Ducks in Rice Paddies under Spotlights

Takao Furuno, a Japanese farmer, has devised a simple, ecological rice farming method using ducks, which is attracting the attention of the Schwab Foundation, a sustainable agriculture center in the U.S., as well as the attention of a university researcher on global warming in Japan.

Fukuoka, Japan

By Yas Mamemachi

Organic rice farming with ducks in Korea
Organic rice farming with ducks in Korea (Takao Furuno PHOTO)

oakao Furuno, a spirited farmer who was influenced by Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring," wanted to make his Kyushu farm all-organic about 25 years ago and since then he has mainly produced quality organic rice. In 2001, he was chosen as one of the 40 outstanding social entrepreneurs in the world by the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship.

The Schwab Foundation holds the World Economic Forum, also called the Davos conference, which was founded in 1971 and is a global partnership of business, political, intellectual, and other civic leaders that defines and discusses key issues on the world's economic agenda. According to the foundation, social entrepreneurship is a term that captures a unique approach to social problems, an approach that cuts across sectors and disciplines.

Furuno's unique and award-wining approach to social problems is to simply release ducks into rice paddies. With this simple method, he has achieved a higher rice yield with much less labor and financial outlay, while at the same time maintaining environmentally sustainable agriculture. He has perfected and spread this technique since 1988, and today over 75,000 small rice farmers throughout Asia have taken up his method. Rice yields from farmers using Furuno's method are almost twice those of conventional plots in the same area.

Releasing ducks in rice paddies is not a new theory. A journal that was published one thousand years ago in China advocates the use of ducks in rice paddies. Many Japanese farmers released ducks into their paddies in the 1940s, since they had no agricultural machinery at the time. However, the ducks have gradually been phased out as agriculture became increasingly mechanized and reliant on the use of pesticides, thus isolating rice paddies from their natural surroundings. In fact, the "good old Asian environment" where people lived with nature, including trees, rivers, ponds, swamps, and rice paddies, disappeared in the process of Japan's radical industrialization in the 1950s and 1960s. The environment was also good for ducks.

Furuno turned to ducks simply because he decided he no longer wanted to weed his paddies. At the time, he had already been an organic farmer for 10 years. Organic farming is time-consuming work, and he had to work in the paddies from dawn to dusk every day. Weeding, in particular, required long hours. Wondering whether or not organic farming was worth the trouble, he was advised to try ducks.

In order to confirm the effectiveness of the duck method, he and some associates carried out a comparative study with two paddies--one with ducks and the other without ducks. The results of the study clearly indicated that the paddy with ducks provided several advantages in terms of rice production.

The first advantage is that the ducks eat weeds, which means weeds do not need to be removed by hand. The ducks also eat insects, and the ducks' droppings provide nourishment for the growing rice. The fourth advantage is that the ducks, while moving among the plants, are constantly paddling the water and thus prevent too much settling, such as sediments, at the bottom of the paddies. The ducks also eat golden snails, which are a serious threat to rice. And the final advantage is that ducks provide an acceptable level of stress so that the plants can grow stronger and healthier. For ducks, rice paddies are excellent environments because they provide both water and food as well as a hiding place from predators.

A report on Furuno's study was published in a well-known academic journal in Japan and helped promote his theory with an NGO called the Japan Aigamo Duck Association. Later, through experimentation, he discovered that the addition of certain fish (loaches) and a nitrogen-fixing weed (azolla) to paddies boosted rice and duck growth.

Rice, duck and fish in a small rice paddy for sustainable agriculture
Rice, duck and fish in a small rice paddy for sustainable agriculture
(Takao Furuno PHOTO)

Over the last thousand years or so, the people of Asia have been devising means of producing more food in smaller areas under limited conditions. Crop rotation and cash crop methods require time to be effective, but farming with ducks is effective at once. In the end, the ducks and the fish can be eaten, says Furuno.

In the past 30 years, mechanized agriculture using fertilizers has been introduced in rice paddies in many parts of Asia for a single purpose: higher productivity under the banner of "modern industrial agriculture."

