Is rice production sustainable? – Investment Monitor


Rice is the third most cultivated cereal in the world, after corn and wheat. It is a vital staple food for the world’s population and of crucial importance to many developing countries, particularly in Asia.

However, rice faces many challenges. Rice is a very water-intensive crop and its sustainability is in doubt due to the climate crisis and the growing problems of water scarcity. The use of fertilizers and pesticides in rice fields is also harmful to the environment.

China and India account for more than 50% of world rice production. In 2019, China produced 211.4 million tonnes of rice, or 28.2% of the global total, while India produced 177.6 million tonnes, or 23.7% of global production.

The nine main rice producers are in Asia and account for 85% of world production. Asian countries also lead rice exports, with India being the top exporter in 2019 with a total of $6.8 billion exported, according to UN Comtrade. Thailand is the second largest exporter ($4.21 billion), followed by Vietnam ($2.43 billion) and Pakistan ($2.27 billion). The United States ranks fifth with $1.88 billion in rice exports in 2019.

Rice sustainability challenges

The widespread cultivation of rice and the demand for this versatile crop is creating serious environmental and social damage, but the Sustainable Rice Platform (SRP) is working to alleviate some of the problems caused by rice production.

The SRP is a global, multi-stakeholder organization originally co-convened in 2011 by the International Rice Research Institute, the United Nations Environment Program and the German Agency for International Cooperation.

SRP is now an independent association made up of more than 90 institutional members from the public and private sectors, research, financial institutions and NGOs. The stated goal of the SRP is to transform the global rice sector by:

  • improve the livelihoods of smallholders
  • reduce the social, environmental and climate footprint of rice production
  • provide the global rice market with an assured supply of sustainably produced rice to meet the growing global demand for rice

In 2015, the SRP launched the world’s first-ever voluntary sustainability standard for rice – the SRP Standard for Sustainable Rice Farming. The first SRP-compliant rice was produced by farmers in Ratchathani, Thailand in 2017. The project was piloted by the Better Rice Initiative Asia (BRIA), in cooperation with the Thai Department of Rice.

One of the main challenges of growing rice is that it is a thirsty crop. According to the World Wide Fund for Nature, rice requires between 2,000 and 5,000 liters of water per kilogram of harvest.

This dependence on water makes it particularly vulnerable to droughts caused by the climate crisis. At the same time, the use of fertilizers and pesticides in the rice fields and the flood cultivation method produce methane emissions and water pollution.

The method of growing rice, in paddy fields (flooded fields), prevents oxygen from entering the soil, which is blocked by water. This causes the proliferation of bacteria and the emission of methane.

Introducing methods that reduce flooding will not only lead to lower methane emissions, but will also make the crop less water-intensive. It could also potentially increase yields.

Support for small rice farmers

Switching to more sustainable rice production methods will also bring positive results for small-scale rice farmers, according to the SRP.

The alliance points out that rice provides livelihoods for nearly a billion people, but these livelihoods lack resilience. According to the SRP, “The world’s 144 million smallholder rice farmers disproportionately bear the risks of production, but are insufficiently equipped to protect their livelihoods from unrest – ranging from the current Covid-19 pandemic and its health and economic impacts to the climate crisis”. .

At the end of 2021, the PRS had 22 registered PRS projects active in 19 countries around the world. Together, the projects have involved a total of over 400,000 farmers, contributing to SRP’s goal of reaching one million farmers adopting sustainable and climate-smart practices by 2023.

More rice without more environmental damage

Producing more rice and minimizing the resulting negative environmental impacts is certainly a challenge, and all the more so as the world’s population continues to grow. A recent article in the scientific journal Nature analyzed 32 rice cropping systems – covering half of the world’s harvested rice area – and showed that “achieving high yields and efficient use of resources are not contradictory goals”.

The study assessed the yield gap and resource use efficiency (including water, pesticides, nitrogen, labor, energy and global warming potential associate) and showed that most cropping systems “have room to increase yield, resource efficiency, or both”.

Additionally, the study showed that – overall – total rice production could be increased by 32% and excess nitrogen almost eliminated.

Innovative ways to produce rice to feed the world are tested. China, one of the largest rice producers and consumers in the world, is looking into seawater rice production. Salt-tolerant strains are reported to produce higher yields than other rice strains, which which makes it an attractive option as China seeks to increase its food security.

Traditional rice production is hard on both smallholder farmers and the environment, but cultivation is key to ensuring food security. Measures such as those supported by SRP projects could help increase the sustainability of rice while helping to achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. These could help us all feel more certain about the sustainability of our rice bowls and paellas.

This is the fourth in a series of articles describing field crops. Previously, we cover the production of wheat, corn and soybeans.

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