Low-carb? World’s changing diet no bane for rice farmers

Tarra Quismundo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jan 23 2019 03:10 PM

SIEM REAP, Cambodia - Keto. Low-carb. People around the world are cutting down on carbohydrates- largely portrayed as the villain against fitness and weight loss. But is the movement towards leaner eating a bane to producers of rice, among the world’s leading sources of carbs? 

No, if you ask a top official of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). 

“We see that as an opportunity,” Kundhavi Kadiresan, FAO Assistant Director-General and Asia-Pacific regional representative, told ABS-CBN News in an interview. 

Kadiresan pointed out this trend in her keynote speech at the plenary meeting of Sustainable Rice Platform, a multi-stakeholder alliance of environment groups, rice research organizations and private sector partners advocating for environment-friendlier rice cultivation practices. 

“The consumption pattern in rice is also changing… You see more and more people reducing their intake of rice, consuming a lot more meat, vegetables, fruits,” she said. 

Kadiresan encouraged farmers to consider this shift a chance to diversify their business: look at other crops that may be planted on their land, and not limit themselves to one crop.

“In that sense, the diversification is indeed having some impact in terms of our rice culture,” she said. 

Kadiresan also noted that, still as part of the movement towards healthier eating, a growing number of consumers are willing to pay more premium rice, such as organically grown varieties. 

“Naturally-grown rice, it should have more value. And consumers are willing to buy let’s say high-value rice,” Kadiresan said in an interview. 

She cited the need to connect farmers to such markets, noting that the potential for higher profitability leads to a quick shift among producers’ business strategies. 

“So in which case, linking the farmers to those markets, and where there are those people willing to pay more for organic rice or sustainably grown rice, then connecting those farmers to those markets,” Kadiresan said. 

“That will also shift because the market also forces farmers to change rather quickly: they see the market there, they know there is profitability. Then they can also scale crops if there is market they can sell to, I think that’s where we need to help, [have an] enabling policy environment,” she said. 

CALL TO ACTION

At the SRP conference here, the alliance called on stakeholders to shift to rice production practices with minimal environmental impact. Traditional rice-growing methods consume 40 percent of the world’s irrigation water and cause 10 percent in global methane emissions, per UN estimates. 

In a statement, SRP, an alliance of nearly 100 institutions from 24 countries led by UN Environment, the Philippines-based International Rice Research Institute, and German aid agency GIZ, called on different sectors to do their part to promote its set of rice cultivation standards. 

“Governments, retailers and brands need to work together with scientists, financial institutions and development partners to promote climate-smart best practices among rice smallholders,” SRP said. 

It said governments should reduce rice tariffs on sustainable rice, noting that just a 1-percent cut would translate to $150 million in savings for exporters, which could in turn be passed on as incentives to farmers who shift to sustainable rice farming. 

Retailers and supply chain actors should, meanwhile, promote sustainable rice to consumers, while financial institutions should be open to funding smallholders and offer incentivized credit schemes for those who use sustainable rice cultivation practices. 

For researchers, SRP said there should be focus on studies on crop resilience amid climate change, improving the nutritional value of rice varieties, and efficient resource use. 

Development and civil society organizations, meanwhile, should mainstream sustainable rice in their programs. 

Rice is staple food for 3.5 billion people around the world and, per UN estimates, production must increase by 25 percent in the next 25 years to serve the growing global population.