Rice

In this guide we investigate, score and rank the ethical and environmental record of 22 rice brands.

We also look at its climate impact, use of GM, shine a spotlight on the ethics of Just Trading Scotland and give our recommended buys.

About Ethical Consumer

This is a product guide from Ethical Consumer, the UK's leading alternative consumer organisation. Since 1989 we've been researching and recording the social and environmental records of companies, and making the results available to you in a simple format.

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What to buy

What to look for when buying rice:

  • Is it grown with more sustainable methods? Rice is a significant source of methane by carbohydrate standards, although it is still very small compared to animal products. If you want to lower your climate impact, look for companies pursuing more sustainable growing methods.

  • Is it Fairtrade? Many agricultural products are grown by overworked and underpaid workers. Look for Fairtrade to ensure that the person growing your rice is paid a fair price.

Subscribe to see which companies we recommend as Best Buys and why 

What not to buy

What to avoid when buying rice:

  • Is it grown using synthetic chemicals? Synthetic pesticides and herbicides threaten insect populations, contaminate water sources and can have ecosystem-wide knock-on effects. Look for organic certification to avoid ingredients grown with these chemicals and to support farming methods that are more in tune with nature.

  • Can you choose another carbohydrate? Rice is one of the most carbon-intensive carbohydrates, producing 2.8 times as much CO2 per serving as pasta and 7.5 times as much as potatoes (although this is still small compared to animal products). Can you choose an alternative carbohydrate to reduce your environmental impact?

  • Is it packaged in plastic? The plastic in our oceans could circle the planet 400 times. It is threatening marine ecosystems and contributing to climate change. Buy from places that sell rice loose or bulk buy to cut down on packaging.

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Score table

Updated live from our research database

← Swipe left / right to view table contents →
Brand Score(out of 20) Ratings Categories Positive Scores

Our Analysis

Rice is the single most important source of energy for humans. It accounts for over 20% of calories eaten worldwide and is linked to the livelihoods of about one-fifth of the world’s population – over 1 billion people. Yet, it also one of the most carbon-intensive carbohydrates.

Of course, its impact is small compared to animal products. A glass of milk has almost twice the carbon footprint of a portion of rice, and a beef burger over 23 times.

However, rice produces 2.8 times as much greenhouse gas emissions per serving as pasta and 7.5 times as much as potatoes. It is, therefore, a paradox, both central to food security and a contributor to climate breakdown. 

The impact of rice on the climate

Rice cultivation is estimated to account for 2.5% of current warming and at least 10% of all agricultural greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Its impact is partially accounted for by the sheer scale of its consumption, as a staple food for half of the world’s population.

Nonetheless, rice has a much higher impact than other carbohydrates, because its production releases large amounts of methane. 

Methane is a potent greenhouse gas trapping 25 times more heat than CO2 over a 100 year period. The amount of methane in the atmosphere has significantly increased in recent years, and climate experts suggest that increasing rice cultivation is likely to be a significant factor. The gas is produced by bacteria that live in the flooded paddy fields. It escapes via gas spaces in the rice plants’ roots and stems and then bubbles up through the soil and water to escape into the atmosphere.

Rice production also accounts for one-third of global water use. Often, more water is used than required due to poor irrigation, not only exacerbating the methane emissions from paddy fields; but leaving farmers vulnerable to the ever more frequent risk of drought.

The impact of climate change on rice farmers

Image: female rice worker india
A female rice worker in India. All images provided by the seed bank Sahaja Samruhda.

Sadly, the dependency on water is just one way in which rice farmers are particularly vulnerable to climate change. 

Rising temperatures, the growing frequency of natural disasters and the increasing unpredictably of weather patterns mean that this vital food source is increasingly uncertain.
 Rice yields are predicted to fall 10% by 2050. Scientists also suggest that the actual nutritional value of rice will fall as a result of climate change, putting the poorest members of the world’s population more at risk of malnutrition.

The climate vulnerability of rice has been exacerbated in recent decades as farmers have been encouraged to produce single crop types. Many types of rice seed have been lost, most likely including important climate-resilient varieties.  

Of 200,000 peasant varieties previously thought to exist in India, following the Green Revolution only 1% remains.

Industrial seed varieties require more synthetic chemicals than indigenous types. The production of rice already accounts for at least one-seventh of fertiliser use globally.

Fertilisers can have serious knock-on ecosystem effects, for example leaching into water systems and affecting aquatic life. Synthetic chemicals also threaten bee populations. 

In many places, seed banks are trying to address these problems, collecting thousands of different varieties of seed, which are stored, tested and used by local farms.

