Fish farming in rice fields

History and tradition

The capture and cultivation of aquatic organisms in rice fields has a long history and tradition, especially in Asia, where the availability of rice and fish has been associated with prosperity and food security. Drawings of rice fields with fish on ancient Chinese pottery from tombs in the Han Dynasty (206 BC) all testify that the combination of rice and fish has always been considered an indicator of wealth and stability.


The cultivation of nearly 90 percent of the world’s rice crops in irrigated, rainfed and deep-water systems equivalent to about 134 million hectares provides a suitable environment for fish and other aquatic organisms. Rice-based ecosystems provide habitats for a wide range of aquatic organisms widely used by local people. They also provide opportunities for the improvement and cultivation of aquatic organisms. The different integrations of rice farming and fish farming either on the same plot, on adjacent plots where the by-products of one system are used as inputs on the other, or consecutively are all variants of production systems that aim to increase the productivity of water, land and associated resources while contributing to the increase in fish production. Integration can be more or less complete depending on the general arrangement of irrigated rice fields and fish ponds. There are many options for improving food production from fish in managed aquatic systems, which are ingeniously carried out by farmers around the world.

Regarding the general scale of fish farming, China is the main producer with an area of ​​about 1.3 million hectares of rice fields with different forms of fish farming, which produced 1.2 million tons of fish. and other aquatic animals in 2010. Other countries reporting their rice-fish production to FAO include Indonesia (92,000 tonnes in 2010), Egypt (29,000 tonnes in 2010), Thailand (21,000 tonnes in 2008), the Philippines (150 tonnes in 2010) and Nepal (45 tonnes in 2010). Trends in China show that fish production in rice paddies has increased thirteen times over the past two decades, and fish farming is now one of the most important aquaculture systems in China, making a significant contribution to the means of rural livelihoods and food security. A wide range of aquatic species, including various carp, tilapia, catfish and bream, are reared in the rice fields. Market prices and preferences can provide farmers with significant opportunities for a more diverse use of species, particularly targeting eels, groupers and various crustaceans, and the sale and marketing of higher value organic products. Also in India, the practice crosses different ecosystems, from rice terraces on hilly lands to coastal lands and deep-water rice fields, and is said to have covered an area of ​​two million hectares in the 1990s. Fish farming is experienced and practiced in other countries and continents although to a lesser extent. Outside Asia, activities were reported, inter alia, in Brazil, Egypt, Guyana, Haiti, Hungary, Iran (Islamic Republic of), Italy, Madagascar, Malawi, Nigeria, Panama, Peru, Senegal, Suriname, United States of America. America, Zambia and several countries in the Central Asia and Caucasus region.

Benefits, problems and challenges

Fish farming provides additional food and income by diversifying agricultural activities and increasing the yields of rice and fish crops. Evidence shows that although rice yields are similar, the integrated rice-fish system uses 68 percent less pesticides than rice monoculture. The fish feed on rice pests, thus reducing pest pressure. With the fact that most broad-spectrum insecticides pose a direct threat to aquatic organisms and healthy fish farming, savvy farmers are much less motivated to spray pesticides. Therefore, it has been suggested that fish farming in rice and integrated pest management in rice production are complementary activities. Likewise, the complementary use of nitrogen between rice and fish resulted in a 24 percent reduction in chemical fertilizer application and low nitrogen release to the environment, suggesting positive interactions in the use of resources. The fertilizers and feed used in the integrated system are used more efficiently and converted into food production, and the release of nutrients into the natural environment is minimized. Fish farming reduces methane emissions by almost 30 percent compared to traditional rice farming.

The challenges related to rice-fish farming are no different from those related to the general development of aquaculture. They include the availability and access to seeds, food and capital as well as the natural hazards associated with water control, disease and predation. Fresh water is rapidly becoming one of the most scarce natural resources, and competition for fresh water is one of the most critical challenges facing developing countries. Sufficient, good quality water is a key resource in rice-fish farming, which increases productivity per unit of water used. Fish farming and other forms of aquaculture in rice cultivation are a component of integrated water management approaches that produce foods of high nutritional quality and, often, of great economic value. Benefits vary depending on the characteristics of the production, but income increases of up to 400 percent over rice monoculture have been reported and may be even greater where high-value aquatic species are raised. .

The use of aquatic genetic resources in rice is part of the work of the FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture Department with the Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture in the preparation of the State world of aquatic genetic resources. In addition, the rice-fish system has been included as one of the agricultural heritage systems of global significance under an FAO initiative supported by the Global Environment Facility.

It is the combination of efficient production and use of resources coupled with environmental benefits that has prompted the recent international gatherings of the International Rice Commission, the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Ramsar Convention to Recommend that rice-producing countries encourage further development of rice cultivation and fisheries systems as a means of improving food security and sustainable rural development. In addition, some countries with a long tradition of integrated rice-fish systems are paying renewed attention to the complex rice ecosystem with an emphasis on its role in biodiversity conservation, such as in the Japanese satoyama landscape initiative.

The path to follow

An increase in integrated rice and fish agriculture is possible and would benefit farmers, consumers and the environment worldwide. Several organizations, active in global food production and / or environmental sustainability policies, have recognized this and key decision-makers have formulated and disseminated relevant recommendations to governments, institutions and stakeholders. This is encouraging and, given the benefits of rice-fish farming, it is important to prioritize its continued promotion.

Taking China, the major producer, as an example, with currently 15 percent of the suitable rice area under integrated fish-rice cultivation, there is considerable room for expansion. The same is true for many rice producing countries around the world. Likewise, there is plenty of room for scaling up existing systems. Capacity building with increased knowledge and improved management techniques will be of crucial importance, focusing in particular on all members of farm households, men and women, as well as extension workers. Over the past decades, excellent progress has been made in applying a Farmer Field School (FFS) approach. It is a discovery-based learning approach where small groups of farmers meet regularly, facilitated by a specially trained technician, to explore new methods, through simple experiments and discussions and group analyzes, during a growing season. This approach allows farmers to modify and adapt newly introduced methods to local contexts and knowledge, ultimately offering a greater likelihood of appropriate adaptation and adoption of improved technologies. It is only relatively recently that aquaculture has been integrated into an FFS-type program in Guyana and Suriname.

August 2012

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