I've recently had the pleasure of visiting several Japanese rice paddy fields, known here as "tambo". Rice is a staple of the Asian diet and as such tambo play an integral part in the Japanese economy, culture, and ecology. As with many forms of modern agriculture around the world, there are different ways rice can be grown. Tambo dot the landscape of Japan, forming a matrix that demonstrates the differences in cultivation - everything from traditional methods that often require a high level of manpower and minimal outside inputs, to high-tech methods that rely on automated machinery and a cocktail of fertilizers. The particular method of rice farming that a farmer chooses to employ has far-reaching effects from the quality of the rice itself, to the health of the ecosystem, and even to the impact of tambo on climate change. That's right - even rice cultivation can affect the climate and certain types can mitigate climate change.
The most modern rice growing methods are often devoid of living creatures. Due to ecologically harmful inputs of fertilizers and pesticides, concrete infrastructure that make it difficult for organisms to move between irrigation troughs and paddies, and heavy machinery that stirs up fragile soil layers, modern tambo are relatively sterile environments.
A middle ground of tambo is organic methods. Here, natural additives are used at various times during the growing season in order to boost production. Even these methods though can result in anoxic (no oxygen) conditions as increased decomposition robs the water of dissolved oxygen that frogs, fish, and microorganisms depend on.
However, in northern Japan it is possible to grow rice completely naturally. Tambo that utilize this method resemble the most diverse of wetlands. The water teems with daphnia and you can't take a step through the paddy without numerous frogs scurrying away. Some of the most fascinating animals can be found here, including water spiders, mole crickets, and giant water bugs. These paddies are often flooded in the winter, making them ideal grounds for geese and other waterfowl that have faced habitat destruction throughout their range. And, you guessed it, these natural tambo are the preferred method when it comes to climate change mitigation. They have many of the same benefits as wetlands and can store substantial amounts of carbon and methane. By working within the bounds of the ecosystem, farmers can create resilient tambo that can weather droughts and floods, store greenhouse gases and serve as an important habitat for plants and animals.
While rice paddies are not a substitute for true wetlands, when managed well they can feed a growing human population and provide habitat and ecosystem services all while having a net positive effect on the environment. Still curious about rice paddies? Check out this tambo NGO (and use your browser to translate it!).