Why does rice have a large climate footprint, and what can we do about it?
We sat down with Fergus O’Sullivan, founder of Nice Rice, which is working with farmers in India to bring sustainable rice products to our supermarkets.
What’s the climate impact of your diet? It’s a question that is increasingly front of mind for climate-conscious consumers. If you are one of them, you may be aware that beef has the largest impact of any food item in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. But what you probably don’t know is that number two on the list is an extremely common foodstuff, one that is a staple for more than 3.5 billion people: rice.
To understand the impact of rice farming and what we can do about it, we sat down with Fergus O’Sullivan, founder of Nice Rice, a UK brand that is working with farmers in India to bring sustainably farmed rice products to supermarket shelves. The startup’s goal is to generate demand for sustainable rice by raising consumer awareness, while incentivising farmers to commit to sustainable practices.
A discussion with Fergus O’Sullivan
Most of the discussion of how our food choices impact the climate revolves around meat, with political controversies around ‘meat taxes’ and hard-hitting popular documentaries like Cowspiracy. Meanwhile, away from the limelight, rice production is responsible for 1.3 to 1.8 per cent of global man-made greenhouse gas emissions, and around 10 per cent of all the emissions from agriculture.
Rice’s climate footprint is a particularly complex problem given its importance to the diet of billions of people around the world. As Fergus puts it: “It’s grown and eaten in every part of the world, every continent except Antarctica, so it’s a properly global food with this huge emissions issue.”
So why is rice such a climate culprit? According to Fergus, it’s not so much the rice plant itself but the way that it’s grown. “In conventional rice farming, the fields are kept in a flooded state throughout the growing season, and the reason for that, primarily, is actually about weed control. Rice plants are happy growing in water, but weeds generally aren’t.” This creates a very specific problem: methane – a greenhouse gas with 28 times greater global warming potential than CO2 over a 100-year period.
Because rice fields are flooded, the soil is ‘anaerobic,’ meaning that it contains no oxygen, which cannot penetrate the layer of water. This lack of oxygen, combined with the presence of organic matter, creates the perfect petri dish for a type of microbe called a methanogen, which produces methane. “If you sat on the side of the field and watched very carefully, you’d see bubbles come up to the surface of the water, and that’s methane coming out of the soil,” Fergus explains. In total, it’s estimated that rice cultivation is responsible for 10 per cent of the world’s methane emissions and up to a third of the emissions from Southeast Asia.
Flooding rice fields also requires vast quantities of water. According to Fergus: “Conventional rice farms will use about 5,000 litres of water to produce one kilogramme of rice. If you think about one kilo of rice sitting on a supermarket shelf, and then imagine 5,000 Evian bottles lined up in front of it, that’s a pretty extraordinary statistic.”
Setting the standard for ‘nice’ rice
Thankfully for rice lovers, there are some simple farming practices that can dramatically reduce rice’s impact, and Nice Rice works with a group of farmers in Haryana State, India, who are implementing them.
“There’s a standard that they follow that’s quite prescriptive with over 40 different requirements. And that standard is built on science ultimately, and the experience of different farmers around the world who have been experimenting with this for the last 40 years,” explains Fergus.
There are many different elements of the standard – which is called the Sustainable Rice Platform Standard for Sustainable Rice Cultivation (SRP) – but one of the most important environmental aspects is a practice called alternate wetting and drying, or ‘AWD’. To Fergus: “What that means is what it says on the tin. The farmers let the fields dry out during the growing season. And by letting them dry out, oxygen can get to the soil, disrupting the methanogens, which can’t survive in that environment.”
When the fields are re-flooded later, it takes time for the methane-producing microbes to build back up. According to Fergus, this means that you get a “disproportionate benefit in terms of methane reduction just by doing a dry down event.” These drying cycles take place once or, ideally, twice during the growing season, and they have the additional benefit of reducing water consumption significantly.
Chemical use is another key concern of the SRP.
“Particularly in India and the other big rice-growing parts of the world, there has been a real explosion in the use of chemicals in farming since the 70s and 80s, often in a fairly unregulated and loose way,” Fergus explains. “That has unsurprisingly led to reductions in soil health and declining yields.”
As a result, the farmers Nice Rice works with are focusing on reducing their chemical use and avoiding some specific chemicals altogether. In Fergus’s words: “It’s weaning farmers off some of the practices that have become very widely adopted in the last 20 years, which are quite harmful.”
And beyond chemicals, a final important environmental practice adopted by the Nice Rice farmers is the avoidance of stubble burning – a common practice where farmers quickly clear fields for winter crops by burning the bottom part of the rice plant that is left over after harvesting.
The problem with stubble burning is that it releases CO2 while also contributing to air pollution, which is a significant issue in northern India. “I saw it when I was out there. The air quality is appalling and then at night you understand why – there are fires in the fields stretching into the distance.” Because of this, the SRP places a veto on burning, with farmers instead picking the stubble for animal feed or anaerobic digestion or returning it to the soil.
A key question arises when discussing sustainable rice farming. If practices like field flooding and stubble burning are so convenient for farmers, does avoiding them eat into profit margins? According to Fergus, this is not the case: “Funnily enough the costs to the farmer of following this method are typically lower than conventional farming.”
The SRP is based on practices that were initially developed by Madagascan farmers working with a French Jesuit missionary to improve crop yields. Counterintuitively, these practices involve putting less seed in the ground, which means that the plants are more spaced out, with each one having better access to light, water, and nutrients. As a result, the plants grow bigger and stronger and produce more heads of grain. Because of this, farmers have more rice to sell, while their seed and chemical costs are lower. These aspects of the standard more than offset any changes in labour costs from additional weeding or stubble clearing.
So why aren’t more farmers adopting sustainable practices? Fergus argues it’s because the sustainable practices aren’t well-known and there isn’t enough of a market for sustainably farmed rice. This is why Nice Rice’s mission is so important: “As a brand, we’re trying to raise consumer awareness of this whole issue and build demand for sustainably farmed rice. I believe consumer demand can be a tipping point for change at a much bigger scale.” Until then, Fergus explains that: “Right now there isn’t a market for sustainably farmed rice so we’re paying a voluntary premium to farmers to encourage them to commit to this long term.”
As we have seen, rice often flies under the climate radar, which begs the question as to why Fergus chose to tackle the issue. “I have no connection at all to rice farming,” he told us. “I’d love to say my uncle’s a rice farmer, but he’s not. I read about it in a book called Drawdown edited by Paul Hawken. I was a bit horrified that a food that I eat a lot has this huge footprint that I had no idea about. And after a bit of googling, I was disappointed to see that none of the brands I grew up with were doing what I would regard as anything like enough to support this more sustainable approach. So I decided I’d try and do something about it.”
So far, Fergus’ gamble is paying off, with Nice Rice picked up by UK supermarket Waitrose. Consumers who make the switch could have a significant positive impact every time they buy a bag: Nice Rice estimates that its products offer a saving of 1.23 kilogrammes of CO2 equivalent per kilo of rice compared to conventional alternatives. That is nice.
Nice Rice products can be purchased online and are stocked by Waitrose supermarkets across the United Kingdom.
Words: Matthew Hempstead
4th December 2023