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How Can Rice Be Part of A Sustainable Food System?

SRI for a food secure future. 

A sustainable food system is a food system that delivers food security and nutrition for all in such a way that the economic, social and environmental bases to generate food security and nutrition for future generations are not compromised." FAO

Rice: a staple crop. 

Over half the world’s population relies on rice as their staple food and primary nutrient source. It is grown across more than 160 million hectares of land worldwide and provides the livelihoods to one billion people. With populations estimated to reach 9.8 billion by 2050, rice production needs to grow by 25% over the next 25 years to meet projected future demand. So, while the importance of rice in global food security is set to stay, ensuring adequate rice production levels can serve growing populations is an increasing challenge. 

Rice cultivation is particularly vulnerable to climate change impacts. Extreme temperatures, storms, droughts, saltwater intrusion as well as rising numbers of pests and diseases are just some of the many challenges farmers are facing due to climate change. All this combined with the increasing scarcity of water, rising prices for fertilisers and fuel, and shrinking availability of arable land, collectively creates a challenging set of obstacles for rice farmers to overcome - the majority of who are smallholders with already limited resources and little capital to spare.

And exacerbating climate change is rice cultivation itself. Conventional rice cultivation is responsible for 8-12% of anthropogenic methane emissions, equivalent to 1.5% of total greenhouse gas emissions.  

Can rice be sustainable? 

For rice cultivation to become sustainable it must provide social, environmental and economic benefits for all. Meaning we need a way for rice production:

  • To increase to meet demand;
  • To not require additional land and resources;
  • To follow a method resilient and adaptable to changing climates;
  • To mitigate emissions and reduce environmental impacts;
  • To provide profits;
  • To be accessible to all.

Although this sounds a difficult list to achieve without resulting in at least one trade-off or compromise between dimensions, for once, a transition to sustainable rice cultivation already exists - meaning we can have our (rice) cake and eat it. 

The answer?

The System of Rice Intensification (SRI). 

SRI provides an agroecological approach to growing rice, that allows farmers to increase yields while decreasing inputs such as seed, water, and synthetic chemicals. SRI can be applied to any variety of rice and can be adapted to suit both irrigated and rainfed rice cultivation. Importantly, SRI reduces methane emissions by up to 70% and its nature-based methods are environmentally friendly. Best of all, SRI is accessible to even the most-resource poor farmers.

See more on ‘What Is SRI?’ here. 

Indigenous rice grown with SRI methods at Sambhav (Odisha, India).
Photo courtesy of Sabarmatee

Five ways SRI supports Food Security: 

1. SRI increases yields 

SRI increases rice yields on average by 25–50%, with many examples of 50% or more, and even up to 200%. This increase in yield is achieved while reducing seed usage by 80-90% and without the need to expand agricultural land. This allows resource-limited famers to save seeds and enhance their own households' food security.  

2. SRI enhances nutrition 

SRI improves the quality of micro-nutrients in the rice grain. Beneficial nutrients such as Iron, Zinc, Copper and Manganese are all found to increase in SRI rice when compared with traditionally cultivated rice. Levels of heavy metals, such as arsenic and lead, are shown to decrease.  

3. SRI improves the quality of the grain

Along with improved micronutrients, SRI paddy rice provides around10-20% more edible polished rice. This is because SRI plants have fewer unfilled grains and less breakage during the milling process. SRI provides improved food security by more than just increased harvest yields.

4. SRI supports the reliability of crops

SRI plants are better able to withstand climate hazards such as droughts, storms, and extreme temperatures. Improved resistance to the impacts of climate change is essential to produce reliable yields. Six countries currently use SRI as an adaptation action in their NDCs. See which countries use SRI in NDCs here.

5. SRI strengthens farmer resilience

SRI reduces the reliance on external inputs and instead allows farmers to make use of already available resources.  Increased yields are achieved with 25-50% less water and up to 100% reduction of synthetic chemicals. With less dependence on external inputs SRI improves smallholder resilience against both environmental and economic impacts. 

With SRI being a validated approach in over 60 countries worldwide, able to improve yields and support climate adaptation and mitigation - changing rice cultivation practices to SRI globally is not a question of why, but when?

Read more about SRI in our Learn Hub and see which countries prioritise SRI in their Nationally Determined Contributions, helping to improve food security and achieve mitigation or adaptation action on climate change. 

Download our free infographic on SRI and Food Security here