Rice and sustainability

In this guest column, Lonoke County, Arkansas, rice producer Mark Isbell writes about the importance of engaging with groups developing sustainability initiatives to ensure the nuances of rice production are valued and compensated.

By Mark Isbell

mark isbell

The Rice Checker, which Arkansas rice producer Mark Isbell builds and markets, is one of the many tools he uses to reduce the carbon footprint of rice production.

Let’s be honest. You are probably getting tired of hearing the word sustainability.

I know that I sometimes do.

At its best, the word can sometimes still be vague and nebulous – fluid in its meaning depending on who it is that’s saying it. At its worst, it can be a word that co-opts and misappropriates the credit for activities done by farmers who have been focused on stewardship long before anyone determined that “sustainability” would be the word of choice by eager marketing departments.

Nevertheless, it is the word that we have.

As an industry that in the last 20 years has reduced land and energy use by over a third, water use by over half, and made significant contributions to waterfowl and wildlife habitat, sustainability – regardless of what word you use to describe it – is something that our industry is doing well.

But as the marketplace continues telling our industry’s story, how can we best own the value of our actions?

Measuring sustainability

The sustainability movement is global. When you look at what is happening with rice and sustainability around the world, you encounter an alphabet soup of acronyms and abbreviations for platforms and initiatives created by organizations far and wide.

Lately, there is increased pressure for farmers to adopt some of these global platforms and initiatives on their farms here in the United States. These platforms and initiatives include SAI (Sustainable Agriculture Initiative), SRP (Sustainable Rice Platform) and others.

The goal is for the supply chain to be able to provide confidence to consumers that genuine sustainable practices are being adopted or continued. Just because we know the things we are doing doesn’t mean that consumers do.

The good news is that most U.S. rice farms score quite well on these compared to rice from other countries. The bad news is that using these tools can be time-consuming and tedious. Most of all, they are not our tools. They were created by someone else.

Someone once said that if you aren’t at the table, you might end up on the menu. For this reason, I think it is important to engage with these and other platforms in a way that ensures the concerns and nuances of our practices here in the United States are well accounted for, valued and compensated.

One place our industry has been at the table is at Field to Market (FTM), an alliance of corporations and producer groups from multiple commodities that have come together to illustrate continual improvement in sustainability using the Field Print Calculator.

Engaging with Sustainable Rice Platform and Sustainable Agriculture Initiative is a bit more difficult. But some progress has been made to align some of these global tools with FTM’s Field Print Calculator, which could be a helpful shortcut.

Another new initiative that we should all be aware of is the American Carbon Registry’s pilot Sustainable Rice Standard.

This voluntary certification tool is being built on the Sustainable Rice Platform, a global tool. But the carbon registry seeks to adapt and amend this tool for U.S.-specific activities that aren’t addressed in the global tool.

Since this program is in the development phase, we have the opportunity to provide useful feedback. And the timing is good since the platform will be undergoing trial testing on some U.S. rice farms during the 2018 growing season.

An important question

Whatever you may think of any one of these programs, the overarching question remains: Is a sustainability standard something we want or need?

Where I have arrived is this: Whether a large portion of our industry ever seeks to adopt or endorses such a standard, for now we should engage with the process. To not engage or participate will be to cede the story of U.S. rice to others.

Let’s keep telling our good stories, but let’s also engage with others who are developing tools that could help us tell those stories.

The cost of not engaging with all of the sustainability tools, initiatives, and platforms could be substantial; the cost of engagement and participation will only be our time.

Any tool that seeks to measure sustainability in rice production should include a diversity of opinion and input from all rice growing states and all rice growing practices.

To see the tool the American Carbon Registry is developing and to provide feedback, please visit: https://www.winrock.org/ms/winrock-sustainable-rice-initiative/

To learn more about Sustainable Rice Platform: http://www.sustainablerice.org/

To learn more about Sustainable Agriculture Initiative: http://www.saiplatform.org/

To learn more about the great work U.S. rice farmers are already doing in sustainability: https://www.usarice.com/public-policy/conservation

Mark Isbell is a fifth-generation rice farmer in Lonoke County, Arkansas, and a member of the USA Rice Sustainability Committee, liaison to Field to Market and a steering committee member for the American Carbon Registry initiative.