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New rice standard brings hope to smallholder farmers

Like most small farmers in Cambodia, Rong Hom, a 44-year-old from the village of Skol in the southwest, faces growing threats from drought and rising fertilizer prices. She doesn’t know how long her 1.5 hectare rice paddy can insulate her family from poverty.

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However, the world’s first sustainability standard for rice, launched in October 2015, gives her hope...

However, the world’s first sustainability standard for rice, launched in October 2015, gives her hope. Rong, like many of her smallholder peers in Cambodia’s Takeo and Pursat provinces, believes that implementing a globally accepted standard, as she is set to do, can lead to higher prices, stronger markets and ultimately better food security for her and her family.

The 46 criteria of the Standard for Sustainable Rice Cultivation aim to ensure that rice meets quality requirements and its cultivation benefits the environment, the economy and society at large. The standard can also be used to measure the sustainability of rice production systems and as a policy tool to promote wide adoption of sustainable rice farming.

The standard was developed by the Sustainable Rice Platform (SRP), a global alliance convened by UNEP and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) that comprises 32 rice research institutions, supply chain actors, and public sector and civil society organizations.

Global agribusiness giant Mars Food, one of several food industry leaders to have joined the SRP, has already promised to sustainably source 100% of its rice by 2020 through the standard.

“The benefit for us is that is that we are ensuring premium quality rice, whilst also ensuring benefits for farmers, and a better environment for current and future generations,” said Fiona Dawson, president of Mars.

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Rice, the daily staple for 3.5 billion people, sustains the livelihoods of more than 140 million smallholder farmers and is grown on over 160 million hectares globally, an area larger than Mongolia...

Rice, the daily staple for 3.5 billion people, sustains the livelihoods of more than 140 million smallholder farmers and is grown on over 160 million hectares globally, an area larger than Mongolia. It plays a critical role in food security; therefore, finding a way to produce smarter is of major importance to the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Currently, the crop uses more than 30% of the world’s irrigation water and is responsible for 5-10% of emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas. Intensive and inefficient use of agrochemicals adds to farmer costs and undermines the long-term sustainability of rice farming.

The SRP Standard comes with tools and trainings for farmers. For instance, farmers such as Rong will be trained on how to minimize their use of inorganic fertilizers, saving them money and reducing their greenhouse gas emissions, thus contributing to the global fight against climate change. Farmers will also be taught how to keep their paddies free from invasive species, and how to introduce fallow periods to help maintain their land’s fertility.

Rice Partners Ltd, a venture-backed business in Pakistan that works with rural smallholder rice farmers, is already using the standard and has high hopes for significant impact.

“The standard indicators are incredibly helpful in designing and implementing sustainable rice supply chains worldwide. They have the potential to directly impact the world’s poorest farming communities,” said Aamer A. Sarfraz, the company’s founder. “We now have a framework against which we can measure our goals of increasing farmer livelihoods, protecting the environment, improving water efficiency and strengthening women workers.”