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Sustainability in rice production: what it means

mundiriso sustainability in rice production

Sustainability has become a crucial concept in the context of food production, and rice is no exception. Today, we even talk about sustainable rice farming, although it is not always clear what this means. With the growing interest in environmental protection and the promotion of sustainable agricultural practices, the focus is on producing rice responsibly and in keeping with the principles of sustainability.

Sustainability in rice production means paying attention to the environment and social welfare, while also maintaining economic profitability.

To achieve this, it is crucial that strategies are adopted and agricultural practices are put in place to increase the sustainability and resilience of the rice sector.

The concept of sustainability in agricultural production

Sustainability in agricultural production is a broad concept that aims to balance the economic, environmental and social aspects of food production. In the specific context of rice production, sustainable rice farming is achieved by adopting practices and systems that reduce environmental impact, preserve natural resources, promote the well-being of farming communities and maintain long-term economic viability.

A holistic approach is therefore required, that is, one that considers the entire production cycle, from the selection of rice varieties to the management of rice fields, from the responsible use of water resources to the controlled use of fertilisers and pesticides, through to the processing and distribution of the final product.

Choosing to take a sustainable approach to rice production can create several economic benefits for farms. Although it may initially require an investment of time and resources, in the long term it can offer numerous financial benefits. In fact, the use of sustainable practices leads to savings in resources, such as water or fertilisers, which can have a significant impact on business costs. A reduction in production costs can also be observed in the long run, leading to higher profitability for companies.

From a marketing perspective, this can enable companies to access a market whose consumers are willing to spend more on high-quality products that meet certain standards. Finally, being perceived as a company that is committed to sustainability can boost corporate reputation and image.

Sustainable rice farming: managing water consumption

Rice farming requires a significant amount of water, as rice needs moist soil to grow properly.

Flooded rice fields provide an ideal environment for rice cultivation, allowing the soil to maintain a constant temperature and reducing weed competition. Although this may require a considerable amount of water, it has never actually been perceived as a waste, as rice fields act as a reservoir, returning water to aquifers, springs and rivers after the growing season has ended.

In addition, rice fields create unique habitats that support a rich biodiversity of plants and animals, contributing to the conservation of local ecosystems.

Solutions such as efficient irrigation practices and the use of rice varieties that require less water to grow can be adopted to make an agricultural system sustainable, particularly at a time when drought has negatively affected crops, even in areas that historically have never had to deal with this challenge.

Efficient irrigation practices

Although the use of flooded rice fields should not actually be considered a waste of water, certain efficient water-saving irrigation practices can reduce water consumption.

  • Controlled-flow irrigation: this consists of controlling the flow of water into the rice fields through canals and small dams. Water is administered in controlled quantities and at specific times, according to the needs of the rice plants. This reduces excessive water use and limits dispersion through evaporation.
  • Sprinkler irrigation systems: these are systems that deliver water to rice fields in a similar way to natural rainfall. It is estimated that water consumption can be reduced from 20,000 cubic metres per hectare, which is the global standard in flood irrigation, to around 7,000-8,000.
  • Drip irrigation: this method involves distributing small amounts of water directly to the roots of plants through drip irrigation systems. In addition to drastically reducing water consumption, it enables farmers to reduce their use of nutrients by about 25%. It also allows cultivation in areas not traditionally used for rice farming.
  • Soil moisture monitoring: the use of soil moisture sensors can help farmers to determine precisely when rice fields need to be irrigated.

Responsible management of fertilisers and pesticides

Managing fertiliser use plays a crucial role in ensuring sustainable rice production, in line with the Farm to Fork strategy (F2F) of the EU. F2F aims to halve the use of chemical fertilisers by 2030, promoting more sustainable and environmentally friendly agriculture.

The excessive use of chemical fertilisers can lead to groundwater contamination and a loss of biodiversity, while the indiscriminate use of pesticides can damage surrounding ecosystems and harm human health. However, there are still many disparities between different countries around the world. In Europe, fertiliser use has already been significantly reduced, especially compared to other countries where there is less enforcement. While this is an interesting measure, it risks exposing European growers to unfair competition from the rest of the world.

The European Union is striving to increase fertiliser market transparency by promoting comprehensive public data on prices, production and trade. The proposal is to establish a watchdog of fertiliser markets in the EU, which should help to monitor fertiliser use and availability, providing clear information on the dynamics of the sector.

In the medium and long term, F2F promotes the optimised use of fertilisers and the adoption of organic fertilisers as an alternative to mineral fertilisers. The aim is to reduce dependence on nonrenewable sources and to limit environmental impact. This should contribute towards reducing the use of gases for nitrogen fertiliser production and mitigating the sector’s carbon footprint.

In tandem, the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) offers financial support to farmers to optimise fertiliser use, encouraging sustainable agricultural practices.