The Intersection of Gender, Climate Change, & Rice Cultivation

 In GEH Blog

Authored by: Alyssa Brodsky

Over half of the world’s population is eating rice as their staple crop and although it is third to corn and wheat in quantity produced, rice cultivation accounts for 50% of all methane production from crops. Rice farming techniques that decrease the methane production and increase yields can produce 30-45 times the amount of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 298 times more potent than CO2. 495.9 million tons of rice are projected to be produced in 2018-2019 using 34-43% of the world’s irrigation water. Looking forward, a growing population is going to demand 25% more rice by 2050. Four-fifths of the rice production comes from smallholder, poor farmers that are disproportionately affected by climate change.

Undoubtedly, significant changes must occur to meet demand and mitigate rice’s impact on the climate. There is a paucity of agriculture programs that emphasize the social context and gender components influencing rice cultivation. When looking at ways to improve the production of rice through better techniques or improved varieties, we need to understand the social context of the current process, which steps are impacted by the changes, and who executes each part of the process. Women make up at least half of the rice farming labor and in some cases as male migration increases women will pick up more of the male-ascribed tasks. Despite this, women lack access to critical resources such as trainings, farm inputs, and marketing opportunities. To make improvements it is imperative to take steps to empower women farmers and disseminate techniques to all stakeholders in the rice cultivation network.

Rice Production – Labor breakdown by gender 

The gender norms dictating the rice cultivation process are vital to understand. Here is a chart on each step of non-mechanized rice farming and who executes each step, with the most labor-intensive steps bolded. Although this is specific to Madagascar, these roles are similar in mixed gender agriculture producing countries. The bolded steps indicate the most labor intensive components.

Rice Cultivation Labor by Gender in Madagascar 

Step Task-force
Clearing the land Men
Tilling the land  Men
Muddying up the land Men
Obtaining the seeds Land Owner
Preparing the seeds Land Owner
Starting the nursery Women
Adding fertilizer/
organic matter to the land
Transplanting the seedlings Women
Watering the fields Land Owner
Weeding the fields Women
Pest Management Land Owner
Drying out the fields Land Owner
Harvesting the rice – cutting Men
Harvesting the rice – bundling Women
Separating the rice from the stock Women and Men
Drying out the rice Women
Storing the rice Depends
Milling the rice mechanically Depends
Milling the rice  Women

The chart shows just how many steps in rice cultivation are traditionally gender-specific. These steps do not include decisions around when to plant, where to plant, finding the labor, cooking for the labor, finding a buyer for the rice, or building irrigation channels or structures to store the rice. The chart shows that many steps are performed by either women or men, no matter the gender of the landowner. Thus, when governments or other groups are looking to educate on a new technique or seed, it is not effective to only identify one group; decision makers, women, or men.

For example, alternate wetting and drying of the fields are all techniques considered climate-smart. It can decrease the greenhouse gases produced and improve the yield of the crop, but it also increases the amount of weeds that will grow and sometimes decreases its pest resiliency. To see the full benefits, it is necessary to employ the entire technique rather than individual pieces. The technique requires a host of changes in the process, including field preparation, seed preparation, transplanting, weeding, pest management, and water management. Considering these are not all male-ascribed tasks or female ascribed tasks, it is clear that all parties need to be considered if the technique is to be properly adopted.

Rice Production – Dissemination techniques, examples of gender sensitive techniques 

Rice production is an incredibly complex growing network that relies on gender norms for execution. It is in need of improvement not only for food security but also for climate change mitigation. By understanding the gender norms around rice farming, the techniques can be disseminated in a fashion that is inclusive of decision makers, in addition to those that will need to make modifications to their practices.

Women make up at least half of the rice farming labor and in some cases almost a fourth of decision makers. In many countries, however, they lack access to trainings, mechanization of tasks, and institutional support in decision-making power. Women farmers have a lower adoption rate of sustainable practices and improved systems caused by differences in access to technological innovations and inputs, information resources, and any local socio-economic inequalities. In one qualitative study on the adoption of rice varieties, women and men had different selection criteria: men placed heavier weight on the traits associated with growing while women farmers were more concerned with the post-harvest qualities including high quality and high selling price. Taking these preferences into account during seed development and dissemination will create a better likelihood of adoption.

Addressing this, West African New Rice for Africa (NERICA) focused its efforts on developing and promoting varieties that reduce the labor burden held by women rice farmers. NERICA seeds demand less weeding (traditionally performed by women) and result in increased yields and protein content. This addressed labor concerns, post-harvest concerns, and the nutritional benefits that matter very much to the woman farmer while also including increased yields, which appeals to men.

A pilot project in Bihar, India focused on the mechanization of transplanting. Transplanting is labor-intensive work and traditionally done by women. This project worked with a group of women to purchase a mechanical rice transplanter. This approach is significant for not only decreasing the time and labor needed in the rice fields but for giving women the opportunity to generate a higher income. The project cities the importance of access to information such as training and technical support to the success of the adoption. It may seem natural to train those executing the labor in the mechanization of the labor, but this project is one of the first to train women as agriculture service providers. Increasing access to resource such as finance and trainings for women will improve their ability to adopt climate smart techniques and be resilient in changing climate conditions.


Rice is delicious, keeps us full, and does not need to be causing significant harm to the planet. One study in India indicated that with highly specific co-management of fertilizers and water management, it’s possible to decrease greeenhouse gas emissions up to 90%. This is not a cookie cutter technique though as it requires adjustments that consider environmental factors, relies on farmer education, and individual farmers’ knowledge of their own land to make the appropriate adjustments. This management technique impacts decision makers, those who apply the fertilizer, transplanters and weeders, and those who manage the irrigation. We need to act quickly and improve techniques to be in the position to produce enough rice in a sustainable manner. This means addressing each step of the rice production value chain and considering gender norms and the opportunity for women’s empowerment within the framework.

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