Last updated: May/June 2016
The True Cost of Rice
Rice is a staple food for approximately half of the world’s population, with four-fifths of rice being produced by small-scale farmers in developing countries. Europeans and Americans consume approximately 1-2% of their food energy from rice. However, the vast majority (90%) of rice is both produced and consumed in Asia.
Women play an important and often ignored role in rice cultivation, contributing approximately 25-60% of required labour in South-East Asia and up to 60–80% of labour in South Asia. As women are often involved in the planting, weeding, harvesting, processing and seed saving of rice, it is essential that they support the development of solutions to the challenges highlighted in this guide. Our feature on sustainable rice standards start to take the role of gender into account, but there is still a long way to go before women globally have equal access to technology and resources.
The UK market
The Mars-owned Uncle Ben’s brand dominates the UK market and accounts for 36% of sales and 69% of the total ad-spend in 2013. Tilda is also a key player and own-label brands account for a further third of the market.
Rice’s climate impact
How rice is cultivated can significantly affect the amount of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions released from rice paddies. At present, climate-conscious consumers are fairly limited in what they can do about this, other than support moves towards climate-friendly agriculture methods. You could write to companies and pressure them to start sourcing more sustainable rice for example.
Read our feature 'Sustainable Rice' for more information on the climate impact of rice production.
However, rice’s food miles (the distance travelled to reach your dinner plate) can be taken into account when making purchasing choices. If provenance is not stated on the side of a rice packet, the following ‘observations’ can be used to estimate rice miles.
Rice can generally be grouped into the following three categories:
- indica (long grained rices that are generally grown in the tropics – primarily Asia e.g. China and India),
- japonica (short grained and sticky rices generally grown in temperate climates such as Japan and USA but can be grown in Europe) and
- javanica (long bold grains grown in Indonesia).
So go for European-grown short grained (japonica) rices if you live in the UK, and long grained varieties if you live in Asia.
Can I buy ethical rice?
If buying rice sourced from the tropics or Indonesia, it is worth seeking out the increasingly hard-to-find fair trade rice option as workers’ rights issues are rife in the industry. There are only two Fairtrade-certified rice brands in this guide – Infinity Foods and Traidcraft. Read our feature 'Grains of Change' which explores why there are so few fair trade rice products.
Organic rice is always a recommended buy (especially for brown rice) for both environmental and health reasons. For example, fifteen pesticide residues were found on rice products by the United States Department of Agriculture Pesticide Data Program (2009), with several having known health risks and others being harmful to honeybees. In the majority of cases residues were lower (if present at all) on organic rice compared to conventional rice.
And, according to investigative food journalist Joanna Blythman, “Rice farming is chemical intensive and most residues will concentrate on the bran layer.” As the bran layer is milled off white rice, it is non-organic brown rice that may have particularly high pesticide residues.
GM and Rice
You won’t find GM rice on the shelves as, despite seven varieties currently being authorised for cultivation in specific (non-EU) countries, none is actually being grown. One of the reasons for that may be the appalling record of GM contamination incidents involving rice, such as the experimental crop grown on a test site in the USA between 1998 and 2001 that turned up in commercial rice supplies in 24 different countries a full five years later.
Golden Rice is the poster-child for GM promotion, aiming to reduce Vitamin A deficiency by making the staple diet of millions of the poorest people on the planet more nutritious. However, 16 years (and billions of dollars) on from successfully adding a beta carotene gene to rice, researchers still haven’t developed a crop that works in the field.
Paragraph written by Liz O'Neill from GM Freeze.
What’s on the tables?
The general standard of environmental reporting in this sector is low.
Infinity Foods, Windmill Organics, Essential Trading, Suma, Akash, East End Foods, Alda Capital Ltd, Tree Of Life, Orvalley Corporation, Hain Celestial, Associated British Foods, Amira, Veetee and Booths score worst for Ethical Consumer’s environmental reporting rating.
Traidcraft, Premier Foods, Waitrose, Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Morrisons and Asda score a middle. Only Organico and Mars score a best.
Although supermarkets do slightly better on environmental reporting they still dominate the bottom of the table. This is because they sell a wide range of products and are rated on a correspondingly wide range of issues, for example, conflict minerals, factory farming, animal rights and genetic engineering. Companies that only produce rice are not rated on these issues as they are not relevant.
Essential, Amira, Hain Celestial, Booths, Morrisons, Tesco and Wal-Mart score a worst Ethical Consumer rating for their palm oil policies and lose marks under the climate change, habitats and resources, and human rights categories.
All other companies don’t use palm oil or score a best rating for sourcing sustainable palm oil and therefore lose no marks.
Anti-social finance hides a multitude of sins, from excessive remuneration (Premier Foods, John Lewis Partnership) and price fixing (Mars, Sainsbury’s), to parent companies located in tax havens (Veetee, Amira). There was also one prosecution for tax avoidance, but since the company in question (Project Blue) has only a 24% stake in the brand Barenaked this does not register on our table.
Ranking of fairtrade and organic rice prices. Best Buy recommendations are highlighted in green.
Company behind the brand
EH Booth & Co owns 30 small community Booths stores including 18 stores in Lancashire, seven stores in Cumbria, three stores in Yorkshire, two stores in Cheshire, and one in Greater Manchester. Founded in 1847, Booths is Britain’s oldest family-owned and run grocery business. What sets Booths apart is its dedication to providing a variety of fresh, organically-grown produce, as well as meat and dairy products sourced from local farms.
Booths Greenhouse Gas Footprint report was the most comprehensive and transparent account of emissions in the supply chains of any UK supermarket that we found. It’s a shame it didn’t contain any quantified and dated targets otherwise it would have got out best rating for environmental reporting.
Want to know more?
If you want to find out detailed information about a company and more about its ethical rating, then click on a brand name in the Score table.
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