Sustainability important to future of rice industry

Bruce Schultz, Gould, Frances I.  |  10/23/2013 8:40:44 PM

Wading birds and shorebirds gather in a rice field in Jefferson Davis Parish. The fields provide year-round wetland habitat for birds that depend on aquatic areas for food and nesting.

Sustainability is an elusive term the rice industry and the rest of agriculture are trying to grasp.

"This is something that is going to be more important in the future," said Dr. Steve Linscombe, LSU AgCenter regional director and research coordinator for the AgCenter’s Rice Research Station. "It’s on the radar screen of the end user."

Linscombe said large corporations, such as Kellogg’s and Walmart, are placing emphasis on the sustainability concept.

A 1987 United Nations conference came up with a widely accepted definition of sustainability, which was, "Meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs."

A big part of sustainability is the carbon footprint required for a food product. It involves the amount of energy needed to produce a crop, from plowing to harvesting, as well as the energy required for getting the product to a processor, making the product and its container and transporting it to the marketplace.

Linscombe said proper use of soil, water and other natural resources is becoming more important and so is minimizing the use of inputs such as fertilizer and pesticides. Rice production throughout Louisiana has an advantage over other states because of the vast amount of surface water available to farmers, Linscombe said.

Linscombe said the Rice Research Station’s goal is to help farmers produce more rice with fewer inputs.

"Everything we do in research and have done in research since this station was established more than 100 years ago is aimed at sustainability," he said.

Variety development with higher yields is just one example of the station’s efforts to enhance sustainability, Linscombe added.

In addition, rice production mitigates its carbon footprint by creating aquatic and waterfowl habitat, he said.

"Sustainability is important to everyone in the rice industry because it is becoming more important to our consumers," Linscombe said. "Because it’s very important to them, it’s very important to us."

Rice grower John Owen of Richland Parish has attended several meetings related to the sustainability issue, and he said sustainability is not just a fad.

"I don’t think it’s going to go away, and I think it’s an important issue. As I studied it and became more informed, I’ve come to the conclusion that agriculture and rice have been striving for sustainability for a long time," Owen said. "We’ve just called it improved production efficiency."

The Richland Parish farmer said improvements in rice farming have reduced the industry’s carbon footprint as much as 30 percent, and equipment and techniques help farmers produce more crops with fewer inputs. "We’ve been working on our sustainability for a long time," he said.

Owen said farmers have to remain diligent to make sure the sustainability standards are acceptable rather than being adversarial.

"One of the biggest pieces in that puzzle is profitability," he said.

Owen also said the rice industry needs to tell the rest of the world about the benefits that include water quality, bird habitat and manmade wetlands even during a drought.

"Rice has a great story to tell, and we need to be more proactive by educating the public."

(This article was published in the 2012 Louisiana Rice Research Board Annual Report.)

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