Rice, baby, Rice!
Thank you very much for the photo of a ricebowl @moritz 320!
Social sustainability, the life cycle assessment and rice food waste: These are the topics of part III, the last article of my rice series. And that’s a good thing, because meanwhile I live in Singapore for my internship and rice has again become one of my staple foods. So let’s go to the rice field and later in this article proceed to the cooking pot!
1.Social sustainability in rice cultivation
2. Life cycle assessment of rice
3. Let’s fight rice food waste together!
1. Social sustainability in rice cultivation
In Austria, working conditions are good for rice farmers. Of course, the work in the rice fields is always physically demanding. In rice cultivation, many things are done by hand: planting the seedlings, harvesting, etc. (see Part 1).
Unfortunately, child labour in rice cultivation is still widespread in other countries: Among other things, children work in rice fields in many Asian countries like India, Pakistan, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos, but also in Peru, Ghana, Iran and Senegal . Often the work is not limited to helping in the fields and the children have to work hard, as their income contributes to the family’s food supply . This time is missing for school, for playing and for being children.
But adults who grow rice are also exposed to many dangers: For one thing, they often apply pesticides without the recommended protective measures because they cannot afford the protective equipment and are sometimes unable to read and understand the instructions on the packages. This is detrimental to general health. Many of the pesticides mentioned in Part II, especially in combination, can have late effects that have not yet been researched.
Rice farmers can also become dependent on large seed companies by buying hybrid seeds, which have to be bought again and again. Pesticides and fertilizers increase this dependency. A particularly tragic example of the consequences are, in my view, the frequent farmer suicides in India. „Every hour two farmers in India kill themselves“ says Devinder Sharma, former journalist and expert on agriculture in India . The farmers in comparatively prosperous regions of India areoften heavily indebted – which of course is not only due to rice cultivation. The reason for this are low prices that farmers receive for agricultural products and also the declining fertility of the soil: Intensive farming is causing it to become increasingly depleted. Irregular rainfall and further weather extremes due to climate change further worsen the cultivation conditions . In addition, the problem in India is exacerbated by the fact that the price of grain is determined by a state commission and is low at the expense of the farmers .
Generally speaking, in industrialised countries such as the USA and Japan, rice can be grown more cheaply and less labour-intensively. This is exploited in particular by the USA, export nation number 1. By exporting cheap rice to developing countries, it pushes the price down even further, which causes problems for local farmers .Embed from Getty Images
Photo: Rice-growing is not always as idyllic as it looks here. Conscious consumption helps to improve working conditions for rice farmers.
What can we as consumers do?
=> To ensure social sustainability, for European consumers I can recommend either European rice or rice with the Fairtrade label. Fairtrade guarantees minimum prices that secure the livelihood of farmers. The Fairtrade premium can be used to finance further social and ecological projects in a rice growing cooperative. This gives people in developing countries a perspective . It is also positive to see that Fairtrade promotes the cultivation of special, less well-known varieties as European consumers are ready to pay more for it. In addition, Fair Trade pays an eco-premium to farmers who are certified organic .
=> In my opinion, the only problem is that Fairtrade-labelled rice is hardly ever sold locally, but is exported to conscious consumers in Europe. However, also the increasingly wealthy population in the cities of Asia should be made more aware of the importance of fair trade for the continuation of rice production that is not at the expense of the farmers.
=> No matter where your rice comes from: Organic labels guarantee that the rice has been cultivated in an ecologically sustainable way. So with your purchase you can support rice that is good for people and for our environment. However, I do criticise the fact that the farmers have to pay for the certification costs themselves. After all, organic farming should be the norm and certification for conventional products should become mandatory! Conventional farmers thus need to pay for their products to be certified („This corn is treated with Roundup“ etc.) , which could encourage more farmers to switch to organic farming.
=> If you are currently living in an Asian country like me, it is generally not always so easy to pay attention to ecological and social sustainability: Because Fairtrade products are mostly transported to Europe – the seal is virtually unknown in the countries of origin. I have found a way to consume rice as sustainably as possible. For more information, see section 4. Food Waste.
2. Life cycle assessment of rice
How does rice perform in an environmental balance? This question is not easy to answer: An overview by the Swiss Society for Nutrition shows that one portion of rice (60g, origin outside Europe) causes a total of 323 total points of environmental impact . What does this mean? The figure is made up of 298 points for emissions, 4 points for energy consumption, 17 points for consumption of natural resources and 4 points for waste. This is also still very abstract. This makes the ecological footprint of rice worse than potatoes, but it scores better than wheat products (in the European context!).
