Rice: Better ways to GROW what we love

Monique Mikhail

Blog post by Monique Mikhail

Oxfam Great Britain, Sustainable Agriculture Policy Adviser
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Rice isn’t just an essential part of many diets - it’s a well loved part of them. Research we commissioned recently revealed that rice rates in the top 3 favorite foods.

You’re probably aware that rice is eaten by many millions - in fact billions - of people every day. In fact, it’s a major source of calories for at least half of the world’s population. Rice cultivation also provides income and employment for many hundreds of thousands of people around the globe.

Well, so far so good right? We love it, we eat a lot of it and it provides incomes and employment for many of us. That’s true. But all is not well in the world of rice.

Rice farming is resource-intenstive

Rice farming requires a lot of fresh water and fossil fuels. Currently, about one-quarter to one-third of the world's yearly supply of freshwater goes into the production of rice. Our recent report Growing a Better Future highlighted that, by 2030 the demand for water is expected to have risen by 30% and already, nearly 3 billion people live in areas where demand for water has outstripped supply.

In addition to using lots of water, current forms of rice farming also generate high levels of emissions, with the heavily fertilized and continuously flooded fields releasing greenhouse gasses. The climate is already changing and we urgently need to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions in order to avoid catastrophic increases in temperatures.

So, to recap – many of us love to eat rice, many hundreds of thousands more of us rely on it for our daily food and income. Yet rice farming uses up a lot of precious and irreplaceable natural resources, and it emits a lot of greenhouses gases. It seems like we have a problem. Luckily then, there are solutions!

Sustainable Rice Intensification is one solution

Sustainable Rice Intensification (SRI) is one of the solutions. It’s a set of alternative crop management practices, developed in Madagascar in the 1980s, that increases the value of resources used to grow rice – such as water. This means that less of these resources are needed (including up to 40% less water), less emissions are produced and, at the same time results in increased yields. Fantastic!

SRI has been trialled and has proved to be successful in over 40 countries around the world. To date, the method has largely been supported by national and international civil society groups. Recently some governments have formally supported the method, and the World Bank is now assisting farmers in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu to apply it to over 600,000 hectares of rice land.

Oxfam continue to work with communities in East and South Asia, and around the world to develop and apply this and other solutions – and to increase government and policy maker awareness and understanding of these methods so we can see them adopted more widely. The solutions are out there, we just need the will and the wherewithal to make them happen.  What are other ways that we can GROW a better future for food life and planet?

For more information on the problems with traditional rice cultivation methods and SRI, check out the report More Rice for People More Water for the Planet, a joint report by Oxfam America, WWF and Africare