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European Market: Lessons Drawn From Sustainable Rice

Nic Jooste
Nic Jooste

When I first met Jim Prevor, I was already long impressed with his acuity in commenting on the state of the industry and in guiding it to a more prosperous future. I asked Jim how he managed to be so consistently innovative and insightful in his writings. He pointed out to me that he had always engaged in reading, discussion and events beyond produce. That led him to launch magazines such as Deli Business and Cheese Connoisseur and run online portals for other food items, such as seafood, meat and dairy. He pointed out that many in the produce industry limit themselves to a continuous feedback loop of only attending produce industry events, reading only produce publications, etc.

Recently I got involved with an aspect of the rice industry, and I find it fascinating. Remembering Jim’s admonition to learn broadly, I want to share some of what I’ve learned.

Ten years ago, the Sustainable Rice Platform (SRP) was set up by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit GmbH (GIZ). Since then, this multi-stakeholder alliance with over 100 institutional members from public, private, research, civil society and the financial sector is showing the world that even in the remotest regions, sustainability can work! I passionately believe that for the fresh produce industry, there are lessons to be drawn from this success story.

SRP launched the world’s first voluntary sustainability standard for rice in 2015 to promote wide-scale adoption of climate-smart, sustainable best practice in rice production. Since its launch, the SRP Standard for Sustainable Rice Cultivation has been implemented in over 20 countries. It currently reaches more than half a million smallholder growers in countries such as Myanmar, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, India and Pakistan. The target of 1 million SRP-accredited farmers by 2023 is in close reach. At farm level, ongoing analysis shows real benefits to rice farmers and the environment, such as: 20% savings in water; 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions; and 10% increase in farmer’s incomes.

How did they achieve so much in such a short period of time? I believe the key to their outstanding achievement is the fact that SRP was able to set up collaboration with many partners in a ‘giving’ environment. There was no room for ego. SRP focused on the task at hand, which was based on an urgent need to transform the global rice sector. Smallholder livelihoods had to be improved, the social, environmental and climate footprint of rice production had to be reduced; and the global rice market had to be be guaranteed an assured supply of sustainably produced rice. Drawing from the famous words of Nike: they just did it!

Rice is integral to global food systems. With 3.5 billion people consuming rice frequently, it is one of the world’s largest staple foods. The numbers are staggering. Globally, 1.5 billion people depend on rice as their main source of employment and income, including over 140 million smallholder farmers and their families. Tragically, some 90 percent of them live near the poverty line, many of them women. As the population grows, so does the demand for rice. It is expected that in the coming five years, the demand for rice will increase by at least 25%. This poses an enormous challenge in a world with finite resources, as the rice industry is one of the most vulnerable to the social, environmental, and economic risks of climate change.

Drawing from this, right from the outset the SRP set clear goals:

  • Safeguard the employment and income of over 1.5 billion people active in the rice industry.
  • Improve the income and livelihood of over 140 million smallholder rice farmers and families.
  • Mitigate the environmental, climate and emission impact of rice production.
  • Protect and preserve water resources and the biodiversity of natural wetlands.
  • Increase food security to meet the growing global demand.

SRP then created a sustainability management system that links rice growers to global markets, with a view to enable rice producers to manage their production in a sustainable manner and improve their incomes. The SRP’s Assurance Scheme includes farmer registration in a central SRP database as well as self-assessment and verification of growers through internal control systems. Where third-party verification and an established Chain of Custody are in place, retailers may use the SRP logo on product packaging to signify compliance to consumers.

In a world that often suffers from ‘analysis paralysis’, the SRP opted for a compact system that is understandable, and designed to create real farm-level impact, with measurable performance indicators to substantiate benefits. Equally important, the SRP did not shy away from powerfully communicating its value in sustainable procurement to supply chain actors in terms of de-risking supply chains. I just love the bold way in which the SRP talks about itself:

‘The Sustainable Rice Platform articulates a new standard in rice. We enable the rice sector to deliver healthy, high-quality, nutritious rice to consumers. We help growers achieve better lives and commit ourselves to protecting the environment. We support retailers and other market actors to make significant and measurable contributions to corporate sustainability commitments, the UN Sustainability Development Goals, and the climate change targets of the Paris Agreement’.

If rice were fresh produce, we would now be rocking the world!

Originally printed in the July 2021 issue of Produce Business.

Nic Jooste, owner of NJ Immersed, is a fresh produce marketing and CSR specialist based in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.



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