Numbers don’t lie – industry has made huge sustainability gains

Vicky BoydTo say you’re sustainable is one thing. But to put numbers to that statement — and numbers that show substantial improvement in using resources more efficiently — is quite another.

USA Rice recently released the executive summary of its “2018 U.S. Rice Industry Sustainability Report” that cataloged the industry’s improvements during the past 36 years. We’re not talking small gains, either. We’re talking significant reductions in key markers, including land use and soil conservation, water use and quality, energy use and air quality, and biodiversity.
Sustainability can be viewed as a stool with economic, environmental and social legs. The three components are intertwined so if you lose one, the stool falls over. The same applies to the rice industry.

Rice production, for example, jumped to an average of 75 hundredweight (167 bushels) per acre in 2015 from just 45 cwt (100 bushels) per acre in 1980. This equated to increased land-use efficiency of 39 percent over the period.

Conservation practices, such as minimum or no-till, have reduced soil erosion by 28 percent per acre. Enhanced water management also contributes by preventing sediments from entering waterways.

Rice is a water-dependent crop, but growers have made huge strides in stretching the resource during the past 36 years. Compared to 1982, growers on average use 52 percent less water today. What’s encouraging is they continue to push the envelope to further reduce water use while maintaining or even enhancing yields.

Our cover story is about one such effort as Arkansas producer Matt Morris and his father, Richard, try to produce “more crop to the drop.”

The industry as a whole also has reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 41 percent per hundredweight of rice produced and decreased overall energy use by 36 percent. This has involved adopting new varieties that produce more rice per acre, advances in fertilizer applications and products, and conservation tillage. Mills have increasingly installed solar systems to produce renewable energy and used cogeneration to convert rice hulls into energy.

Let’s not forget the wildlife and waterfowl habitat enhancements growers have undertaken on their farms. Winter-flooded rice fields alone provide about $3.4 billion worth of habitat.

The rice industry also has a large economic footprint, contributing more than $34 billion to the U.S. economy annually and providing more than 125,000 jobs. Each rice farm on average contributes $1 million to the local economy.

One of the tenants of sustainability is continuous improvement. And you have to look no further than the rice industry to see the innovation growers are using to produce more crop with fewer inputs and maintain their economic wellbeing.

The full sustainability report will be posted on the USA Rice website, www.usarice.com, shortly.