Sustainable agriculture has captured the minds of consumers in the United States and around the world. Media stories, food retailers and manufacturers as well as popular movies like “Food, Inc.” and books like Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma, have generated widespread interest in agricultural sustainability at every step of the farm-to-table supply chain.
To define what sustainability means for U.S. rice production and ensure a long-term and viable future for American rice production, USA Rice Federation established a Sustainability Task Force to lead the way in developing a rice industry sustainability program.
As chair of this new task force, which is made up of producers, millers, merchants and academic and industry advisers, I am proud to be part of the development of a program to serve consumer interests in sustainably produced rice products, as well as the rice industry’s interests in farm policy and domestic and international promotion.
The first step is a benchmark re-port that tracks the industry’s pro-gress in five categories of sustainability over the past 20 years. The study, funded by the Rice Foundation, will review rice industry productivity, soil loss, water use, energy use and climate impact. For the rice industry to build a science-based, objective sustainability program, it must first know where it came from and where it currently stands. The 20-year look back will provide us with this understanding.
Field to Market benchmark reports
Other industries have completed sustainability benchmark reports, including corn, cotton, soybeans and wheat. Through their involvement with Field to Market: The Keystone Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture, their benchmark reports were used to develop a Fieldprint Calculator. The calculator, found on the Keystone Alliance Web site (fieldtomarket.org), is an education tool designed to help growers assess how operational decisions affect overall sustainability performance. USA Rice is a member of the Field to Market, and when the industry’s benchmark study is completed, rice will be added to the calculator.
Field to Market strives to champion science-based, sustainable agricultural outcomes capable of meeting the needs of nine billion people in 2050. Other participants include conservation groups, food manufacturers, major crop industries, retail companies and research organizations. Further, members of the USA Rice Federation report that USDA looks favorably on the benchmark reports and the Field to Market effort.
Positioning rice for farm policy debates
The development of a benchmark sustainability study for rice and progressive involvement with Field to Market comes at a crucial time in farm policy debates, as the Obama administration and Democratic leadership in Congress pursue their environmental agenda, including climate-change legislation.
The U.S. rice industry must show its proactive commitment to sustainable agriculture. While agricultural production is not currently considered a “capped” sector under congressional climate-change legislative proposals, that day may come. We must be proactive in actions to reduce ag’s carbon footprint, while continuing rice gains in increased production efficiency. In addition, the next Farm Bill debate will invariably focus more on agriculture’s conservation and environmental contributions and practices to conserve natural resources.
Sustainability and rice marketing
The “green” side of sustainable agriculture receives a lot of press, but economic incentives drive sustainable farming. USA Rice Federation members say that important customers have asked to see a sustainability statement for U.S.-grown rice. In line with these requests, the industry is developing a best practices document that outlines the sustainable qualities and environmental impacts of U.S.-grown rice. The best practices document, when used in conjunction with the benchmark report and Field to Market’s efforts, will guide the U.S. rice industry’s proactive efforts to differentiate U.S.-grown rice from that of competitors in the export arena.
The U.S. rice industry has a long history of safeguarding its natural resources and embracing its vibrant, diverse ecosystems. Our sustainability program will allow the industry to take a common position on and embrace its sustainable principles and practices in order to reassure consumers and policy-makers that U.S.-grown rice is a sustainable and responsibly grown product.
For more about USA rice programs, visit www.usarice.com.