Climate Crisis Stirring a Storm in a Rice Bowl
It’s a staple food but rice is in the spotlight as extreme heat, heavy winds and floods due to the climate crisis are affecting rice production and stressing paddy farmers.
Writer: Lee Kwai Han
Editor: SL Wong
Published: September 26, 2022
This story is part of Macaranga’s #TanahAir Special Project.
(Cover image: It’s getting hot in here: paddy farmers slog through increasingly intense heat due to the climate crisis | Photo by Lee Kwai Han)
IT IS 9.15 in the morning. Already, the sun is beating down on the vast paddy field in Megat Dewa in Kedah. Farmer Mohamad Nazri Murat is helping his friend, Muhamad Rafirdaus Abu Bakar, fertilise the plants.
“We have to do it in one go. It’s too hot. It would be difficult to continue after taking a break,” Nazri says as he refills his fertiliser spreader with a 20kg load. Adds Firdaus, “It’s not a job that regular folks can do.”
These third-generation farmers started suffering from the intense heat a decade ago. They are among the 57,635 paddy farmers in the MADA granary, the country’s largest granary (large irrigated rice-planting area). In 2019, MADA supplied 42.6% of Malaysia’s rice production, making it the “rice bowl” of Malaysia.
The searing heat is a manifestation of the ticking time bomb in food production that is the climate crisis.
Malaysia has 12 granaries, large irrigation schemes that are the main paddy producing areas in Malaysia. The largest are MADA (42.6% of total rice production), KADA (8.7%), IADA Barat Laut Selangor (7.5%), and IADA Kerian (6.4%).
Scientists have found that temperatures have increased not only in MADA but another 3 main granaries in Malaysia – KADA, IADA Pulau Pinang, and IADA Seberang Perak. Together, these make up 60.2% of the country’s rice production.
The research by climatology and hydrology expert Dr Tan Mou Leong found that compared to 1985, the maximum temperature in these key paddy areas has increased by at least 0.68°C (except KADA which is the same) and the minimum temperature by at least 1.02°C.
Climate change science has proven that hotter weather affects rainfall, critical for paddy and indeed other food and non-food crops. Besides making it less predictable when and how much rain falls, it also increases the occurrence of weather extremes such as flooding and drought. All this is not good news for rice production.
In fact, the government projects that flooding and dry spells in 2030 and 2050 will lower rice yield in 3 major granaries, ie. MADA, KADA, and IADA Barat Laut Selangor.
Back in Kedah, the farmers do not really need numbers to understand the impacts of climate change on their paddy fields. Their generations-long traditional knowledge confirms it.
“This wind that you’re feeling now is not good if it continues blowing like this next month,” Firdaus says uneasily as he looks over his paddy. When the plants start flowering at 60 days old, a strong wind like this would reduce the pollination rate and thus the grain yield.
The worries continue after flowering.
Last August, when his grains turned golden as they ripened, Firdaus’s fields were hit with padi rebah, mass collapse of the paddy. This is caused by both strong wind and heavy rain. The grains got soaked and turned sour.
“Our harvest for one relung (3.475 relung = 1 hectare) dropped from 2 tonnes to 600 kg,” Firdaus says.
Furthermore, this paddy is considered ‘impure’ and may not be accepted by millers. “When the paddy is wet, they will reject as much as 36–42%,” Firdaus sighs. Months of hard work and capital invested in seed purchase, fertilisers, and pesticides would be gone to waste.
As if that were not enough, heavier rain than usual brings flood worries.
“The floods are not big-scale like the one in 2010. We are getting more minor floods in the fields instead. About 2 to 3 times a year,” Firdaus clarifies. That also means more rounds of paddy damage. Each re-planting adds to their costs.
The Ministry of Agriculture and Food-based Industries (MAFI) recognises that “climate change remains a major challenge to the agro-food sector”. Besides reducing crop yield, weather extremes damage drainage and irrigation infrastructure.
Again, this is mentioned in both the National Agro-food Policy 2021–2030 and in recommendations by the National Water Research Institute of Malaysia.
For the long term, the National Water Research Institute of Malaysia (NAHRIM) recommends re-examining existing infrastructure and improving engineering guidelines for irrigation infrastructure design.
Can supply keep up?
In the face of these challenges, can rice supply keep up with demand as Malaysia’s population grows? In 2019, Malaysians ate an average of 73.9kg/year (Agro-food Statistics 2019, MAFI).
Malaysia has long been importing rice to meet demand, but imports have grown from 21.4% of supply in 1990 to 43.9% in 2021.
This is in line with increasing global food prices, pushed up by supply chain disruptions from Covid-19 and the war on Ukraine.
In May, India suddenly announced a wheat export ban after an extreme heatwave lowered its harvests. This raised the global wheat price to a record high. India is the world’s largest rice exporter; a potential rice export ban could likewise impact rice prices.
Even if Malaysia can pay the higher prices, export bans remove food from the global market. How will net food importers like Malaysia cope?
To address the Covid-19-induced global food supply chain disruption, the National Agrofood Policy 2021–2030, aims for Malaysia to achieve 80% rice self-sufficiency by 2030.
To do so, farmers have to increase the average paddy yield from 3.5 tonnes per hectare in 2019 to 5.3 tonnes per hectare by 2030.
To help farmers achieve this, the Malaysian Agricultural Research and Development Institute (MARDI) for one, is developing climate-resilient paddy varieties and improving water management in rice production.
“Not a job that normal people can do”: a photo essay
To address the climate crisis, Malaysia has a slew of strategies such as the National Policy on Climate Change (2009), Low Carbon Mobility Blueprint 2021–2030 and National Low Carbon Cities Masterplan (2021). Malaysia has also committed to net-zero emissions by 2050.
However, a policy is only as good as its implementation. Climate policy expert Dr Ng Shin Wei reckons the lack of mechanisms for effective climate change-related planning and policy implementation is slowing Malaysia’s climate actions.
“We need buy-ins from the state governments and local governments to mainstream climate crisis in their decision-making,” says Ng, who has been working on localising climate change policies in Penang. Taking real actions at the local level is key.
Actions in place
In the Kedah and Perlis granaries, MADA tells Macaranga it has taken steps to address climate issues.
For one, it is cooperating with the Meteorological Department of Malaysia on weather forecasting and NAHRIM on coastal reservoirs. Groundwater is also being explored.
In addition, says the agency, water management and flood routing has been improved with the help of a telemetry system that collects real-time hydrological data. Data such as rainfall, water levels and water-gate openings is updated remotely from its 148 telemetry stations.
The system is also used to warn farmers about rainfall and incidences of pests and diseases.
On the frontline of rice production, Nazri is sceptical about building a future in paddy planting. He forbids his children from working with him in the paddy field, unlike what he himself did as a child. Firdaus agrees. “I think our children would just sell our parcels or lease them to others when we are gone.”
Firdaus is nostalgic for the old days when the older generation used to be able to predict the rain from bird calls and the cashew and putat trees around them.
“Once they see the flush of new leaves on these trees, they know the rainy season is coming in a week’s time. The trees don’t lie. But the weather has changed. It is unpredictable now,” he says.
Today, our farmers cannot predict the weather nor a future in planting rice. Tomorrow, how will we get our rice?