I have taken this evaluation as an example and I use the same criteria in my life cycle assessment here.
Rice is particularly well known for being the No. 1 source of methane emissions in addition to cattle farming . No other staple causes so much of the climate-damaging gas.
Methane acts like CO2, but is 21 times more powerful . It is released in large quantities during wet rice cultivation through decay processes that are set in motion in the anaerobic sludge layer of the rice field. Via the rice plants themselves, 90% of the gas escapes into the atmosphere. Scientists estimate that wet rice cultivation is responsible for about 50% of global methane emissions .
The problem is not easy to solve. Less irrigation can at least reduce methane emissions. Even if rice straw is burned in a controlled manner to produce energy, methane emissions can be reduced compared to uncontrolled burning in the fields. However, not all farmers are willing to change their traditional farming methods . If fields are only irrigated periodically, this in turn can increase laughing gas emissions – which is not as funny as it sounds. Cultivating less ric, as is also proposed by science, is hardly a feasible option for Asian countries because of the importance of rice as a staple food .
According to a new study from the Netherlands, higher CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere lead to even higher methane emissions. More CO2 causes rice to grow faster. The same applies to the microorganisms in rice fields, which then also produce more methane . This shows that not only regarding rice, we have to take measures for a life with a smaller carbon footprint!
In my opinion, the most important thing is therefore to counter the pressure for constantly higher production: As with all natural resources, the pressure for more production of rice is only made worse by the still exponential population growth. However, this brings us back to a problem that needs its own article.
What can we as consumers do?
=> With regard to methane emissions, I can recommend European consumers to switch to domestic rice from dry farming. This rice has lower methane emissions than rice from wet rice cultivation. Unfortunately, dry rice cultivation is not a suitable method of cultivation everywhere because of the different climatic conditions.
While wet rice cultivation is responsible for a total of 65% of emissions, transport accounts for only 8% of emissions, mainly CO2 . With 0.3 kg of CO2 emissions for 100 g of rice, compared to 100 g of wholemeal pasta (0.04 kg), potatoes (0.04 kg) and rolls (0.06 kg), it is far above the emissions of other staple foods.
=> You can reduce these emissions easily by buying locally grown rice.
For 1kg of rice 3000 – 5000 litres of water are used  – and that is not all sweat!
For comparison: Per kg noodles (dry) 1849l, per kg corn 1222l and per kg potatoes only 287l of water are consumed. So rice is clearly above average here, too.
However, especially the traditional wet rice cultivation in Asia is based on the monsoon. The rice is therefore not additionally irrigated artificially. The situation is different for rice cultivation in countries such as Morocco, where water scarcity is significantly aggravated by artificial irrigation of rice fields . Although total water consumption is lower in Morocco, the negative impact on the water supply is greater than in Thailand, for example, where the monsoon brings rain to the rice fields anyway. Irregular rainfall caused by climate change is increasingly endangering natural wet rice cultivation.Embed from Getty Images
Photo: IWhen water is polluted by conventional cultivation, pesticides and fertilizers and it becomes unusable. Shop organic rice to avoid this!
=> By dry cultivation the water consumption can be reduced considerably – but as already mentioned, this is not possible everywhere due to climatic conditions! Organic cultivation makes it possible to keep the water clean and free of artificial fertilizers and pesticides.
Land consumption is also a fairly controversial factor to be taken into account in an environmental balance. It takes about 5.8 m² to grow one kilogram of rice. For cereals such as wheat it is 7.9 m² and for potatoes only 1.4 m². Thus rice is still in the middle of the field compared with other staple foods.
Worldwide, the amount of rice harvested has increased continuously until the last few years. In 2016, 500.9 million tonnes of milled rice were harvested worldwide . In 2019/2020, 497.9 million tons of edible rice are forecast on a cultivation area of 167 million hectares .
=> It is difficult to influence land consumption of rice by conscious purchasing. This is because land consumption is not a sole criterion: it is often criticised that organic products consume more land. But organic production does not contaminate the soil with artificial fertilizers or pesticides! Thus, there is no clear recommendation here.
There is nothing too unusual regarding the waste production of rice: Usually after harvesting, the rice is packed into large bags made of plastic, which I have seen at the market sometimes. Often they are also used to prevent flooding – like sandbags in Europe.When they decompose, they disintegrate into individual fibres. In my opinion it is therefore not the best way to fortify paths or protect houses from water. Rice bags also end up in the environment often enough and have already been found in the stomachs of whales.
