, the water level across the field is increased to 12–15cm, and small fish or ‘fingerlings’ are released into the ditch. As soon as they have acclimatised to the rice field water, the farmer releases them into the field and raises the water level as both the fish and rice grow.

Come the first harvest, approximately 4–5 months later, the farmer will harvest the rice first, and then drain the rice field to collect the fish into the ditch where they can easily be caught. In areas where Practical Action has helped people to develop rice-fish culture, farmers have reported a 10% increase in rice yields, plus enough fish to provide regular, high-protein meals for their families.

Since Practical Action is based in the U.K., it does not come up in my U.S.-based charity evaluators, so I am not sure how efficacious this approach is. A paper from Yale University dates the practice back to the 1980s and 1990s, and it may have a history even older than that, though this is the first time I have heard of it being utilized for wide-scale, humanitarian applications.

A more in-depth 2004 study from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) mentions rice-fish culture being utilized as far back as the 18th century, in places like Italy and Thailand. The nearly 70-page report finds a lot of merit to the idea (at least as of a decade ago).

It is now an opportune time to promote rice-fish farming. Integrated rice-fish farming has been practiced for some time but has failed to become so common as to become second nature to rice farmers. Interest in rice-fish farming over the years has waxed and waned among policy-makers, scientists, extension workers and farmers in different countries. This is understandable given the circumstances during particular periods. Now is a good time to rekindle the interest among all sectors since policy-makers, researchers, extension workers and farmers might be more receptive due to the convergence of four factors.

First, capture fisheries has in many areas reached its limit. Increasing aquaculture production is one obvious solution to meet growing demands, and the world’s rice fields represent millions of hectares of fish growing areas. The 1996 World Food Summit agreed “to promote the development of environmentally sound and sustainable aquaculture well integrated into rural, agricultural and coastal development”.

Second, there is a growing recognition of the need to “work with” rather than “against” nature. Integrated pest management (IPM) is being promoted in the place of extensive use of pesticides, and fish have been found to be an effective pest control agent. Chemical pesticides are a double-edged sword that can be as injurious to human health and the environment as to its targeted pests.

Third, fresh water is a limited resource and the integration of fish with rice is one way of using water more efficiently by producing both aquatic animals and rice. In addition, new land suitable for aquaculture is limited and the culture of fish together with rice is an effective way of utilizing scarce land resources.

Fourth, rice is not a purely economic commodity; in many countries it is a political commodity as well. The farm gate price of rice is not always based on providing a just economic return to the farmers, but often has political implications such as national food security and export potential. The market, however, usually determines the price of fish. While growing fish in a rice field entails minimal incremental costs, it is one way of augmenting the farmers’ income

But for all its promise, there are many challenges as well.

The greater water depth required in rice-fish farming than in traditional rice cultivation may be a limiting factor if the water supply is inadequate. As discussed earlier, increased leaks, seepage and percolation due to maintaining deeper standing water in rice-fish culture can increase water needs significantly.

Fish cause damage to rice plants which they uproot and eat them. Destructiveness of fish on the rice crop has been observed, particularly when bottom-dwelling C. carpio are stocked too early after crop establishment and the transplanted rice seedlings have not developed a good root system, or when herbivorous fish such as C. idellus are stocked at larger sizes capable of consuming whole plants. These problems can easily be avoided by good management practices including species selection, stocking size and timing of stocking.

More fertilizers are needed to increase the primary productivity of the water and feed the fish. Increased fertilization is assumed since both the rice and the phytoplankton require nutrients. The increased fertilization was first estimated by Chen (1954) to range from 50 to 100%. However, experience has shown that in most cases the fertilizer requirement decreased with the introduction of fish (Gupta et al. 1998; Israel et al. 1994; Yunus et al. 1992). Cagauan (1995) found that a rice field with fish has a higher capacity to produce and capture nitrogen (N) than one without fish.

A small percentage of the cultivable area is lost through the construction of drains and shelter holes resulting in reduction of the paddy yield. Again, experience has shown that the Prospects and Program for the Future 65 rice yield often increases in rice-fish culture and thus the excavation of a small part of the rice field (normally no more than 10%) often results in no net loss but rather a net gain in rice production.

The use of short-stemmed, high yielding rice varieties is limited by the deeper standing water required for rice-fish farming. Even IR36, which has a tiller height of 85 cm, has been successfully used for rice-fi sh farming. Costa-Pierce and De la Cruz (1992) found that widespread use of HYV was not considered a major constraint in rice-fi sh culture in most countries,21 neither was pesticide usage. In fact, as was pointed out at the 19th Session of the International Rice Commission, the case of the P.R. China with 1.2 million ha under rice- fish farming in a rice area almost exclusively planted with modern varieties shows that the use of these varieties does not appear to be a constraint for rice-fish farming (Halwart 1999, Table 17).

The use of pesticides will be limited. It is argued here that reduced use of pesticides is an advantage to farmers, the communities and the environment in general. Studies undertaken in Bangladesh have revealed that rice-fi sh farmers use less than 50% pesticides than that used by rice-only farmers (Gupta et al. 1998). Saturno (1994) observed that farmers are less likely to use pesticides when fish are stocked in their rice fields and still enjoyed high yields. Kenmore and Halwart (1998) have pointed out that elimination of nearly all pesticides in rice fields of farmers who have undergone IPM training results in a higher biodiversity of frogs, snails, aquatic insects and others which frequently is used by farmers in a sustainable manner.

The farmer has to make a greater initial investment for installations in the rice field (higher bunds, drains, shelter holes). The initial investment is a factor that retards a widespread adoption of rice-fish culture. It is a disadvantage in increasing a farmer’s financial exposure, but the potential returns can be very rewarding and the risks are often low.

The practice of multiple cropping (several annual rotations) will be limited because the fields are flooded for a shorter period — four months compared with six to eight months, in the case of the annual crop. On the contrary, continuous flooding from six to eight months is advantageous to rice-fish farming since it makes it possible to grow the fish to larger size.

The FAO report concludes that more research and development is needed for the idea, as well as increased training and financing to more effectively implement it where needed. For now, groups like Practical Action (ostensibly) assist in circumventing some of the technical and financial challenges, but it remains to be seen whether this seemingly good idea can be utilized to greater effect across the world, without burdening communities in the long-term.

What are your thoughts?

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