The 2nd Annual Rice Conference with theme-Sustainable Rice Production in Pakistan was held on 9th September 2023 by SAWiE- a digital farm advisory platform. It featured prominent speakers and brought together a distinguished group of attendees, including scientists, engineers, researchers, policymakers, market experts, and farmers. The SAWIE 2nd Rice conference has speakers and delegates  representing the Pakistan Agriculture Research Council, Punjab Agriculture Department, leading universities including the University of Agriculture Faisalabad, LUMS, Punjab University, UET, Lahore women university, UK Pakistan Science Innovation and global Network (UPSIGN), NRSP, Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources (PCRWR),Rice exporters association, Pakistan Basmati Heritage Association, Helvetas, Banks, rice millers ,farmers, certification agencies and digital companies. 

Rice is a staple crop for more than half of the world’s population and forms an essential part of the diet in most Asian countries including Pakistan, and it is responsible for 10% of global anthropogenic methane emissions each year. Methane emissions from rice production amount to 7.83 Mt CO2-eq per year for Pakistan. Climate change poses a serious threat to Pakistan’s agriculture sector in Pakistan with a severe shortage of water affecting Rice. The per capita annual water availability in Pakistan has dropped to 1,017 cubic meters from 5300 in 1947 and may lead to absolute water scarcity by 2025 (UNDP 2016). This will result in severe water shortages for the next generation of farmers. Future water requirements and challenges seriously threaten Pakistan due to its agrarian economy where wheat and rice are primary food crops (Ahmad et al., 2019). There is an urgent need to develop innovative solutions for efficient and sustainable use of water, improving nutrient use efficiency, reduce crop losses from pests & diseases both pre & post-harvesting.

Prof. Dr. Iqrar Ahmad Khan (Hilal e Imtiaz)- UAF, Eng. Mushtaq Ahmed Gill (TI)- SAWIE, Mr. Yusuf Zafar (CABI), Dr. Ghulam Muhammad Ali (PARC), Dr Azeam Khan (former chairman PARC), Prof. Muhammad Farooq(Sultan Qaboos University), Dr. Abdul Wakeel, Dr Abdul Ghafoor, Dr Lubna Anjum, Prof Asif Kamran from UAF, Mr Imran Sheikh from PBHA, Eng Faakhar from PCRWR, Eng Saleem from NRSP Agriculture Processing Company, Eng Ahmad progressive farmer Mr Sultan Ahmad Bhatti, Mr Haji Muhammad, Ms Farwa, Ms Amnah from SAWIE and others took part in the discussions. 

The conference participants and speakers were welcomed by Dr. Khalid Mahmood who emphasized the need for producing sustainable rice to meet food security and challenges of climate change. The rice conference was inaugurated by Prof. Dr. Iqrar, who set the tone for the event by emphasizing the importance of sustainable rice production, considering its substantial water usage. He expressed his eagerness to listen to experts discuss sustainable rice cultivation and voiced hope for the future of rice in Pakistan. During his opening remarks, Prof. Dr. Khan also touched upon the crucial topic of soil revival and showed optimism regarding the potential of soybeans as a rotation crop.

 Dr. Ghulam Muhammad Ali, Chairman of PARC, highlighted the need for climate-resilient rice varieties with higher yields and less water consumption. He stressed the importance of indigenizing rice production and mentioned the introduction of four high-yield rice varieties by PARC.

Dr. Yusuf Zafar, former Chairman PARC and advisor CABI, emphasized the need for adapting to knowledge-based information and moving beyond profit and expansion as the sole objectives. He discussed the importance of containing the rapid expansion of rice cultivation and the role of effective government regulatory agencies.

 The conference featured five breakout sessions, including:

  1. Rice Seed Potential: The Panel discussed how much potential a seed has to improve the yield and reduce the use of inputs by building drought, heat, and pests & disease tolerance. The advancement in genomics including CRISPR CAS could offer a breakthrough to develop varieties. Seed breeders and policymakers should ensure the availability of quality seed to produce enough rice for the country and export to earn foreign exchange.
  2. Regenerative Agriculture: The evolution of regenerative agriculture practices offers a great opportunity to care for the 3Ps (People, Planet, Profit). The session emphasized scalable regenerative practices to reinvigorate soil health and the promotion of ecological zoning. We need “more crop per drop”, policy implementation and responsible behaviors for pumping groundwater, and utilization of resources in an effective way. This way we can degrade less soil and improve nutrient uptake.
  3. Mechanization: The government should devise targeted subsidies for the promotion of sustainable crop management practices, e.g. mechanical rice transplantation, zero tillage drills for sowing of next crops. There is a need to develop a skilled force of operators, repair and maintenance, and opportunities for capacity building. They stressed the need for youth involvement and the role of service providers in serving smallholder farmers to better manage their crops from transplanting to harvesting.
  4. Digital Solutions, Traceability, and Certification: This session covered the importance of provenance data of the rice produced to trace its origin. This is becoming more important for the consumers. Digital tools could play an important role in advising farmers about the weather conditions for making informed farming decisions. The use of IoT and satellite technologies could predict soil moisture, the need for irrigation, and the appropriate time for fertilizer and pesticide application, etc.  The use of Machine Learning and AI could change the way we farm rice in the coming years. The benefit of a traceable system linked with Blockchain will be helpful to reward the environment-friendly quality producers with premium prices. This will immensely help in reducing the pesticide residues. The use of mobile applications will help farmers to buy inputs at better prices and sell their produce at better prices.
  5. Market Opportunities and Farmers Income: The group discussed the transition from traditional middleman dominate grain trading towards electronic warehousing (eWHR) to better gain prices for farmers. Usually at times of harvest, the prices are dropped but farmers cannot afford to store produce as they need cash for their next crops. The group agreed to link the quality produce for both export and domestic markets.

Mr Fritz Böhmler, Director SAWiE said sustainability is the heart of SAWIE’s mission to support farmers achieve higher income. Pakistan has a huge potential to develop its rural economy, and its firm is providing professional training and guidance in sustainable agriculture. Mr Böhmler highlighted the holistic approach that SAWiE has been pursuing sustainability from Farm to Fork. He stressed the importance of growing more with less water, less chemicals, and reducing methane emissions, which is crucial for sustainable agriculture in a water-stressed country. He emphasized that SAWiE’s team has been actively working with the farmers to adopt these sustainable practices and is always open to collaboration.

The conference concluded with closing remarks from Eng. Mushtaq Ahmed Gill (TI), Advisor SAWiE with a need for a second green revolution that is only possible through the emergency need for soil revival, diversification into crops beyond rice, and achieving more with less water, traceability with digital technology. He highlighted the importance of crop residue management, mechanization, and the creation of service hubs to protect soil and crop losses. He also underscored the significance of linking subsidies to the adoption of technology and reiterated the importance of bringing legumes in the Rice cropping system. He added we need a sustainable, healthy, profitable environment that can be achieved only by adopting the change of conservation agriculture.

The insights shared by these experts and the comprehensive discussions during the conference aimed to shape the future of rice production in Pakistan towards sustainability and resilience to feed the growing world population.