Many thanks to my title photo by Quang Nguyen Vinh!
I bet you already heard about the „Dirty Dozen“ – food you should only buy from organic farming, as it has a particularly high pesticide load. Rice is not one of them. Nevertheless, there are differences between organically grown and conventional rice. In the following article, I will talk about those, about GMO-rice and my recommendation for your next rice purchase.
1. What kind of rice do you buy?
Milk, eggs, potatoes and fresh vegetables from controlled organic cultivation make up for most of the organic market in Austria . However, when it comes to meat and staple foods such as rice, the price is a more important decision criterion.Embed from Getty Images
In Austria, rice consumption is 6.2 kg per capita per year. How much of it is organically grown? There are no reliable figures. However, my research showed that the Mars Group holds 40% of the Austrian market share in rice. Their Uncle Ben’s brand now also offers organic products. But the majority of the products sold in supermarkets are still conventional. At least, I can buy organic rice as well in every zero waste store (or supermarket) in Austria. In Thailand, I experienced that organic rice was practically not sold – and if it was, then in trendy shops in downtown Bangkok, vacuumed and twice as expensive as „normal“ rice. Most of the organic rice there is exported. I don’t know about the other Asian markets, but I think it’s very similar there.
2. Rice varieties
Organic vs. conventional cultivated varieties
Hybrid varieties are mostly used for the cultivation of conventional rice. They are particularly high-yielding and sometimes resistant to pests. However, when using hybrid seeds, it is no longer possible to store part of the harvest and use it for the next sowing: If you plant them again, all kinds of plants will grow. However, the desired characteristics that are present in the first hybrid seed do not occur. New seed has to be bought again, usually from large seed companies. This quickly drives farmers, who have to purchase pesticides and fertilizers from these companies in addition to the seed, into dependency. In the case of conventional rice, genetic engineering, which is prohibited in organic farming, is also widespread in some countries where rice is cultivated.
Genetically modified varieties in rice cultivation
Already in 2006, unauthorised GM- rice was cultivated in China and the US and also imported into Europe, but not marketed. In general, genetically modified food must be labelled in the EU and the content of genetic engineering must be below 0.9%.
Golden Rice (GMO) – solution for vitamin A deficiency?
The most prominent example is the so-called „Golden Rice“, which was developed to counteract vitamin A deficiency. This sounds reasonable at first because some poor people can only feed on rice and thus consume too little vitamin A.Embed from Getty Images
Picture: This is not a Golden Rice, but spiced curry rice – looks very similar to the genetically modified product.
Normally rice does not contain beta-carotene (precursor of vitamin A). Therefore, researchers transferred a gene from a narcissus and a gene from the bacterium to rice. The rice must then be crossed with regional varieties in order to adapt it to local conditions. In my opinion, however, this approach goes in the wrong direction: Why should people only eat rice that is then enriched with vitamin A? A unbalanced diet can lead to vitamin A deficiency and many other deficiency symptoms. Vitamin A deficiency is already being combated with tablets in these countries, which is of course not an optimal solution in the long term. If we give people access to more varied foods such as fruit and vegetables as well as nuts and other cereals, this is much more advantageous for them and also counteracts other vitamin deficiencies!
An oversupply of vitamin A can also be dangerous. Even 50 g of dry golden rice can cover half of the daily requirement of vitamin A. However, this corresponds to only 180 calories and thus not even one tenth of the average daily requirement of an adult. If we assume that people in poor countries would be forced to feed mainly on Golden Rice, we observe an oversupply. In general, the effects of genetically modified plants on human health have not yet been clarified. In addition, most large companies own patents on genetically modified seeds and pesticides, which have to be purchased in ever higher doses by farmers and lead to dependancy (like hybrid seeds). According to various sources, the patents on Golden Rice have already been bought and would be sold to small farmers without royalties. I did not find out how the companies could decide to do this good human deed and who pays for the rice patents.
At least, the gene modification done with golden rice is comparatively harmless purely from the point of view of the desired properties. Other plants, such as BT-maize, which is resistant to pests through a poison produced by the plant itself, are much more dangerous for their environment and their consumers. Furthermore, plants that are resistant to certain pesticides, which are then sprayed in high doses, promote the development of so-called superweeds. In 2016, the genetically modified long-grain rice LL Rice 691 developed by Bayer-Monsanto with these same resistance genes was officially approved in the United States. However, it was not intended to be commercially exploited. Long before this approval, however, LL 601 was repeatedly found in European products.