=> Unfortunately this is a problem which we as conscious consumers cannot always avoid. But we can skip the small plastic and paper packages in which rice is packed in the supermarket. If you buy your rice in a zero waste shop or on the market, you can avoid this waste. For bulk consumers or people who like to share with family or friends, I can recommend buying a bulk package of rice. With this option, the choice of rice varieties is unfortunately limited as the rare ones are not packed into 10 or 25 kg bags.
=> All in all rice has a stronger impact on the environment than one would first suspect! With regards to environmental considerations, differences between the different types of rice or between whole grain and white rice are not so big. However, the cultivation method can have a decisive influence on the different values. For sustainable rice purchases, I can, from a European perspective, particularly recommend native organic rice planted in dry rice cultivation and buy it in the unpacked shop.
In addition, it makes sense to put together a diet from many different staple foods and also to switch to other, less well-known regional foods (e.g. lentils, amaranth, beans, …). These have a very good overall ecological balance, but reliable figures on the water footprint of these foods are not always available!
For the Asian context, I recommend to buy organic rice as it usually comes from wet rice cultivation. Visit a Zero Waste store as usually the rice there is organic as well. If this is too expensive or you do not have such a store around, just try to find organic rice on your farmers market. If you have the possibility to integrate beans or lentils into as staples into your diet, go for it! Moreover, Chapter 4 provides you with a special tip on how to consume rice for free in a sustainable way!
3. Let’s fight rice food waste together!
How much rice is wasted? And where in the value chain is it lost? I explore these questions here. Whenever I was in the canteen of my university in Thailand or generally in Asia when I eat in the food court, I always saw plates with only half eaten rice going back. The food waste created solely from rice must be huge! And the numbers prove me right:
The FAO calculated the waste of grain in its Food Wastage Footprint . In addition to rice, this includes wheat, rye, oats, barley, corn, sorghum, and others. Already the first analysis shows: India and its surroundings as well as South and Southeast Asia contribute with their grain consumption alone to 13.7 and 10.6% of the total CO2 and methane emissions caused by food waste! In both regions, staple food wastage accounts for about 7.6% of the global food waste volume.
Rice accounts for 53% of wasted grain in India and the surrounding area and 71% in Southeast Asia. Europe in comparison does not produce significant amounts of rice waste. One reason for this is that much less rice is consumed – in Germany it is only around 5.4 kg (2017/2018) per capita and year . Meanwhile in China it is still 91 kg per capita and year . On the other hand, it is also due to the smaller population in Europe as a whole. However, we should still be committed to reduce food waste! Even if we buy rice from other countries, the value chain starts there.
The value chain
According to the UN, rice losses along the entire value chain amount to a total of 149.7 million tons, which causes 610.5 million tons of greenhouse gases per year . An impressive sum: But where is the rice lost? Generally speaking, in developing countries this tends to happen at the front end of the value chain due to losses during processing, transport or storage .
However, especially in industrialised countries in Asia and in richer households, a high amount of rice is lost on the consumer side: In Singapore, rice and noodles (often also made from rice flour) are among the food products most frequently wasted . Considering that the small city-state alone produces 636900 tons of food waste annually, this amounts to a considerable sum. Other states in Southeast Asia waste less per capita, but more overall. And here, too, rice is among the leaders: As meat consumption is on the rise – people eat meat or fish first and prefer to leave the rice on their plates. Cultural factors, such as the custom that finishing your plate is considered impolite in China, also contribute to food waste.
Unfortunately, the research for food waste regarding rice is not as advanced as for bananas and so I could not find more detailed statistics that have calculated food waste for rice at every point in the value chain. But perhaps that is not necessary: We know that a lot of rice is wasted overall. Now it’s our job to reduce it – no matter where we are in the value chain. In the following I will explain what we as consumers can do.
How do you avoid food waste when you eat rice in your own household?
Fortunately, rice is quite easy to store. You can keep the dried grains, packed in airtight containers, for years. So you don’t need to worry about a best-before date at all. In my pre-Zero Waste time I once bought some packs of an expensive special rice variety from Italy, which was 50% cheaper. The reason: The MHD expired this month. In fact, I stored the rice in my pantry for some months more and it was still edible!
So if you like the same type of rice all the time, you can buy a very large quantity and store it. I appreciate variety and therefore prefer to buy small quantities of rice from the zero waste store – sometimes brown, sometimes black, sometimes jasmine rice always from organic farming and fair trade (if grown in developing countries).
