Walk into pretty much any corner shop, market or supermarket in the world, and there is one product you are guaranteed to find: rice.
Inexpensive, filling and versatile, rice is a daily staple for around half of the world’s population, accounting for 19 per cent of dietary energy globally.
But, cheap as rice is, there is a higher price to pay.
A single kilo of rice needs an average 2,500 litres of water to produce; in fact, rice production uses over a third of the world’s irrigation water. Moreover, rice contributes to climate change, with methane emitted by flooded paddy fields responsible for 10 per cent of total global methane emissions.
And yet, with rice production contributing to climate drive, the impacts of climate change are expected to reduce yields and nutritional value of rice as temperatures rise, hitting farmers particularly hard in regions such as Southeast Asia.
With rice production needing to grow by 25 per cent over the next 25 years to meet projected future demand, it is clear something has to change in how we grow rice in order to limit climate change, conserve water and the environment, while at the same time providing farmers with improved, sustainable incomes.
This is where the Sustainable Rice Platform, co-founded by UN Environment in partnership with the International Rice Research Institute and German development agency—Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ)—comes in.
Transforming rice production for everybody’s benefit
The Sustainable Rice Platform was set up in 2011 to connect governments, development partners, businesses, farmers and non-governmental organizations around the world to develop and implement proven solutions that benefit rice producers, consumers and the environment.
The Platform’s Standard for Sustainable Rice Cultivation was launched in 2015, together with a set of performance indicators that monitor progress and impact of adoption of climate-smart, sustainable best practice by small farmers.
“The idea for the Sustainable Rice Platform came from the need to focus on food commodities primarily produced in developing countries and consumed by food insecure people. Unlike coffee or cocoa, over 90 per cent of all rice is produced and consumed in the same country—predominantly in Asia. In addition, given the environmental footprint of the rice sector, it seemed appropriate for UN Environment to take up this challenge,” commented James Lomax, Programme Management Officer for food systems and agriculture at UN Environment.
The Standard promotes climate-smart practices such as direct seeding, which cuts down on water use and labour by directly planting rice in fields, rather than following the traditional method of first growing seedlings in a nursery.
The participation of private sector actors will be crucial to success, as shifting to climate-smart and sustainable rice farming practices requires cooperation between public and private sectors. An increasing number of private sector actors, such as Mars Food (Uncle Ben’s), Olam International, and Ebro have already committed to achieving sustainable sourcing within their global rice supply chains.
Both farmers and planet feel the benefits
This cooperation is already showing promising results.
The International Rice Research Institute evaluated pilot field implementation of the Sustainable Rice Platform Standard in 2016–2017 and found real benefits to rice farmers as well as the environment. These included water savings of up to 20 per cent, 50 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, and at least 10 per cent increase in farmers’ income.
“I used to grow my rice crop in a conventional way that was very laborious and time- and water-consuming,” said Ashgar Mujahid, a farmer from Pakistan, who took part in the Water Productivity Project, run by platform partners Rice Partners Limited, Mars Food and Helvetas Swiss Intercooperation.
When Mujahid received training on how to use the direct seeding method, the situation changed.
“I spared one acre of land to test the technique and my crop yield increased by 15 per cent, along with 20 per cent water saving and 50 per cent labour saving. The lower cost of production in terms of labour and water saving, and the higher yield created a positive impact on my income.”
Similar benefits are being seen in other countries, with additional positive impacts on other issues of concern, such as pollution.
“By complying with the Sustainable Rice Platform Standard, and with the support of Farmer Friends from Loc Troi Group, I learned how to control pests closely, and I was able to reduce my use of chemicals,” said Nguyen Van Nhat, a farmer from Vietnam.
“By reducing my cost of production, I was able to save more. More importantly, my health and the environment’s health are better protected.”
With such positive early results and massive potential for further transformation, it is little wonder that major players in the rice sector see the Standard as the best way to ensure a bright future for rice farmers and the planet.
Sunny Verghese, Co-Founder and Group Chief Executive Officer of Olam, one of the world’s largest rice traders and a leading member of the Sustainable Rice Platform, used the Fifth International Rice Congress in Singapore to urge governments, financial institutions, researchers as well as value chain actors to work together to drive wide-scale adoption of the Standard. For Verghese, there is no other option.
“Climate change mitigation cannot be a trade-off that hurts the farmers and communities who depend on rice for income and sustenance,” he said. “We must reimagine the whole supply chain if the world is to become carbon neutral by 2050.”