Sustainable businesses, sustainable lifestyle, sustainable choices, sustainable food, sustainable development … In recent years, the term “sustainability” has gained widespread popularity. It has become the rallying cry for numerous companies and organisations, drawing in customers and supporters by claiming to champion a more sustainable future. As consumers, we should question the type of sustainability we are supporting with our choices. Likewise, as organisations, we bear responsibility for the brand of sustainability we endorse.
With climate change ranking among the most urgent global challenges, it’s no surprise that we often associate sustainability with environmental benefits. However, it’s crucial to recognise that the term extends beyond the environment. It encompasses economic and social dimensions as well. To enhance the sustainability of rice food systems, Rikolto has embraced the Sustainable Rice Platform standard, which encompasses three dimensions:
In its broadest sense, sustainability pertains to the ability to maintain or support a process continuously over time. To this end, these three aspects need to be taken into account.
The Sustainable Rice Platform (SRP) is a global multi‐stakeholder alliance comprising over 100 institutional members from the public, private, research, civil society and financial sectors. Drawing on the experience of other agrifood sustainability initiatives and developed over two years with broad stakeholder participation, the “SRP standard” was launched in 2015. A framework of 12 performance indicators (PIs) is used to measure the economic, social and environmental outcomes of farmers applying the practices prescribed by the standard. The framework covers farm productivity, profitability, GHG emissions and biodiversity, health and safety and women’s empowerment. It provides a quantifiable way of measuring outcomes and enables benchmarking and objective comparisons of the sustainability of any rice system.
In 2022 I became a member of the board of directors of the Sustainable Rice Platform. Rikolto has been a member of the advisory board since 2015, and over the last five years it has implemented the SRP standard in nine different countries and collected evidence for introducing sustainability measures as promoted in the SRP standard to rice stakeholders.
The SRP standard – 41 criteria and 12 performance indicators – is a performance standard, not a pass-fail standard. By using a scoring system, it allows progressive compliance so progress in farming practices can be encouraged and rewarded. On a scale of 0 to 100, a farmer who scores at least 90 points and meets all essential performance levels is considered to be producing “sustainably grown rice”. However, changing traditional farming practices is not a quick process and farmers often cannot reach the 90+ level in a single growing season. They are encouraged to increase their score step by step so that they fall within the range of 33 to 90 in the “working towards sustainable rice production” category.
In 2017, Rikolto conducted a baseline survey in eight countries to assess the sustainability of 11 farmer organisations’ farming practices. In 2018, 1760 farmers participated in the implementation of the first SRP pilots, supported by Rikolto, to experiment with more sustainable techniques. Since 2019, we have conducted baseline assessments with more than 10,000 farmers, many of which were new. The results of the assessments were shared with the farmers’ cooperatives so that areas for improvement could be defined jointly and a training plan could be set up. Most of the pilots have been completed recently or are still ongoing. In some countries we moved to new areas. In the table below, we review some of the earlier results together with the results of the most recent pilots:
* Due to a server problem, data from the evaluation of the pilot conducted in 2021 was lost. The data has been re-collected, but only for a sample of 49 farmers, which we have estimated as being representative of the farmer organisation as a whole.
** Latest survey analysis is still ongoing
*** In both Uganda and Tanzania, we started working in new areas in 2022, where we have collected baseline data.
To effectively monitor and evaluate the outcomes, we rely not only on the overall score but also on the SRP performance indicators. They have been defined on the basis of their applicability to different rice farming systems to simplify data collection and to cover key sustainability topics relevant to the rice sector.
To present these indicators, we will provide some insight into the practices and initiatives Rikolto implements to enhance them. A common thread across these initiatives is the organisation of thematic training. But what types of training should be used? To reach as many farmers as possible, we provide training for farmer representatives and extension workers from service providers, government and private actors so that they can become trainers themselves. They then deliver the training to farmers and share the learning within their own organisations. In the field, our Farmer Field Schools (FFS) employ a hands-on “learning by doing” approach. FFS groups work together on a common field divided into plots, where they experiment with different farming methods throughout a growing season. It’s not just a place for testing and comparing but also somewhere to share experience, find solutions and make collective decisions.
The livelihood of a farmer is deeply intertwined with three key performance indicators: profitability (net income), labour productivity and grain yield. These indicators directly impact farmers’ capacity to provide for their households, access essential services like healthcare and education and invest in their farms for future growth. To elevate these indicators, we promote resource-efficient practices that lower production costs while increasing yields. At the production level, our flagship approach is the system of rice intensification (SRI). SRI emphasises organic manure usage and rational plant, soil, water and nutrient management. This technique maximises crop potential with minimal inputs (little seed, water and fertiliser, but in high quality), reducing reliance on inorganic fertilisers and making farming economically viable. Additionally, training in compost and bio-pesticide production further alleviates production costs.
Our support extends beyond production, as we work closely with farmers to help them organise into cooperatives and enhance their professionalism. By establishing internal management systems and developing business and organisational skills, farmers can become reliable business partners. This transformation facilitates their access to markets, where quality products and increased market share translate into higher incomes for farmers.
While SRI exemplifies our goal of achieving more with fewer resources, other techniques complement it by enhancing critical resource efficiency, particularly with regard to water and nutrients.
