UTZ’s mission is to make sustainable farming the norm. To achieve this goal and maximize impact we take different approaches across different sectors. For certain commodities we offer full programs of standard assurance, traceability and a label. In other sectors UTZ joins forces with existing initiatives and brings in its expertise to drive change, for example in rice. Since 2014 UTZ is one of the key partners working to make the rice sector more sustainable through the Sustainable Rice Platform (SRP).
We caught up with Geert Eenhoorn, UTZ’ Project Manager Rice to find out more and hear how UTZ is applying its experience in cocoa, coffee and tea to this very different crop.
Why sustainable rice?
Rice is one of the largest staple crops providing the main source of calories for over half the world’s people. The world rice production for 2016/2017 is estimated at 480 million MT. To compare, coffee production is estimated at 9 million MT, palm oil at 65 million MT.
“Around 20% of the world’s population depend on rice cultivation for their livelihood. If we can improve agricultural practices in this sector we could positively impact the lives of over a billion people,” Geert explains. “Also, rice is a large contributor to climate change and yields are at risk from the changing climate which could have a big impact on farmer livelihoods. Rice may be a very different crop to cocoa or tea, but it is a good fit with our strategy because we want to influence whole sectors and a range of significant crops.”
Rice may be a very different crop to cocoa or tea, but it is a good fit with our strategy because we want to influence whole sectors and a range of significant crops.
Many big brands share Geert’s enthusiasm for sustainable rice. For example, Mars Food, owner of the largest rice brand, Uncle Ben’s Rice, has committed to sustainably source 100% of its rice by 2020. Mars Food is one of several multinational companies to have joined the SRP alongside governments, the United Nations Environment Program, the International Rice Research Institute, NGOs and other partners.
What is UTZ’s role?
UTZ is a key partner in the SRP which aims to reach 1 million rice farmers in 2020. The UTZ team has helped lead the development of the Sustainable Rice Standard launched in 2015. This standard contains a set of 46 best practice requirements for productivity, record keeping, food safety, worker health, labor rights, and biodiversity, designed to reduce the environmental footprint of rice cultivation while improving the incomes of small farmers. An assurance protocol, to be used with the standard, is under development.
Any results yet?
The SRP Standard is being tested through field trials and is already showing a positive impact, according to Geert. “We don’t have a lot of data yet but we are seeing some good results from pilot projects with the standard. Farmers and traders are reporting an improved return with lower costs and fewer pesticide residues”.
Who will pay for sustainable rice?
Unlike cash crops such as tea, coffee and cocoa, most rice is consumed locally in the developing countries where it is produced. Only 1.5% is consumed in OECD countries. As Geert explains, this creates a funding challenge.
“With crops like coffee, there are enough consumers prepared to pay a little more for a certified product. This covers the costs involved in farmer training and assurance. This model won’t work for sustainable rice because it’s not a cash crop. We don’t yet know what the solution to this challenge will be. There may be different outcomes for different markets and types of producers. However I am confident that we will find a solution. With the Sustainable Rice Platform we have the right stakeholders on board to create real change.”
Will we see certified rice in store?
Geert explains that certification isn’t the main objective. “Our focus with rice is on implementing the standard and creating sectoral change. We could end up with certified rice products in some markets but this isn’t necessarily our goal”.
The different approach being taken with rice, combined with the financial challenges, has led UTZ and the SRP to innovate in the assurance protocol too. A unique and more flexible approach is being developed that will enable farmers, producing countries and buyers to work together in different ways to monitor progress against the standard.
“We expect some partners to take a traditional approach to assurance and still require third party certification. In addition the assurance approach will allow others to limit their assurance to a peer-to-peer or second party verification, for example by other farmers or buyers. We even foresee the assurance approach enabling partners to assure just part of the requirements, e.g. only report on climate change or compliance to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. This multi-level approach should lead to real sector change.”