Can rice be produced sustainably?

By Bethan Grylls

- Last updated on GMT

Harvesting rice by hand, Haryana, India. Credit: Nice Rice
Harvesting rice by hand, Haryana, India. Credit: Nice Rice

Related tags Sustainability Rice Greenhouse gas Agriculture farming

With rice’s shocking sustainability record, Nice Rice founder Fergus O’Sullivan leads the charge in developing a more environmentally friendly product with a lesser-known farming practice at its heart.

Sustainable farming brand, Nice Rice, has seen its UK debut with the brand securing a national listing in Waitrose last week.

Conventional rice farming methods are a big contributor to climate change, with the commodity a leading driver for biodiversity loss in wetlands and a very water-hungry process – it’s estimated to use one-third of the world’s freshwater.

Rice is a big problem because its production creates methane, a far more potent greenhouse gas (GHG) than carbon dioxide. Methane from rice is estimated to make up 12% of global methane emissions and contribute 1.5% to total GHG emissions around the world.  

Why is conventional rice production unsustainable?

For every ton of rice harvested, a ton of rice stubble and straw is typically left behind. Conventional practice is to burn these leftovers or flood the fields to encourage decay and make way for the new crops. Unfortunately, both tactics result in GHGs.

Could we just stop eating rice?

However, rice is also a staple for many people’s diets and livelihoods, with more than 3.5bn people consuming rice and almost 60% of people experiencing hunger relying on it for food and income.

Previously working as an investment director, Nice Rice founder, Fergus O’Sullivan, was inspired to create a consumer brand that could make a positive impact to the environmental crisis. He had read about the issues with conventional rice farming and was shocked that a lesser known, more sustainable farming method had not been more widely employed.  

“Conventional rice farming has a shocking sustainability problem that no one is talking about, while the rice market itself is dominated by uninspiring brands and products in desperate need of innovation. Our goal is to inspire people to be part of a positive change for the planet, by connecting pioneering farmers with people looking for more sustainable ways to enjoy their food,”​ said O’Sullivan.

Can rice be sustainably grown?

The method of rice cultivation has been endorsed by the UN and IPCC for being significantly more sustainable and as such, Nice Rice exclusively sources its rice from a farmer group that follows this process.  

One of the main practices of the sustainable farming method is called ‘alternate wetting and drying’ (AWD). Under AWD, farmers allow their paddy fields to dry out during the growing season rather than keeping them permanently flooded. This aerates the soil, disrupting the methane-emitting bacteria that thrive in anaerobic conditions.

Nice Rice full product range - credit Nice Rice
Nice Rice full product range. Credit: Nice Rice

Using this method, the brand achieved a 49% reduction in CO2​-equivalent emissions per tonne of rice compared to the national average, a saving of 1.23kg CO2​-eq per kilo of rice. This method also reduced the water used for irrigation by 3,300 litres per kilo of rice while improving the farmers’ yield by 10%.

The sustainable farming method can trace its roots back to the ‘system of rice intensification’ (SRI) which is believed to have originated in Madagascar in the 1980s, developed by the late Jesuit priest Henri de Laulanié. Since then, the methods have been validated in hundreds of scientific papers.

According to Nice Rice, it is the only UK brand (and one of very few in world) currently promoting it.

Six Nice Rice products

The brand has launched with six products. Alongside white and wholegrain Basmati, the range includes contemporary cooked rice recipes, such as ‘Chipotle’ and ‘Provençal Herb’ that were developed with Fiona Cramp, former director of production & innovation at Daylesford and consultant food developer at Waitrose.

Commenting on the roll-out into 259 Waitrose stores, Tom Shiel, Waitrose buyer said: “We're delighted to be the first major supermarket in the UK to be listing Nice Rice. Having recently launched our plan to protect and restore nature and biodiversity across our supply chains, it makes absolute sense to support a brand that is putting its mission at the heart of everything it does. Like Nice Rice, as a purpose driven business we too aspire to create positive change across the food and farming system to build a more sustainable future for generations to come, and we applaud the innovative work they are doing.”

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