Jasmin rice, Basmati rice, long grain rice... or sustainable rice?

Jasmin rice, Basmati rice, long grain rice... or sustainable rice?

05/07/2017
Christ Vansteenkiste
Christ Vansteenkiste
Rice Cluster Coordinator

In October 2015, the Sustainable Rice Platform launched its Standard for Sustainable Rice Cultivation. ‘’Oh no! Not another standard or label’’, ... I can hear you. But hear me out ...

Sustainable Rice: where is the Orangutan?

Most available standards or labels have been developed so far for high value crops like coffee, cacao ... or for crops for which there was a ‘tangible’ issue like the orangutan for palm oil. But what is the Orangutan for rice? Why is sustainability for a low value crop or common staple food as rice a key issue as well?

Especially as rice has recently become even the most important staple crop in the world. Rice is the daily staple food of 3.5 billion people. One out of 5 persons on our planet derives a livelihood from rice. And demand is rising sharply, due to demographics, urbanisation and changing food habits. When I started working in Benin in 2003, rice was a special dish for special occasions. Nowadays, you will find lots of children, also in rural areas, going to school with a bowl of rice. By 2050 global demand is expected to increase tremendously. For every additional 1 billion of people you’ll need an additional 100 million tons of milled rice.

But can the offer follow? We would need at least 25% more in the coming 25 years. How to achieve this? In Asia land may be an issue; the areal under rice only grew 1,2% over the last 40 years. Mercosul (Argentinia, Brasil, Paraguay and Uruguay) is picking up. Africa (still seen as a target for import) has the potential to become an important producer... How can we address this global challenge to boost production, while protecting the environment?

Rice and climate change: victim and source

Rice producers are now already amongst the most vulnerable for the impact of climate change: drought, floods, high temperatures, raising sea levels ... 20 million hectares of rice fields are prone to floods; another 20 million ha are susceptible to drought. And paddy fields on their own contribute to climate change, as they generate big amounts of greenhouse gasses: about 10% of global methane emissions come from rice paddies.

Who says rice, says water: rice requires about 40% of the world’s irrigation water. And in some cases, the crop is grown with considerable amounts of fertilisers and pesticides. How to boost the use efficiency of these resources? There is also a growing demand from consumers for safe and healthy rice. Also, more and more consumers are concerned about environmental aspects. Surely in urban centres this trend will only increase with a growing middle class and the drive from retailers. So how can we make rice farming more sustainable so we can meet this global future demand for safe and healthy rice, while still protecting our planet? and safeguarding smallholder livelihoods.

The Sustainable Rice Platform

The Sustainable Rice Platform (SRP) was launched to address these complex challenges. It is a global multi-stakeholder partnership created to promote sustainable rice cultivation. The SRP is an initiative of the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI). It is now made up of over 80 institutional members, including government agencies, the private sector actors, research and policy institutions and non-profit organizations. Most important rice actors such as OLAM, Dreyfus, Mars, Ebro … are members. VECO is a member of SRP since May 2015.

(pictures: Jimmy Kets - video: Sustainable Rice Platform)

Eight guiding principles

The SRP works to help smallholder farmers reduce their environmental footprint while offering consumers a safer, healthier and sustainable alternative. Sustainability is looked at from 3 aspects: economic, social and environmental. Eight guiding principles or intended impacts have been formulated to which SRP wants to contribute:

  1. Improve livelihoods of current and future generations of rice growers
  2. Meet consumer needs for food security, food safety, and quality of rice and rice products
  3. Manage natural resources efficiently
  4. Protect the natural environment from disruptive effects
  5. Protect neighboring communities from disruptive effects and contribute to their development
  6. Mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and adapt rice production systems to a changing climate
  7. Respect labor rights and promote the well-being of workers
  8. Conduct business with integrity and transparency

The progress towards these impacts is measured trough 12 key performance indicators.

Sustainable Rice: to pass or fail, is that the question?

With its Standard for Sustainable Rice Cultivation, SRP makes available to the global rice sector a set of instruments designed to facilitate the large-scale adoption of good sustainable practices. It is a compact standard with 46 criteria or requirements grouped under 8 themes. It is a global standard which can be applied under various production systems and environments. But foremost, it is a gradual standard. The SRP Standard is a performance standard and not a pass-fail standard. By incorporating a scoring system, the Standard allows for stepwise compliance to encourage and reward progress toward full compliance. It should hence be seen as a tool for improving agricultural practices, rather than merely a standard to comply with. So, to pass or fail is not the question. For each of the 46 requirements, there are various levels of performance. Each level of performance corresponds to a number of points. The highest performance level in most requirements scores 3 points. Some requirements have additional intermediate performance levels with 2 points or 1 point. For each requirement, an essential or minimal performance level is defined that should be achieved before a claim can be made. The SRP Standard adopts the following two claims:

  • “Working toward sustainable rice cultivation”: a farmer scores between 10 and 99, but does not meet the essential performance level of one or more requirements. A farmer has increased his/her score by 10 points compared with the previous year.
  • “Sustainably cultivated rice”: a farmer scores at least 90 and meets all essential performance levels.

VECO's rice cluster

VECO works within rice value chains in 9 countries: Indonesia, Vietnam, Tanzania, Uganda, DR Congo, Benin, Burkina, Mali and Senegal. Through pilot projects with farmer organisations, VECO tests innovative practices and builds evidence, alongside research and finance institutes, private companies, and other actors to help answer crucial questions in the rice sector. To contribute to this vision the rice cluster will create a vibrant collaborative environment by bringing cluster members, partners and stakeholders together. It fosters Knowledge and Information Exchange between entities/regional offices being part of the cluster and rice sector stakeholders and partners. It builds common evidence to be used on continental and global level based on own pilots and experiences of other actors. The rice cluster put 3 main issues on the forefront:

  • sustainably produced rice
  • quality rice for various consumers
  • inclusive business relations in the value chain

And SRP is for the rice cluster the entrance to all important stakeholders on the global rice scene.

Testing the SRP Standard within the VECO Rice Cluster

The SRP standard has been tested in a small number of Asian countries on a limited scale. With the VECO Rice Cluster we aim at testing the standard on a wider scale and under various conditions and contexts:

  • with the implication of local and national rice producer’s organisations
  • in different regions (West Africa, East Africa, DR Congo, Indonesia, Vietnam)
  • under different water management systems (irrigated, lowland)
  • under various production systems (‘healthy’, SRI, conventional …)
  • with different business linkages (key buyers, group marketing, informal markets …)
  • with various assurance models (1st, 2nd and eventually 3rd party assurance)

Exchanging and sharing within the VECO Rice Cluster and with other organisations, will allow a better understanding of the various drivers for adoption of sustainable rice practices. These pilots will also collect insights to contribute to the future revision of the Standard.

Building a business case for adoption of sustainable rice practices

The SRP Standard focuses on production and hence mainly on producers. But for consumers to access safe, healthy and sustainable rice, all chain actors must engage. So how can one internalize sustainability within the rice value chains? How to invest in inclusive business models between the various actors that engage in sustainable rice? How can each of the chain actors benefit? This is another aspect that the VECO Cluster wants to add: inclusive business relations for sustainable rice. And as such VECO wants to put the 8th SRP principle on the agenda: conduct business with integrity and transparency. Because, the SRP Standard for sustainable rice cultivation only looks at the first seven principles ...

In the nearby future, you’ll surely find a rice pack with the SRP logo or a SRP related claim. But in the mean time: whether Jasmine rice, Basmati rice or Long grain rice ... think sustainable rice!

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