Recognizing the severity of the state’s total GHG emissions, the California legislature enacted a cap and trade law under the 2006 Global Warming Solutions Act. Though the trade market is not yet structured for the rice industry, researchers and growers, like Tom Butler, have taken proactive steps that may lead to carbon offsets available on the market for capped sectors.

“In fact, rice is now the first agricultural protocol to be adopted under what’s called the American Carbon Registry,” says Paul Buttner, environmental affairs manager for the California Rice Commission. A rice protocol has also been approved by the market registry Climate Action Reserve and soon, he hopes, by the California Air Resources Board.

California rice emits an estimated three to four tons of GHGs per acre per year, with a potential reduction of half a ton through costly control measures. This translates to just $5 an acre on the current carbon trading market.

If less land were put into rice production, less habitat would be available for migratory birds. Since 1990 rice growers have reduced post-season burning by 80 percent, allowing rice straw to instead decompose. By flooding the fields in winter, growers accelerate the breakdown of this resilient straw. This, notes the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network, has encouraged more than 400,000 shorebirds annually to return to the Sacramento Valley – with millions of other migratory birds visiting the Central Valley via the Pacific Flyway – in search of nesting sites and to feast on the grain left behind after harvest. Rebuilding wetland reserves for the amount of rice acreage flooded each winter would run an estimated $1.5 billion, with yearly maintenance costs around $30 to $40 million.