Is Rice Sustainable? Why It’s Challenging (+3 Alternatives)

Savanna Stanfield

Rice is a staple food that is widely consumed by many cultures all over the world.

Look at the menu of any restaurant and you’re sure to see several dish options that contain rice, regardless of the type of cuisine that is served.

With so many different varieties of rice and it being a widely imported and exported crop, it leads us to question the sustainability of it.

But the question of whether or not rice is sustainable doesn’t have a straightforward answer. It mostly depends on where the rice is grown.

In this article, we’ll look at some of the ways that rice is grown throughout the world in order to determine the sustainability of it. We’ll also learn how to recognize sustainable rice.

Is Rice Grown Sustainably?

The answer to this question is definitely not a straightforward one.

Rice is a major export for many countries, but 5 of these countries stand out as being the top exporters of rice.

India is atop the list of the most rice exported annually, exporting over 15,000 tons in 2020/2021.

The other four top rice-exporting countries include Vietnam, Thailand, Pakistan, and the United States.

China, Burma, and Cambodia also exported over 1,000 tons of rice in 2020/2021. 

But what you’ll notice about most of the top rice-exporting countries is that most of them (with the exception of the United States) are considered to be developing countries.

Even China, with its high economic growth, is still considered to be a developing country under the criteria used to determine developed versus developing countries.

We’ve said all this to say that developing countries may not have the means to grow rice in a sustainable way, because it can be a very expensive process.

Growing crops sustainably requires knowledge and access to technology, research, and ways to conserve resources. 

Some rice growers in developing countries may not be able to afford the resources they need to grow rice sustainably.

On the other hand, the United States is taking steps to ensure the sustainability of rice production. They are doing this by increasing land efficiency, lowering water and energy use, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions and soil loss.

But the U.S. is considered to be a developed country, so they have more access to the research and knowledge needed to grow rice sustainably.

Basically, whether or not rice is grown sustainability depends on where and how it’s grown.

Is Rice Eco-Friendly?

This is a tricky question to answer, because again, it just depends on where it’s grown.

In general, growing rice uses a lot of land and water. Water is a renewable resource, but land could be considered to be either renewable or non-renewable depending on how it is utilized.

For example, if rice growers use the same land year after year to grow their rice, then it is more eco-friendly than growers that rotate land every year. Rotating land means that the chances of damaging soil resources is greater.

Growing rice can also create soil erosion and loss of soil nutrients. The equipment used for sowing, harvesting, and processing rice also creates a lot of energy use and greenhouse gas emissions.

Rice cultivation also produces lots of methane gas – a greenhouse gas 30 times for powerful than CO2.

This is where it is so important that rice is grown sustainably. Eco-friendliness and sustainability go hand-in-hand, so the more sustainable growing rice is, the more eco-friendly it is as well.

When growers can figure out how to lower their soil, water, and land usage as well as reduce energy and greenhouse gas emissions, growing rice will be more eco-friendly.

It all boils down to how wisely and efficiently you use resources. Again, the advantage here goes to growers in developed countries because they have more knowledge and ability to do this.

But that’s not to say that developing countries aren’t making an effort to grow rice in an eco-friendly and sustainable way.

It just means that it is more difficult and may take longer for growers in places like India, Vietnam, and Thailand to succeed in sustainability.

As with many things, where sustainability and eco-friendliness are concerned, there are always challenges that have to be overcome in order to be successful

Is Rice Organic?

To be organic, a crop has to be grown without the use of harmful chemicals such as insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides.

However, most crops are susceptible to diseases and damage from insects, rice included.

Some of the diseases that affect rice include stem rot, sheath blight, and leaf smut. Most diseases have to be treated with a fungicide or other chemicals.

If some diseases aren’t treated, it can cause the whole crop to be lost. 

But, these chemicals can cause harm to humans, animals, and the environment so the demand for organic rice is growing higher.