For instance, in some parts of Asia, when water buffaloes were replaced by tractors, higher productivity was achieved. But at the same time, industrial agricultural farmers had to buy fertilizers and pesticides that they didn't have to buy when they used buffaloes. These materials are mostly imported and thus expensive for most rice farmers. "It's difficult to escape the system of industrial agriculture once you are part of it," Furuno points out. During the same period, the annual growth of chemical fertilizer use on Asian rice has been 3 to 40 times faster than the growth of rice yields, he adds.

Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture
Last year, Furuno was invited to lecture at the Iowa State University's Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture in the United States. Professor Frederick L. Kirschenmann, director of the center, shares a similar agriculture philosophy with the Japanese farmer.

The director says that agriculture in the 21st century must be very different from agriculture in the 20th century. Also, new challenges face agriculture?among them population growth, persistent poverty, energy needs, food security, and environmental degradation.

The American professor says the industrial mind-set suggests that there are only two ways to meet these challenges. One is to develop new technologies that can further increase the yields of principle commodity crops, such as rice, wheat, and corn. The other is to increase the amount of land used for growing food crops (i.e., plow up the remaining wilderness areas to grow crops). Furuno has demonstrated that there is "at least a third way and that is to produce more products off of the same acreage where previously only one crop was produced and doing so with less environmental impact due to the synergies in the system," the American professor says.

Professor Kirschenmann points out that industrial agriculture, which has been practiced in industrialized countries for the past 50 years and was once successful, is now at a turning point. He says industrial agriculture was successful for two main reasons. One is readily available, cheap fossil fuels to feed the system (most purchased inputs are fossil fuel-based); and the other is adequate sinks in nature to absorb the waste from the system (excess nutrients and other forms of environmental pollution).

However, "Both of these situations have changed," says Professor Kirschenmann. "We are now in a state of fossil fuel depletion which means the cost of producing food by this method will become increasingly expensive at a time when farmers in industrial countries are already receiving government subsidies to help them pay their costs." The professor adds that environmental sinks are full, evidenced by 53 dead zones on the planet, all of which are located in places where industrial farming is practiced.

Professor Kirschenmann believes that synergistic solutions for sustainable agriculture, like Furuno's method, will be adopted in developing countries before they are adopted in the industrial world and "could well give farmers in developing countries a competitive advantage."

In fact, using a large collection of data received from the studies all over the world, Professor Jules Pretty at the University of Essex's Center for Environment and Society along with a research team conclude that sustainable agricultural methods, making the best use of nature's goods and services as functional inputs, holds great promise for feeding people without ruining the environment.

According to University of Essex news releases, the research team investigated the effects of sustainable agricultural methods in 208 projects in 52 countries of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. In 208 projects/initiatives, some 8.98 million farmers have adopted sustainable agriculture practices and technologies on 28.92 million hectares--equivalent to 3.01% of the 960 million hectares of arable and permanent crops in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

The results of their investigation show that the biggest yield increases were in countries like Bangladesh, Brazil, Cuba, India, Kenya, and Madagascar, which were passed over by previous development, and many projects saw a doubling to trebling of yields.

Ducks and Global Warming
Moreover, ducks in rice paddies may control methane released from the rice paddies, which intensifies the greenhouse effect, a main cause of global warming, says Hiroyuki Morii, an assistant professor and researcher at the University of Occupational and Environmental Health, Japan.

Recent studies say that methane contributes about 19% of the greenhouse effect, while carbon dioxide, the most common cause of global warming, is about 64%. However, on a per-liter basis, the contribution rate of methane increases over carbon dioxide by a factor of 20 to 25. Twelve percent of all the methane released into the atmosphere is from rice paddies. "Without a doubt, controlling methane from rice paddies will have a positive impact on slowing the greenhouse effect," says Professor Morii.

