Improving the sustainability of rice cultivation in Central Thailand with biofertilizers and laser land leveling

 Anny Ruth Pame, Duangporn Vithoonjit, Nisa Meesang, Carlito Balingbing, Martin Gummert, Nguyen Van Hung, Grant Singleton and Alexander Stuart   |  

In the study, the performance of a modified Cost Reduction Operating Principles (CROP) complemented with the use of a mechanized drum seeder and laser land leveling  and the application of biofertilizers. was assessed compared to current farmer practices.  We test the hypothesis that the combination of improved CROP recommendations and new crop establishment and biofertilizer practices will provide both economic and environmental benefits to smallholder farmers in the central plains of Thailand.

Rice is the daily staple for more than 3.5 billion people, accounting for 19% of dietary energy globally, and will continue to be of high importance to global diets. With the global population estimated to reach over nine billion by 2050, the total global food demand is expected to increase by 35% to 56% between 2010 and 2050.

However, rice production faces many serious challenges including the loss of agricultural land because of urban growth, overuse of inputs, and negative effects on production related to climate change. In addition, an increased awareness of the benefits of faunal and floral biodiversity at a landscape level has led to a greater focus on the need to sustainably produce food in the remaining agricultural lands.

To address these challenges, many countries have developed national programs for rice production that include a set of best management practices (BMPs), such as Vietnam’s 1 Must Do, 5 Reductions (1M5R), China’s 3 Controls Technology (3CT)”, and Thailand’s Cost Reduction Operating Principles (CROP).  On a global scale, sustainable agricultural practices and programs are also being promoted, including Global GAP and the Sustainable Rice Platform (SRP).

The Closing Rice Yield Gaps in Asia Project with a reduced environmental footprint (CORIGAP) is providing one avenue to address these challenges in rice production. The objectives of CORIGAP include improving food security and alleviating poverty through optimizing the productivity and sustainability of irrigated rice production systems in six countries in Asia—China, Indonesia, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Through its adaptive farmer participatory research platform and in collaboration with country partners, CORIGAP has conducted several farmer participatory field trials. One of its key approaches is to identify gaps and constraints for rice production through needs assessment surveys and focus group discussions and then conduct farmer participatory adaptive research that provides evidence to help strengthen national programs for rice.

For example, in Vietnam, the application of 1M5R practices with clear limits for input use (i.e., seeds and pesticides) in rice production in the Mekong River Delta resulted in a 23% decrease in the mean total production cost per season and an increase in the mean net income by 19%. In addition, farmer participatory rice field trials of CROP in the Central Plains of Thailand resulted in reduced seed and chemical fertilizer inputs by 60–67% and 50–64%, respectively, without compromising the yield, and increased the net income by 26% compared with farmers’ practices.

These studies have clearly demonstrated that the application of BMPs can substantially improve the sustainability of intensive lowland irrigated rice production.

Thailand is one of the major exporters of rice in the world. Thus, it plays a key role in global food security. Based on the results of the farmer participatory field trials in the central plains and recognizing the need for sustainably produced rice, Thailand’s Rice Department (RD) added the following to their CROP recommendations:

(1) reduce the seed rate through the application of drum seeding technology, and
(2) install field water tubes as a tool to indicate when to irrigate and reduce water use.

In the current study, we evaluate further modifications to CROP recommendations that were based on farmer feedback and the results of previous field trials. These include the use of a mechanized drum seeder that is pulled by a two-wheeled tractor; the application of laser land leveling (LLL); and the application of biofertilizers.

In recent years, Thailand has been experiencing irrigation water scarcity. LLL provides high precision in leveling rice fields and leads to reduced water use (1.5–2.8 m3 water/ha), improved fertilizer and herbicide use efficiency, and reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 20–40%. A life-cycle assessment on energy use for lowland irrigated rice production reported that LLL reduces energy use by 20–30%.

Biofertilizers, meanwhile, are substances that contain beneficial microorganisms that increase the availability of nutrients to the plant, e.g., by biological nitrogen fixation, thus reducing the inorganic fertilizer use requirements. They can also promote fibrous roots and enlarge the root surface areas, which enhance the ability of the plants to absorb water and nutrients.

In the current study, the performance of a modified CROP complemented with a mechanical drum seeder, LLL, and two biofertilizer products was assessed compared to current farmer practices. The key agronomic practices and production outputs were assessed against the SRP performance indicators (SRP PI).

We test the hypothesis that the combination of improved CROP recommendations and new crop establishment and biofertilizer practices will provide both economic and environmental benefits to smallholder farmers in the central plains of Thailand.

The findings from this study provide on-farm field-based evidence of multiple economic and environmental benefits from applying a combination of technologies for rice production in the Central Plains of Thailand that include CROP (i.e., a package of BMPs), LLL, mechanical drum seeder, and biofertilizers.

There were significant improvements in three out of the seven SRP PIs assessed in this study while no trade-offs were observed for the other three PIs. Net income, nitrogen-use efficiency, and pesticide use were all improved, while no differences were observed for labor productivity, grain yield, and greenhouse gas emission.

CROP + PGPR (i.e., PGPR II biofertilizer containing Azospirillum brasilense Sp. TS29 and Burkholderia vietnamiensis S45 and LDD #12 containing Azotobacter tropicalis, Burkholderia unamae, and Bacillus subtilis) had the largest improvement among the CROP treatments over farmers’ practice. and produced a significantly higher net income (79%) and nitrogen-use efficiency (57%), while pesticide use was reduced by 28%.

The added advantages of this treatment are that the PGPR II biofertilizer is available in its biologically active form, which farmers can purchase and apply directly to their fields at minimal cost.

Thus, CROP together with the PGPR II biofertilizer, mechanical drum seeder, and LLL, is a readily available technology package that could be promoted to alleviate the burden of rising input costs for smallholder farmers and improve the sustainability of Thailand’s rice production.

Read the study:
Pame ARP, Vithoonjit D, Meesang N, Balingbing C, Gummert M, Van Hung N, Singleton GR, and Stuart AM.  (2023) Improving the Sustainability of Rice Cultivation in Central Thailand with Biofertilizers and Laser Land Leveling. Agronomy 13(2):587.

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