In short, there are some types of organic rice out there, but not all rice is grown organically.

Growing any kind of crop organically involves time and money for resources and technology which a lot of growers still don’t have access to.

Are There More Sustainable Rice Cultivation Methods?

Rice is one of the most water-intensive crops, using one-third of the world’s freshwater just to cultivate.

Flooded rice fields create the perfect home for microbes that release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Therefore, one of the keys to making rice cultivation more sustainable is lowering the amount of water that is used to grow it.

This is easier said than done, however, since rice is such an important food source for billions of people.

Rice cultivation needs to be sustainable, yet still produce enough to feed all of the people that depend on it.

Some methods of conserving water have proven to be ineffective at being both sustainable and producing a high crop yield.

A professor at Arizona State University in the United States has started trying to come up with a solution to this problem in the form of a solar-powered drip irrigation system

Instead of flooding the rice fields with water and promoting microbe growth, the irrigation system drips water directly into the roots of the rice plants. 

This method could both reduce water consumption and increase yield.

There are plans to start using the irrigation system on a small scale and gradually move it to a larger scale if it proves to be effective.

Another sustainable rice cultivation method is known as conservation tillage

Conservation tillage helps to minimize soil erosion and also decreases greenhouse gas emissions by cutting down on the use of machinery.

Basically, conservation tillage leaves at least 30% of the soil covered with crop residue after tilling. This reduces both wind and water erosion and helps maintain nutrients in the soil.

So as you can see, there are ways that rice cultivation can be done more sustainably. But, those methods will vary by grower and location.

Are Some Types Of Rice More Sustainable Than Others?

Some types of rice are more sustainable than others, but with so many different varieties, being sustainable mostly depends on where and how the rice is grown.

But in general, brown rice tends to be more sustainable than white rice. 

This is because brown rice is a whole-grain rice and still contains all essential nutrients after being harvested. 

On the other hand, white rice undergoes processing which removes some of its nutrients. More processing means more energy use which equals less sustainability.

In addition to being more sustainable, brown rice is also better for your health.

Another more sustainable type of rice is organic rice because it is grown without the use of harmful chemicals.

But again, whether or not rice is organic depends on the grower.

How Can I Recognize Sustainable Rice?

The Ethical Consumer has put together this guide to help consumers know what to look for and what to avoid when buying rice.

The guide even includes some specific brands of rice and their sustainability rating so that consumers can be aware ahead of time which companies are trying to promote sustainability.

Of course, the list doesn’t include every brand of rice out there. 

That’s why the Sustainable Rice Platform, an organization that is seeking to increase the sustainability of rice production, has launched a product label in partnership with the UN Environment Programme. 

This label will be placed on certain rice products to help consumers recognize rice that was grown and produced sustainably.

3 Sustainable Alternatives To Rice

1. Organic Rice

Rice that was grown organically will be labeled as such, so making the switch is a step in the right direction as far as sustainability is concerned.

In addition, rice that was grown without pesticides is better for your health.

2. Whole Grain Rice

Whole grain rice, such as brown rice, undergoes less processing than white rice does. This cuts down on energy use and greenhouse gas emissions.

And like organic rice, whole grain rice is better for you than white rice because it contains more nutrients.

3. Other Whole Grains

There are many other whole grain foods that you can substitute for rice, some of which are grown more sustainably.

Millet, quinoa, and sorghum are just a few of the many sustainable whole grain foods that can be eaten as an alternative to rice.

Conclusion 

Rice can be difficult to grow sustainably

One reason is because it is so water intensive, but another reason is due to it being grown in many developing countries.

New cultivation methods are arising that can help make growing rice more sustainable.

But rice growers have to find ways to utilize these methods in order to produce rice that is sustainable but still produces enough to feed billions of people.

Fortunately, the environmental impacts of growing rice are becoming more widely known, so hopefully there will be changes forthcoming that make rice more sustainable.

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