The new projects aimed at transforming rice farming in South Asia

By Oliver Morrison

- Last updated on GMT

India is the world’s second largest rice producer, but the country faces significant threats to the livelihoods of rice farmers from the effects of climate change. Image: Getty/Umesh Negi
India is the world’s second largest rice producer, but the country faces significant threats to the livelihoods of rice farmers from the effects of climate change. Image: Getty/Umesh Negi

Related tags Rice farming Water conservation methane

Mitti Labs, a tech-enabled project developer focused on sustainable agriculture, specifically in the rice farming sector, has unveiled five rice projects in India to reduce methane emissions, increase water security and build farmer resilience.

How environmentally damaging is rice farming? Flooded rice paddies create anaerobic conditions that produce methane through microbial decomposition of organic matter. It is believed rice cultivation is therefore responsible for about 10% of global agricultural methane emissions.

It contributes to the release of other greenhouse gases, including nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide, further exacerbating global warming.

Rice is also one of the most water-intensive crops, consuming nearly 30% of the world's freshwater used for irrigation. The industry has further been linked to soil degradation and biodiversity loss.

While conventional rice farming can be environmentally damaging, the adoption of sustainable practices – such as System of Rice Intensification (SRI); conservation of rice paddies; improved fertiliser management; and water management techniques – can significantly mitigate these impacts while maintaining or even improving yields. 

Mitti Labs is one company that focuses on enabling sustainable rice farming practices and facilitating investments in high-quality rice projects.

The company, backed by climate VC investors such as Lightspeed and Voyager, has unveiled five projects in India that aim to cut methane emissions from rice farming by 50%, as well as water consumption by 30%.

The projects will cover 30,000 hectares and will deliver an annual reduction of 120,000 metric tonnes of CO2e emissions, the company says. This will generate high-quality credits that help to diversify credit buyers’ portfolios, as well as making a significant positive impact on water scarcity and farmer livelihoods within the region. The company expects its projects to expand to cover 200,000 hectares over the next two years.

To deliver these projects, Mitti Labs is collaborating with Syngenta Foundation and Ebro Foods, parent company of rice giant Tilda, to train 40,000 farmers in new agricultural techniques and drastically improve their livelihoods.

One technique is Direct Seeded Rice (DSR), a rice cultivation method where rice seeds are sown directly into the field, rather than the traditional method of growing seedlings in a nursery and then transplanting them. DSR doesn't require flooding fields like traditional transplanted rice methods so can reduce water usage by an estimated 12-35%. But it requires careful management to overcome its drawbacks, namely increased weed growth, potential yield variability, and the need for precise seed placement.

Alternate Wetting and Drying (AWD) is another water-saving and methane-reducing rice cultivation technique that Mitti Labs is teaching farmers in India.

AWD involves alternating between flooding the rice field and allowing it to dry out partially, rather than keeping the field continuously flooded.

It is believed this cycle of flooding and partial drying can reduce water usage by 30% compared to continuous flooding, without significantly impacting rice yields. It can also reduce methane emissions from rice fields by up to 60% compared to continuous flooding. 

AWD has been widely adopted in countries like China, India and the Philippines, but scaling up adoption remains a challenge that Mitti Labs is working to address in India. That’s because implementing AWD requires training farmers on monitoring the water level in the field using a simple perforated pipe, and timing the irrigation accordingly.

Aiming to create emissions credits that buyers can trust

Alongside the environmental benefits of the projects, the work will increase the financial resilience of participating rice farmers, who earn the majority of revenue from each carbon credit sold, increasing their annual incomes by up to 30%.

The company's Digital Measurement, Reporting, and Verification (dMRV) technology ensures rigorous verification of project impact, enabling buyers to purchase carbon credits with confidence. The business has deployed cutting-edge AI models trained on ground data and remote sensing to accurately measure climate impact.

This is underpinned by its collaborations with leading academic and research partners, including Cornell University, the International Rice Research Institute, and the US Department of Agriculture, to advance measurement practices around methane abatement.

Rice is the largest agricultural emitter

Mitti Labs estimates that rice accounts for 12% of all agricultural emissions – making it the largest contributor and equivalent to the total emissions of all global air travel. At the same time, rice farming uses over a quarter of global freshwater supplies, with current farming techniques significantly contributing to water scarcity.

India is the world’s second largest rice producer, but the country faces significant threats to the livelihoods of rice farmers from the effects of climate change. Mitti Labs’s 120-person operations team works with on-the-ground community partners to activate grassroots networks and train participating farmers in new agricultural techniques.

“Our goal is to transform traditional rice farming, changing both the environmental footprint of rice and the lives of farmers who are already battling extreme climate-induced drought,” said Xavi Laguarta, co-founder at Mitti Labs.

“We can’t ignore methane in the quest for net zero, and this means driving finance straight to the source, to help farmers adapt their agricultural techniques to a changing climate. We’re working closely with farmers and partner organizations to build confidence in a new type of rice farming, and a new type of carbon credit.”

More projects in the pipeline

The company has 10 more projects in the pipeline. By the end of 2025 it plans to mitigate 360,000 tonnes of CO2e per year whilst expanding geographically across Southeast Asia. This strategy will be supported by a planned funding round in early 2025.

Devdut Dalal, co-founder at Mitti Labs, said: “Our projects are a major step towards a more sustainable and resilient future for a critical crop in India. By leveraging our partners’ existing community networks, we are not only reducing emissions but also changing farmers’ lives with additional revenue streams and building an agricultural landscape in India that can thrive despite the climate challenges ahead.”

Hemant Mohapatra, partner at Lightspeed Venture Partners, added: “The potential for change in global rice farming is immense. Not only is it a leading contributor to methane emissions, it is an industry at risk due to climate change. We believe Mitti Labs' innovative, tech-driven approach is set to be a game-changer in the fight against methane emissions, and we are excited about the potential for scaling its model across India and beyond.”

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