World’s first global standard for sustainable rice launched in PH

Pia Ranada
The Sustainable Rice Platform Standard aims to promote farmer-friendly, pro-environment, and pro-consumer rice through a scoring system with 46 requirements

ESSENTIAL GRAIN. More than half of humanity depends on rice for 20% or more of their calorie intake

MANILA, Philippines – The world’s first global standard for sustainable rice was launched on Tuesday, October 27 by a group of scientists, companies, and government officials convened by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP).

Called the Sustainable Rice Platform Standard and Performance Indicators for Sustainable Rice Cultivation, the document is a list of requirements to ensure rice is produced in ways that are good for the environment, profitable to farmers, and healthy for consumers.

The Standard will be downloadable from the website of the Sustainable Rice Platform (SRP), a multi-stakeholder group composed of agri-based companies, scientific institutions and governments all committed to changing the way rice is cultivated.

“The establishment of the standard addresses a long-neglected need for a globally critical crop and the standard represents a fundamental building block for developing the application of sustainability and informing policy formulation,” said UNEP Asia-Pacific Regional Director Isabelle Louis during the launch.

Rice-producing companies or countries hoping to follow the Standard will have to fulfill 46 requirements in 8 aspects of rice cultivation:

  • Farm management
  • Pre-planting
  • Water use
  • Nutrient management
  • Pest management
  • Harvest and postharvest
  • Health and safety
  • Labor rights

Scoring system

One of the major goals of the SRP Standard is to lessen the amount of methane emitted by rice cultivation. Methane is a greenhouse gas that is a major contributor to global warming.

Through sustainable forms of irrigation like Alternative Wetting and Drying, methane emissions can be reduced by between 30 to 70%. 

The Standard uses a scoring system in which those who wish to adopt it can do so step by step until full compliance to the Standard.

For instance, achieving a score of 10 to 90 means the farmer or food company is “working towards sustainable rice cultivation.” Once they get scores between 90 to 100, they can be said to be “sustainably cultivating rice” based on the SRP Standard.

No other global standard for rice covers various aspects of sustainability as this Standard, said SRP Chair James Lomax.

Another thing that sets the Standard apart from others is that it’s “impact-based, there are indicators alongside the standards,” he added. 

This makes it easier for consumers and even the farmer or company itself to verify if they are indeed up to par.  

The group took pains to ensure it is adapted to needs of farmers and other agricultural workers.

“It’s handy, it can be taken to the field and it goes straight to the detail,” said Lomax, explaining how the group did not want the Standard “to gather dust” like much longer, bulkier food standards in the past. 

The 46 requirements of the Standard are relatively fewer than other standards, including the Rainforest Alliance standard with around 100 benchmarks.

‘Call to arms’

The SRP began developing the Standard in 2011. They are now in the piloting and implementation stage, in which they have partnered with food companies and governments to test the standards and find ways for it to be implemented on a large-scale.

For instance, they are still discussing whether they will need to establish a labelling mechanism similar to Fair Trade and Organic Certification to allow consumers to easily identify which rice products are sustainable.

They are also in talks with government on how the SRP Standard can be used in national policies. For instance, governments might be able to promote the Standard to their country’s farmers through extension services. 

The SRP aims to scale up and roll out the Standard by 2017 after all the testing. 

But its launch on Tuesday serves as “a call to arms for other rice stakeholders to get on board and help us with this,” said Lomax.

Major food and agricultural companies have already committed to testing the Standard including Kellog’s, Mars Foods, Louis Dreyfus Commodities, Ahold B.V., and Syngenta.

Mars Foods, maker of major rice brand Uncle Ben’s, is gunning for 100% sustainably sourcing its rice by 2020.

“With this Standard, we can get there. We are mapping out all our supply chains, auditing, and finding out where are the gaps,” sad Kristin Hughes, global corporate affairs director of Mars Foods.

Rice is a food staple to more than half of the human population. The number of humans on the planet by 2050 means that by that year, the world will have to grow 50% more rice than today. (READ: World’s next ‘miracle’ rice could be grown in PH)

Given the limited land area on the planet, humanity faces the challenge of increasing the productivity of existing rice fields. 

This challenge conflicts with another responsibility humanity bears: to reduce its ecological footprint and keep global warming under safe levels. – Rappler.com

Brown rice photo from Shutterstock

Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada is a senior reporter for Rappler covering Philippine politics and environmental issues. For tips and story suggestions, email her at pia.ranada@rappler.com.