The biggest problem with green genetic engineering (= genetic engineering in agriculture): When genetically modified plants are cultivated, they cross with wild plants and thus spread. New combinations with potentially undesirable properties can emerge. This endangers natural biodiversity andreminds me of a lottery game. New plants, like hybrids, can have good or bad properties for humans and the environment. Genetically modified rice, which produces insect venom, is suspected of causing allergies in humans. According to various sources, self-fertilization predominates in rice, but sometimes cultivated and wild rice varieties also cross. Thus, it cannot be ruled out that genetically modified rice may spread in the natural environment.
All in all, I thus see genetic engineering in agriculture critically and think that it is much more optimal to rely on old varieties.
Arsenic and mineral oil in whole grain rice
Traces of mineral oil, particularly in whole grain rice, are attributable to unsuitable packaging (Part I). Arsenic, on the other hand, is particularly absorbed by rice through the soil. Strict limits have been in force in the EU since 2016. For lower arsenic contents, it is recommended to wash rice before cooking and not to use the swelling method. However, if controlled rice is not consumed excessively, there are no serious health risks. The limit value for rice wafers is particularly high (0.3 mg/kg), so it is advisable not to give rice wafers too often to children to nibble on. The limits for white rice (0.2 mg/kg) are slightly lower than those for parboiled or wholegrain rice (0.25 mg/kg).
2.Differences in rice cultivation: organic vs conventional
Wet rice vs. dry season
As mentioned in part 1, rice is usually grown wet. However, dry cultivation is even more widespread in organic rice cultivation, for example in Austria. Rice from or district „Niederösterreich“ for example, has been cultivated organically since last year in dry cultivation (2018). In dry cultivation, yields are lower, but in terms of sustainability it has significant advantages over wet rice cultivation, especially in regions with less rainfall. The 3000 to 5000 litres of water that are needed to grow a kilo of rice are lacking elsewhere. Thus the local water supply suffers. In the tropics and subtropics, the rainfall from the monsoon can normally be used.
Rice cultivation can promote biodiversity, as flooded rice fields can be a habitat for various animals and other plants. Of course, only if no pesticides are used, which endanger this very life and make the rice fields a monoculture. In a Japanese cultivation project on the island of Hokkaido, rice fields are flooded after harvest to provide a habitat for worms and other aquatic organisms. This again has a positive effect on the next rice season. In Switzerland, field trials have shown that endangered animal species and 17 dragonfly species find shelter in wet rice fields and can thus be prevented from disappearing. This also shows that dry and wet rice cultivation has various advantages and disadvantages. Depending on the location, a suitable cultivation method has to be found and experimented with.
Rice cultivation also has a direct effect on the climate through the production of methane: especially in wet rice cultivation, large quantities of the greenhouse gas are produced, since microorganisms decompose the not harvested, rotting parts of the rice plant and thus produce 10% of the total methane worldwide. However, more sustainable cultivation methods can reduce methane production. At this point, I mention the SRP, a platform for sustainable rice, was launched in 2011, which developed a standard for more sustainable rice production. This standard is mainly used by stakeholders in rice production, but is basically unknown to consumers. Since consumers, unlike with products such as palm oil, are hardly concerned about sustainable rice production, the standard was developed relatively late.
A comprehensive points system is used to calculate how sustainable a station in the value chain is. For each topic, e.g. seed calendar, there are some precisely formulated criteria to be observed for which points are distributed. These are then transferred to rice, which, depending on the number of points, is labelled „working towards sustainable rice cultivation“ and „sustainably cultivated rice“. In any case, the standard is a step towards improvement, but should not be confused with an organic label. A closer look reveals many loopholes, for example in the handling of fungicides: A rice farmer receives the same number of points whether he simply observes all the criteria specified for fungicide application or does not apply fungicides . Thus SRP-labelled rice might have different qualities, since SRP counts only the total number of points. In my opinion, a combination of SRP and an organic label is well suited, since SRP covers things that are not addressed by every state organic label and also includes social criteria. However, only an organic seal can give the assurance that the rice is grown free of undesirable pesticides. Why is this so important? Read the next section.
Various synthetic pesticides may be used in conventional rice cultivation and also on SRP labels. This has a negative effect on the environment, especially in wet rice cultivation, as the pesticides are washed away further and contaminate water bodies. Below you find list of pesticides used in conventional rice cultivation.