The smart-valley approach, developed by AfricaRice, offers a cost-effective, participatory and sustainable method for developing inland valleys in rice-based farming systems. These schemes mitigate drought and flood risks, improve water retention and reduce fertiliser loss. When combined with alternate wetting and drying (AWD), which reduces water consumption by alternately flooding fields and allowing them to dry, water resource management is optimised.
Another notable climate-smart solution is the urea deep placement (UDP) technique, which addresses the inefficiencies of conventional urea application practices. UDP transforms urea into compact “briquettes” that are placed deep in the soil, reducing losses and optimising nutrient utilisation to approximately 50%.
Another critical area of focus is biodiversity monitoring. Integrated soil fertility management (ISFM) encompasses practices such as returning crop residues and applying manure and compost or other types of organic waste. Organic soil matter offers numerous benefits, including enhanced water-retention and filtration capacity, improved soil structure, increased cation exchange capacity and the nurturing of beneficial soil microbes vital for both soil and plant health1. ISFM also promotes rotating or intercropping with legumes as we experienced in South-East Asia. In Indonesia rice was grown with mung beans and in Vietnam we have piloted rice-fish farming. By combining organic and mineral fertilisers, ISFM ensures the efficient utilisation of applied nutrients and boosts crop yields. Farmers have reported significant reductions in chemical fertiliser and pesticide usage as a result of these initiatives. Biodiversity, as measured by the sightings of beneficial insects, has increased significantly in the areas where farmers have adopted these practices – by 9% in Benin, 15% in Vietnam and 28% in Indonesia.
Greenhouse gas emissions from rice production primarily stem from two sources: methane emissions originating from flooded rice paddies and emissions associated with the cultivation process. The cultivation-related emissions result from various factors, including the breakdown of synthetic fertilisers releasing nitrous oxide into the atmosphere, the clearing of ecosystems for rice paddies and the use of fossil-fuel-powered machinery and equipment, such as tractors and irrigation systems.
Alternate wetting and drying (AWD) allow fields to dry for several days before being irrigated again without stressing the plants. This significantly reduces the amount of water needed for irrigation and reduces greenhouse gas emissions. We also encourage farmers to move away from the traditional practice of burning rice stubble and straw. Instead, they should leave the stubble on the fields as fertiliser or use it as livestock feed, mulch and biochar, helping to reduce black carbon and emissions. In Iringa, Tanzania, Rikolto and Kilimo Trust have trained more than 11,000 farmers in a climate-smart agriculture project (2019–2021) funded by Enabel. As a result, farmers have reduced straw burning by 20%, increased soil micro-organisms by 56% and reduced methane emissions by 56%. Farmer partners in Vietnam reduced their greenhouse gas emissions by 10% and in Benin by 36%.
Ensuring product safety throughout the production cycle is paramount. We meticulously evaluate various risks, including heavy metals, pesticide residues and mycotoxins. However, food safety isn’t solely about water quality and pesticide reduction; it extends to harvest and post-harvest practices. To optimise grain quality, rice must be harvested at the right time and with clean equipment to prevent contamination. During the drying process, careful attention is paid to keeping the grain’s moisture content low. Storage conditions are also important in maintaining rice quality, preventing contamination, moisture, re-wetting and dirt.
Partnerships with research institutes and universities facilitate microchemical and safety analysis of the product, ensuring it meets the highest safety standards. Our ultimate goal is to bring to market a product that consumers can trust implicitly, meeting their quality expectations but also safeguarding their health and well-being.
Worker health and safety, child labour and youth engagement and women’s empowerment are indicators that measure the social sustainability of SRP rice production. To foster a safer work environment, we have promoted safety protocols, equipment maintenance practices and protective measures with farmers’ organisations through comprehensive training programmes. As a result, farmers have become increasingly conscious of their well-being and safety, adopting practices such as wearing respiratory masks during chemical product handling and spraying activities.
Acknowledging that many of these challenges are deeply rooted and make it necessary to take a long-term perspective, we strive to empower women and involve youth through various initiatives. This includes technical and entrepreneurial capacity building, establishing women-led production units and developing gender-focused policies in collaboration with partner cooperatives. Furthermore, we create business opportunities involving rice products and services to encourage youth participation in agricultural value chains.
In 2022, we launched a survey to assess the situation of women in the communities where we work and to identify key entry points for the development of new initiatives. Based on data collected from Senegal, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Indonesia, we are already able to make two noteworthy observations. Firstly, even though male workers still dominate the rice sector, we found that women participate in different rice farming activities and in the value chain, for example in land preparation, sowing, transplanting, pest control, harvesting, processing and marketing. Male farmers also involve their wife in decision-making processes regarding crop selection, technology adoption, inputs and the utilisation of rice products within the family. Secondly, we observed that female farmers typically receive equal pay for equivalent tasks. Nevertheless, the issue of a wage gap over time persists. Read more about our gender strategy.
In conclusion, the journey towards sustainable rice farming is a gradual process and demands dedication from both farmers and farmer organisations. Through SRP pilots in Asia and Africa, Rikolto has actively supported farmers, farmer organisations and private partners in their journey towards sustainability. Together, we’ve generated evidence to advocate for SRP’s recognition as a standard for sustainable rice production and we’re focusing on scaling up our pilots and the SRP standard. Our unwavering goal remains the cultivation of resilient rice value chains that secure the availability of safe and nutritious rice for all in the long term.