 The Sahaja Samrudha seed bank in India wrote for us about their work and the Save our Rice campaign and why it is necessary.

Table Highlights

Positive marks

Many of the brands in the table received either full or half positive Company Ethos marks for:
- being owned by entirely organic [O], fair trade [F], vegetarian [V] or vegan [Vg] companies:

  • Biona [O, V]
  • Clearspring [O, Vg]
  • Essential [V]
  • Infinity [V]
  • Kilombero [F]
  • Suma [V]

- being owned by companies providing only environmental alternatives: Organico
- being co-operatives or mutuals: Essential, Suma, Infinity, Waitrose, Co-op
- or having not-for-profit trading structures: Kilombero

Fairtrade and Organic products also received a positive Product Sustainability mark, indicated by [F] and [O] on the table.

Tax Avoidance

Unfortunately, many of the companies also received our worst rating for likely use of tax avoidance strategies and lost a full mark under Anti-Social Finance: 

  • Amira, 
  • Hain Celestial (Akash and Tilda brands),
  • John Lewis,
  • Marks & Spencer,
  • Morrisons, 
  • Orvalley Corporation (Gallo brand),
  • Sainsbury, 
  • Tesco, 
  • Varma Trust (Ashoka, Badshah, Rozana, and Veetee brands),  
  • Wal-Mart (Asda).

Price comparison

Ranking of fairtrade and organic rice prices. 

Brand of rice Average price/kg of rice

Waitrose Duchy Organic [O]

£2.95
Suma [O] £3.17
Tesco [O] £3.35
Kilmobero [F] £3.49
Morrisons [O] £3.60
Sainbury’s So Organic [O] £3.67
Essential [O] £3.78
Tree of Life [O] £4.03
Clearspring [O] £4.78
Gallo [O] £5.18
Biona [O] £5.74
Organico [O] £6.90
Seeds of Change [O] £8.33
 

‘Sustainable’ growing options

Farmers, communities and NGOs around the world have long been looking for ways to make rice more sustainable. Over the decades, different options have been tested; yet the evidence remains uncertain.

If periodically drained, for example, rice paddies will release less methane. However, drained paddies may instead emit greater levels of nitrous oxide, another potent GHG, especially if too much fertiliser has been used.

Many smallholders have also tested what is known as a System of Rice Intensification (SRI) as a means to cut emissions. First explored in the 1980s in Madagascar, SRI is suggested to significantly increase the yield of rice fields, as well as reduce the amount of water and number of seeds required. It focuses on improving soils and the health of plants rather than altering seed. SRI involves using organic matter rather than artificial fertilisers; weeding between plants, and planting in wet rather than flooded paddies.

Traditional farming methods in Southern China may also show a more sustainable way forward.

The paddy fields provide ecosystems for fish, which in turn reduce reliance on artificial pesticides and fertilisers as they eat pests and create a natural nutrient cycle.

Initial research suggests that the presence of fish can also help to reduce methane emissions, as they encourage the presence of methane oxidising bacteria. At the same time, they offer a significant source of protein for farmers, potentially reducing reliance on rice itself. 

Image: Rice paddies methane
Vietnamese woman transplanting rice in a flooded paddy along the Red River near Haiphong, Vietnam. Photo credit: Steve Estvanik

Rice miles

Rice is often shipped many miles to arrive in the UK, as many varieties can only be produced in hot climates. 

Often, the country of origin will be marked on the side of the rice packet. However, if not it is possible to guess rice miles from the variety, out of the following three types:

  • indica rices are long-grained varieties generally grown in the Tropics, often Asia e.g. China and India, as well as African countries.
  • japonica rices are short-grained and sticky varieties generally grown in temperate climates such as USA and Japan, but also possible to grow in Europe.
  • javanica rices are long, bold grained rices grown in Indonesia.

You might want to consider choosing a locally-grown short grained (japonica) rices if you live in the UK or America, and long-grained varieties if you live in Asia. We couldn’t find any information on the proportion of emissions from shipping, however, and it seems likely that it will be small considering the impact from growing methods themselves. 

The companies that responded to our questionnaire sourced rice from the following countries:

  • Clearspring: Italy, India, Pakistan, Argentina, Uruguay, Myanmar, Cambodia, Thailand, Romania, Greece, Spain, South America, Canada, USA
  • Just Trading Scotland (Kilombero brand): Malawi
  • Organico: Italy
  • Suma: majority from Italy, some from India
  • Windmill Organics (Biona brand): Italy, France

Buying ‘sustainable’ rice

Buying the most sustainable rice does not currently seem to be an option in the UK.