Food waste from rice is more likely to occur when it is already cooked. So always weigh the required quantities! Per person you need 60 g raw white rice if it is used as a side dish and 100 g raw rice as a main dish . You can also use a little less if you are less hungry or eat brown/black rice, as it will make you feel full faster. After cooking (with a lid) you can use excess water to water your plants or even as a hair conditioner! I took this tip with me from Thailand. Rice water can also be used as a basis for cleansing facial skin and other beauty treatments (see ).
If you still have leftovers: Put them in a bowl in your refrigerator and cover it well with a lid or plate. Like this, you can store rice for about 3 days. If you steam it gently, it will taste like freshly cooked again!
With rice that has already been cooked, you can prepare a simple, quick and tasty dish which is very common in Asia.
Fried rice: The rice may have already spent one night in the fridge. This makes it even more suitable for frying. Gently fried in a little bit of coconut or olive oil and with other tasty ingredients, you can make a tasty meal out of it! In Southeast Asian countries fried rice is very popular as a main meal: Whether Khao phat, Nasi Lemak or simply Fried Rice – this dish is very popular there. It is also suitable as a side dish to other dishes.
Therefore there is no fixed recipe for it. Just stick to the following template:
+ Vegetables e.g. peppers, carrots, zucchini, peas, garlic, spring onions,…
+ Protein source e.g. lentils (very popular in India), beans, tofu, seitan; egg, meat or fish
+ spice e.g. curry, chili powder, soy sauce, lime juice
+ Toppings e.g. nuts, fresh herbs, coconut flakes, raisins
Just fry the vegetables and protein sources in some oil or precook them. Then gently fry them together with the rice and add spices according to taste. Finally, decorate with the toppings you like.Embed from Getty Images
This recipe provides you with a different delicious meal every day. You can also use other leftovers that you still have in the fridge. So it is a super nice recipe to avoid food waste!
And if that’s not enough inspiration for you: Various recipe portals like this onegive you more concrete ideas for recipes with leftover rice. Even if you eat rice every day, you will never get bored!
What if you don’t want to eat the rice for the next three days?
Freeze it! Put your rice in portions in well lockable boxes. According to the Web, rice can be stored for two to three months in the freezer . This is definitely enough until you prepare your next rice dish!
It is recommended to let the rice thaw slowly. This saves energy and the thawed rice gets warm again faster. If I am hungry, I chop the frozen block with a knife (be cautious). Then steam it with a little water in a pot. Adding a little more water gives the rice a rather creamy, risotto-like consistency – even if it was not risotto rice. I think it is delicious – you can then season the rice and eat it alone or together with vegetables, meat or fried tofu. For dessert you can also steam the rice with some milk and add raisins, cinnamon and honey. There are no limits – just try out what you like best.
In the restaurant
In European restaurants, rice is not used for many dishes and serves only as a side dish. The portions are then usually small enough that you can easily eat them. In Asia on the other hand, street food stalls always add a large portion of rice to every dish. In this case, just ask for a small portion, say no or pack the leftovers if you don’t want to eat so much rice.
At buffet restaurants respectively all-you-can-eats it is easy. Better take smaller portions first so that you don’t have to throw anything away. Or give oversized portions to a more greedy person sitting next to you (if you go to a restaurant with me, I will eat everything 😉 ).
If you are organizing an event with the help of a catering company, it is better to order less rice and side dishes as these are the dishes that are most often thrown away.
Consume rice consciously, no matter where you are! In Europe I only buy organic rice from fair cultivation in the unpacked shop. When I am in Europe, I make sure to buy European rice whenever possible. Unfortunately, information about the cultivation methods is not always available.
In Singapore, I have not yet bought rice at all – I rescue it from restaurants that give food waste to a local food rescue group. More information here – maybe you can also set up this in your country!
In any case, we can lower rice food waste on the consumer side easily through conscious rice cultivation, processing and consumption along the entire value chain. With rice we have a staple food that also has a surprisingly strong impact on the environment. And reducing food waste in your own household is surprisingly simple and delicious. With this in mind, I conclude the rice series with a tasty New Year’s resolution:
Let’s make 2020 the rice-waste-free year!
How did you like this article? What did you think of the life cycle assessment?
And which dishes do you like to cook from leftover rice? Write me a comment or a message!
Happy New Year 2020! Kristina 😊