In a rice paddy, methane is mainly produced by methanogens that consume hydrogen and acetic acid in the soil under water. In the soil, ferric iron, Fe (III), constantly changes to ferrous iron, Fe (II), by Fe (III)-reducing microorganisms, or so-called iron reducers, that also consume hydrogen and acetic acid in the process of the change. The consumption of iron reducers is faster than that of methanogens. Therefore, as long as Fe (III) is provided regularly, these basic elements are mostly consumed by iron reducers, controlling the development of methane.

Theoretically, Fe (II) is oxidized to become Fe (III) once it moves into water from the soil. Fe (III) goes back to the soil and everything starts over again. In reality, Fe (II) is stuck in the soil, and Fe (II) spreads in the water very slowly.

Professor Morii and his team set up a small experimental environment similar to a rice paddy at a lab and were mixing up the water for different periods of time in order to help promote Fe (II) that was stuck in the soil spread in the water. As a result, when the water was mixed for two hours, the development of methane was controlled over the following 24 hours. When mixed for 7.5 hours, it was controlled for the next three days.

Professor Morii had confident in his theory and experimental work, but the biggest issue was how his experimental work could be applied to rice paddies outside a lab. One day, the professor saw a local news program on TV, reporting on Furuno's duck and rice farming business and saying he would have a lecture at a location near his university.

"I thought this is it," recalls Professor Morii. The Japanese professor says that in rice paddies ducks are constantly paddling the water, which should help spread Fe (II) stuck in the soil in real rice paddies, making a theoretical circle from Fe (III) to Fe (II) back to Fe (III) a reality.

The professor joined the meeting and explained to Furuno his theory and the results of his experimental work. In cooperation with Furuno, Professor Morii started conducting experiments in Furuno's rice paddies. "When I observed Furuno's rice paddy with the ducks, I realized that the water in the rice paddy was muddy from the ducks paddling," says Professor Morii. ?gThat made me believe my theory would work with ducks in the rice paddy."

The Japanese professor established a control area (100 X 100 cm) surrounded by a 25 cm-height iron frame, which prevented water in the control area from being contaminated by muddy water. A net was attached to keep the area free from ducks.

One month later he conducted comparative studies on the amount of Fe (III) in the water and the soil in both the area with the ducks and the control area. In terms of water, the area with the ducks included more than 267 times the amount of Fe (III) as that in the control area, while in case of soil the Fe (III) content rate in the area with the ducks was nine percent, about two percent higher than that in the control area.

Since iron reduction in the process of change from Fe (III) to Fe (II) is much faster than the fall of soil particles including Fe (III) in the muddy water down to the soil, the amount of Fe (III) in the soil may not increase as it does in water.

Professor Morii says he's positive that ducks in the rice paddy suppress the release of methane from the rice field. His next job is to figure out how much methane can be controlled with the duck and rice agriculture method.

According to a recent study, about 90% of the methane released from rice paddies goes out through plant transport, and the remaining through bubbles. In addition, ducks move and stop among rice plants irregularly. "A whole rice paddy, including the control area and the rest with ducks, may be developed in a kind of experimental greenhouse," says Professor Morii.
Furuno, a farmer and an outstanding social entrepreneur
Furuno, a farmer and an outstanding social entrepreneur
(Yas Mamemachi PHOTO)

The method and philosophy that Furuno introduced in agriculture have been highlighted among organic/sustainable agriculture supporters in many countries all over the globe. But Furuno says that sometimes he feels there is a gap between his fundamental thoughts and the intellectual/socio-political discussion about the industrial agriculture.

He received another invitation to give a speech at another international meeting on rice cultivation last year. The meeting was attended by participants with PhDs and a few farmers. Furuno reviewed the meeting, saying he was disappointed to realize that most of the participants didn't understand his basic idea of ?gmaking farming easy." (Note: Furuno received a BS degree in agriculture from one of Japan's finest and oldest universities).

Less labor is the most critical issue in agriculture. It is an issue that has helped promote and justify modern industrial agriculture for the past 50 years. Regardless of the intellectual and philosophical argument about organic/sustainable agriculture, modern agriculture will win unless the issue of less labor in the field becomes the top priority, says Furuno.

Furuno will be busy working on the extension of the duck and rice farming method that will help farmers and researchers in agriculture.