Monday, January 10, 2011

Australia's Rice Bowl - Should we or shouldn't we?

Advance Australia Fair?

Did you know Australia has it's very own rice bowl?  Well, yes it does.  But it's not a big family sized bowl resting on a lazy susan, Chinese restaurant style. It's more a side offering of fluffy white grain that appears next to the chops.  The Riverina of New South Wales, is the rice bowl of Australia, centred around the towns of Griffith, Leeton, Deniquilin, Hay and Colleambally.

The question is on everybody's lips - should we be growing this crop in the driest continent on earth? Is it really as bad for the environment as the nay-sayers say?

As we know, Australian agriculture is limited in a way, very much climate dependent, or more particularly water dependent.  The more it rains, the more water that can be used for growing crops such as cotton and rice via irrigation schemes. The less it rains, the less Australian rice can be served up on the dinner table. Its a fairly simple equation, but an equation that is worth up to $800 Million a year to the Australian rice industry and to the Australian economy.  $500 million of that is earnt through export.

Australian Rice Paddy, its different to those in South East Asia

How is it all achieved?  The land is prepared, laser levelled and the soil checked for water resistance.  A heavy clay soil is preferred to reduce seepage into the water table.  You won't see that in Thailand. Then the ground is flooded by water from irrigation channels. The rice seeds are soaked in water, then allowed to germinate.  Once germinated, they are sown by a machine, or more commonly by aircraft these days.  It's quicker and more accurate thanks to the GPS.

Crop spraying aircraft, ready to fertilise the rice with eurea
But water is what really drives the economy in these parts.  Rice growers are down the food chain so to speak, being mainly general security water licences.  That means in drought years rice cannot be grown.  Stock holders, grape growers and town water suppliers are high security licencees, coming in front of the humble rice man. It's not easy been down the batting order, with glamour in front of you and hardwork ahead.  Just ask Michael Hussey.

Australia has developed new varieties of rice which are more suitable to our temperate climate. They also require less water then the tropical varieties which are grown in south-east asia.  Statistics I have looked at suggest that we are the most water efficient rice growers in the world.  And rice is just another crop that uses water, the same as wheat, wine grapes, cotton, oats, and the moo moo or baa baa.  And rice isn't as big a contributor as Daisy or Dolly to green house gases*, the main cause of global warming and our declining water (population expansion is another).  Maybe we should all be eating more cereals and less McDonalds?

After the rice is harvested, the ground moisture is used to sow other crops such as wheat. So the water that is used in rice production can produce other crops.  A double deal, more bang for your water buck, as it were.  Cattle and sheep cannot claim that one.

Rice is now part of our national diet with many people eating it at least once per week.  It's a cheap, relatively nutritious and readily available source of carbohydrate. It is favoured in many places around the world for just those simple reasons.

I think there is a case for growing rice in Australia.  Whether we should be growing it for export, and in what quantity is another thing.  If we don't grow rice here, should we import all of Australia's needs with a higher carbon tax on the carbon economy? What happens to the jobs in regions such as the Riverina?

One thing is for sure: we must consider the rivers, the Darlings, the Murrumbidgees and the Murrays that are the lifeline of our agricultural production.  They are what sustains everybody in the Murray Darling basin, the success of exports, and the availability of food in the cities. We must more water to be returned to the environment, to preserve the magnificent stocks of old growth redgums that line our rivers, our wonderful wetlands along the systems, and the fish stocks in the estuaries at the mouth of the Murray.  But we can and must allow crops such as rice to be grown. Complicated? There are no easy answers..

Redgums lining the banks of the Murrumbidgee River, Darlington Point NSW
 * cattle and sheep contribute up to 12% of Australia's green house gas emission in the form of methane (CSIRO), far more then the other agricultural crops.  Rice contributes the green house gas methane from bacteria that coexists with the crop and a smaller amount of nitrous oxide that comes from the use of nitrogen in the soil.  But it also uses carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

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