Fish Culture in Rice Fields

13 August 2012, at 1:00am

This article, from the FAO's "The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2012" report, looks at the history and importance of how rice and fish farming can be combined, and also how it promotes enhanced food production and wealth.

History and Tradition

The capture and culture of aquatic organisms from 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. Designs of rice fields with fish on ancient Chinese pottery from tombs of the Han Dynasty (206 BC225 AD), inscriptions from a thirteenth century king of Thailand, and traditional sayings, such as one from Viet Nam rice and fish are like mother and children, are all testament that the combination of rice and fish has traditionally been regarded as an indicator of wealth and stability.


The cultivation of almost 90 percent of the worlds rice crops in irrigated, rainfed and deep-water systems equivalent to about 134 million hectares offers a suitable environment for fish and other aquatic organisms. Rice-based ecosystems provide habitats for a wide range of aquatic organisms extensively used by local people. They also offer opportunities for the enhancement and culture of aquatic organisms. The different integrations of rice and fish farming either on the same plot, on adjacent plots where by-products of one system are used as inputs on the other, or consecutively are all variations of production systems that aim to increase the productivity of water, land and associated resources while contributing to increased fish production. The integration can be more or less complete depending on the general layout of the irrigated rice plots and fishponds. There are many options for enhancing food production from fish in managed aquatic systems, which are ingeniously realized by farmers all over the world.

As regards the general scale of ricefish culture, China is the main producer with an area of about 1.3 million hectares of rice fields with different forms of fish culture, which produced 1.2 million tonnes of fish and other aquatic animals in 2010. Other countries reporting their ricefish 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 observed in China show that fish production from rice fields has increased thirteenfold in the last two decades, and ricefish culture is now one of the most important aquaculture systems in China, making a significant contribution to rural livelihoods and food security. A broad range of aquatic species including different carps, tilapias, catfish and breams are being farmed in rice fields. Market prices and preferences may provide important opportunities to farmers for a more diversified use of species, especially targeting eels, loaches and various crustaceans, and the sale and marketing of higher-valued organic products. Also in India the practice cuts across different ecosystems from terraced rice fields in the hilly terrain to coastal lands and deep-water rice fields, and reportedly covered an area of two million hectares in the 1990s. Ricefish farming is being tried and practised in other countries and continents although to a lesser extent. Apart from Asia, activities have been reported from, among others, Brazil, Egypt, Guyana, Haiti, Hungary, Iran (Islamic Republic of), Italy, Madagascar, Malawi, Nigeria, Panama, Peru, Senegal, Suriname, the United States of America, Zambia, and several countries in the Central Asia and Caucasus region.

Benefits, Issues and Challenges

Ricefish farming provides additional food and income by diversifying farm activities and increasing yields of both the rice and fish crops. Evidence shows that although rice yields are similar, the integrated ricefish system uses 68 percent less pesticide than rice monoculture. Fish feed on rice pests, thus reducing pest pressure. Together with the fact that most broadspectrum insecticides are a direct threat to aquatic organisms and healthy fish culture, knowledgeable farmers are much less motivated to spray pesticides. Therefore, it has been suggested that fish farming in rice and the integrated management of pests in rice production are complementary activities. Similarly, complementary use of nitrogen between rice and fish resulted in 24 percent less chemical fertilizer application and low nitrogen release into the environment, suggesting positive interactions in the use of resources. Fertilizers and feeds used in the integrated system are more efficiently utilized and converted into food production, and nutrient discharge to the natural environment is minimized. Ricefish farming reduces the emission of methane by almost 30 percent compared with traditional rice farming.

The challenges related to ricefish farming are not different from those related to general aquaculture development. They include availability of and access to seed, feed and capital as well as natural risks associated with water control, disease and predation. Freshwater is rapidly becoming one of the scarcest natural resources, and competition for freshwater is among the most critical challenges facing developing countries. Sufficient and good-quality water is a key resource in ricefish farming, which increases the productivity per unit of water used. Ricefish farming and other forms of aquaculture in rice-based farming are one component of integrated water management approaches that produce food of high nutritional quality and, often, high economic value. Profits vary depending on production characteristics but income increases of up to 400 percent compared with rice monoculture have been reported and these may be even greater where high-value aquatic species are farmed.

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 as part of the preparation for The State of the World on Aquatic Genetic Resources. In addition, the ricefish system has been included as one of the Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems 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 recent international gatherings of the International Rice Commission, the Convention of Biological Diversity, and the Ramsar Convention to recommend that riceproducing countries promote the further development of integrated rice and fish systems as a means of enhancing food security and sustainable rural development. In addition, some countries with a long tradition in integrated ricefish systems are giving renewed attention to the complex rice ecosystem with a focus on its role in biodiversity conservation, as in the Japanese satoyama landscape initiative.

The Way Forward

An increase in integrated farming of rice and fish is possible and would benefit farmers, consumers and the environment worldwide. Several organizations, active in global policies for food production and/or environmental sustainability, have become aware of this, and key policymakers have formulated and disseminated relevant recommendations to governments, institutions and stakeholders. This is encouraging and, given the benefits of ricefish farming, it is important to give priority to its continued promotion.

Taking China, the main producer, as an example, with currently 15 percent of the suitable rice area under integrated ricefish cultivation, there is considerable scope for expansion. The same is true for many rice-producing countries around the globe. Similarly, there is much room for intensification of existing systems. Capacity building with increased knowledge and improved management techniques will be critically important, in particular focusing on all farming household members, both men and women, as well as extension agents. In recent decades, excellent progress has been achieved by applying a farmer field school (FFS) approach. This 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 experimentation and group discussion and analysis, over the course of a growing season. This approach allows farmers to modify and adapt newly introduced methods to local contexts and knowledge, ultimately providing a higher likelihood of appropriate adaptation and adoption of improved technologies. It is only relatively recently that aquaculture has been integrated into an FFS-style curriculum in Guyana and Suriname.

August 2012