Picture: Application of pesticides on a rice field in Thailand
Tricyclazol: an anti-fungal agent mainly used in rice cultivation. It is not permitted in the European Union. In addition, no reliable data on health effects is available.
Carbendazim: Also effective against fungal attack. Its use is widespread worldwide, but it is no longer authorised in the EU. Carbendazim can cause genetic defects and has a long-term „very toxic“ effect on aquatic organisms. It can also damage fertility and unborn life.
Thiamethoxam: An insect repellent which belongs to the group of the disreputable neonicotinoids, as it has a strong bee-damaging effect. Since 2013, there have been precise rules in the EU on the use of neonicotinoids, but no complete ban. For example, use in greenhouses or after flowering is still permitted there. Thiamethoxam is also very dangerous for aquatic organisms in the long term.
Isioprothiolan: A fungicide used especially in rice cultivation. In the EU, plant protection products containing this active ingredient are not approved.
Phosphane/phosphine: A fumigant against storage pests which is used after harvesting. It is generally only permitted for conventionally produced goods and, according to ECHA, poses major health hazards when inhaled and also harms aquatic organisms. The poison has a strong effect on mammals and insects even in low concentrations. Use and manufacture are still permitted in the EU. During storage, this gas decomposes so that in packaged rice it no longer poses a risk to human health.
Methyl bromide/bromomehtane: Also a fumigant against storage pests, which is already banned in the EU. It is toxic, damages the nervous system, aquatic organisms and also the ozone layer. Nevertheless, its use is still permitted in rice producing countries such as India and Pakistan. The use of this gas for pest control on agricultural land, e.g. in the USA, is still widespread even outside rice cultivation.
Aflatoxin B1: Produced by moulds, not by pesticides, when stored too moist. Nevertheless, it can be harmful to human health!
3. Interpretation and purchase recommendation
This shows that a wide range of pesticides is used in rice cultivation. What effects does this have on us as consumers? We do not know because rice is not our main foodstuff and not all of these pesticides are also found in conventional rice and rice products. In a test series of 15 samples of rice (10 conventional, 5 organic) carried out in 2010 by the Baden-Württemberg Investigation Office (Germany), only one of 15 samples from all over the world was found to exceed the permitted maximum amount of pesticide residues. 12 basmati and 3 jasmine/long grain rice varieties were used.
In conventional rice, residues were found in 70% of the samples, with an average total pesticide content of 0.032 mg/kg and about 1.9 different substances per sample.
Organic rice showed residues in 60% of all samples, with an average total pesticide content of 0.007 mg/kg and about 0.8 different substances per sample.
Overall, the laboratory found a rather low level of residues in rice compared to conventionally grown fruit and vegetables. However, even organically grown rice is not completely free of residues. For your own health and that of the planet, it is nevertheless important to buy organic rice! At least, the amount of residue in organic rice in this test is more than four times less than in conventional rice. In addition, there are fewer different residues per sample in organically grown rice. This is an argument not to be underestimated, because only the effects of individual active substances are known, but the effects of different pesticides in combination have been researched even less precisely. They are often additive or synergistic with other pesticides, synthetic substances or plant hormones or nutrients as well as context conditions (temperature, salinity of the water,…) .
Reasons for residues in organic products are the input of conventionally cultivated fields, possible mixing with conventional products or residues thereof during processing and a prohibited use of pesticides.
In any case, it should be noted that only residues in finished products have been detected in laboratories. These consumer tests do not provide any information on the actual quantity used on the field and its impact on the local environment. What is certain, however, is that we can actively reduce the amount of pesticides introduced by purchasing organically grown rice. The more rice is grown organically, the less pesticide contamination there is in the harvest and in the environment. You can also avoid genetically modified rice by buying organic rice.
So I recommend: When buying rice and rice products, make sure you have a state-approved organic seal! The EU organic label is a reliable first indicator for all European consumers. Due to the stricter criteria I prefer demeter products if possible.
The EU organic label (top middle, leaf on green rectangle) is a mandatory indicator on all organically grown products sold in the EU, helpful as a first basis for a good buyingdecision! Search for the organic seal of your country and memorise it to make a good buying decision no matter where you are 🙂
Since this article was now a bit longer than planned, I decided to include aspects of social sustainability, origin, zero waste and a general environmental balance in Part III. Here I would also like to address food waste in rice, which I have observed to be very large, especially in Asia! The research will show us the actual quantities in Europe, Asia and around the world. If you have anything else that you would like to know about the environmental impacts of rice, tell me!
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