By Carroll Smith
Buzzwords, which can be a word or a phrase, catch on from time to time in society, business groups, industries, the media, politics, etc. A popular buzzword in agriculture these days is sustainability. In rice, as well as in other commodities, it’s dominating conversations among consumers, end users, merchants, millers, researchers and university personnel, farmers, organizations and all other segments of the industry.
The challenge with the word “sustainability” has been to craft a universal definition from which everyone can work. As Jennifer James, Chairman of the USA Rice Federation Sustainability Task Force notes in “Sustainable Agriculture,” which begins on page 6, this is easier said than done. Socio economic factors, such as jobs and quality of life in rural communities have to be incorporated into the definition of sustainability as well.
“The definition seems to be evolving, and it depends on whose viewpoint you are looking at, too,” she says. “For example, the food companies may have a different objective than, say, the conservation and nature groups.”
When an Arkansas rice farmer was asked how he would define sustainability, he thought for a moment then said, “Well, we’re still here.” This answer makes sense to me, but, unfortunately, to satisfy many of today’s consumers, we have to come up with more specifics and be able to measure and define the good that the rice industry is doing in the sustainability arena.
Many consumers are demanding what they consider “tangible proof” to hang their hats on when buying our product. However, thanks to the efforts of the Sustainability Task Force, the U.S. rice industry is making progress.
In a recently released Field To Market report, which analyzes sustainability trends on a national scale for U.S. rice and several other commodities from 1980 to 2011, our industry is producing more rice with fewer resources. For example, as far as resource efficiency per hundredweight of rice produced, the report shows a 35 percent decrease in land use, 34 percent in soil erosion, 53 percent in irrigation water applied, 38 percent in energy use and 38 percent in greenhouse gas emissions.
Rice also was recognized in a positive manner related to sustainability by the NRCS a couple of years ago when the industry became the first recipient of the Legacy of Conservation Award.
To me personally, the bottom line goes back to the Arkansas farmer’s assessment that “Well, we’re still here,” and the U.S. rice industry is continuing to produce safe, nutritious food in an efficient manner as well as supporting surrounding rural communities, being good stewards of the land and providing an ideal habitat for wildlife and waterfowl. That’s what I call sustainability on the highest level.
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