A new crop for rice farmers: Carbon offsets

Rice growers can earn extra income through California’s cap-and-trade program

Rice growers have long been at the forefront of environmentally sustainable farming practices. Thanks to the Rice Cultivation Projects Compliance Offset Protocol, rice growers are the first farmers able to participate in California's carbon market and earn rewards for their stewardship. Already, 21 growers on more than 22,000 acres in three different states have signed up to participate in projects.

California's cap-and-trade program allows companies to use more than 200 million metric tons of carbon offsets through 2020. As of October 2015, only 13 million tons of offsets were used by companies. With the rice protocol now approved, agriculture can help meet the high demand for offsets.

Rice also opens the door for other agriculture-based protocols. EDF is now working on a fertilizer protocol, which will allow US farmers to contribute to reducing emissions on millions of acres and generate additional offsets.

The rice protocol is important because:

  • The program rewards rice farmers for implementing a set of practical approaches that reduce methane emissions.
  • Rice farmers can generate a new revenue stream without impacting their yield.
  • Important wetland habitat will be maintained for wildlife and bird populations.
  • It sets the stage for other crops to be added to the market.

Why rice?

Rice is a staple for nearly half the seven billion people on the planet. In California alone, rice contributes more than $5 billion a year and 25,000 jobs to the state's economy. Across the US, more than 2.5 million acres of rice is grown in seven different states. But rice cultivation is also a large emitter of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. With strong, established science on the carbon and nitrogen cycle of rice and a culture of sustainability among rice farmers, it was a natural choice for the first crop-based program under the state's carbon market.

How does it work?

As a voluntary program, rice farmers have the flexibility to implement any combination of three methods included in the protocol, depending on their geography – rice farmers don't have to be located in California to participate in the carbon market. These practices include dry seeding, early drainage or alternate wetting and drying.

Dry seeding is the practice of sowing dry seeds rather than aerially applying pre-germinated seeds; early drainage refers to draining the field seven to 10 days earlier than usual; and alternate wetting and drying is the practice of periodically flooding and then drying down a field throughout the growing season.

Interested rice producers will provide historical information to create a baseline. Then producers submit records collected throughout a growing season to calculate the amount of methane emissions reduced by undertaking one or more of the three management practices on their land.

The emissions reductions are quantified yearly, based on weather and a producer's management decisions, and they are also permanent – never having a chance of being re-released into the atmosphere.