Very little information could be found about the rice production methods used by those who supply the companies covered in this guide, with the exception of those that offer organic rice products. And even organic certification does not ensure practices such as mid-season drainage are used. 

However, a few of the companies did respond to our questionnaire about the measures their rice producers have taken to reduce environmental impacts, suggesting that there is a growing awareness about the need to change production methods.

Company

Measures to reduce environmental impacts 
Clearspring “Our Organic Sushi Rice supplier (rice grown in Italy) is researching new water management methods (succession of dry time and irrigation time) which promise to have a positive impact on methane emission and water footprint.”
Just Trading Scotland (Kilombero brand) “Farmers should be organic fertilizer producers and users... Our farmers are encouraged to practice permaculture thereby developing agricultural ecosystems intended to be sustainable and self-sufficient.”
 
Organico “covering the field for less time with water”
Suma “Fast Methane Analyzer installed in a paddy field in the Po Valley. Better water management, mid-season drainage of the field, organic fertilizer used.
“Eco-machines such as raccoglitrice a strappo and essiccatoio solare are more and more used to limit the environmental impact of rice production.”

Mars Foods, owner of the Seeds of Change and Uncle Ben’s brands, has also said that it will source 100% sustainable rice by 2020, based on the first ever global standard for sustainable rice, launched by the Sustainable Rice Platform (SRP).

The SRP is a multi-stakeholder partnership, which works “to promote resource efficiency and sustainability” in global rice supply chains.

The current members include government agencies and research institutes, rice traders and environmental and social NGOs, including Bayer, Mars Foods, Tilda, Veetee Rice and Fairtrade International. Its standard is being piloted, but no company appears to have so far met its criteria.

Reducing rice consumption instead, and opting for local and lower carbon staples like wheat or barley, is another step we can make toward reducing our individual carbon footprints, although it is a tiny issue compared to the production of animal products.  And it must obviously be weighed against the impact on rice farmers worldwide. 

If you are buying rice, going for an organic option will at least help. 

Buying brown varieties will also slightly reduce your impact, by cutting out some of the processing needed to produce white rice — removing the bran and polishing the grains. 

Another consideration is packaging. More and more places are providing refill options, which cut out packaging altogether.

If you can’t find a refill near you, buying in bulk can help cut down on packaging. Unfortunately, none of the brands that we looked at for this guide seemed to sell rice in paper packaging. 

How to cook with less carbon

  • Pre-soak rice for at least 30 minutes before cooking to help reduce cooking time. 
  • Match your pan size with the hob size, flame or hot plate to reduce heat loss. 
  • Use approximately two cups of water for every cup of rice.
  • Use an electric rice cooker, pressure cooker or saucepan with its lid on, to reduce energy use. 
  • Turn off or lower the heat when the water starts to boil and leave until all the water is absorbed (and the rice is cooked).
  • Don’t bin leftover rice! Cool it down quickly by plunging the pan into a bowl of cold water (to prevent the bacteria Bacillus Cereus from flourishing) and use leftover rice to make stuffed vegetables, a cold salad or fried rice balls. Rinsing rice before cooking also helps it keep for longer.

Workers’ rights

The majority of rice is farmed by smallholders. In Asia, where about 90 per cent of all rice is grown,  there are more than 200 million rice farms, most of which are smaller than one hectare.

Many smallholders rent their land and machinery as well as paying for the seeds and agrichemical inputs used.

This often leaves rice farmers vulnerable to exploitation from those who lend them money or inputs, who are often the same traders that will buy their rice crop after harvest.

Rice workers also face multiple health problems. Skin diseases and infections are common from standing in water for long days, often full of leeches and corrosive chemicals. 

The ammonia from fertiliser used can cause glaucoma, an eye condition that leads to sight loss if untreated. Fumes from other chemicals can affect the lungs, and back problems from days bent over are commonplace.

Many of these issues are becoming exacerbated in the face of climate change. As yields go down and weather patterns become increasingly uncertain and extreme, smallholders have less of a safety net to protect them.

Image: female rice worker india couple in rice paddy
Boregowda couple in Sidda Sana rice field, India. All images provided by the seed bank Sahaja Samruhda.

Women’s rights

Women often work in rice paddies: in South-East Asia, they contribute between 25-60% of the required labour and in South Asia as much as 60-80%. This proportion is increasing with global warming. Falling yields are forcing many to leave their farms in search of work in cities, and men are often the first to go.

Not only do female workers face all of the normal problems associated with working in rice paddy fields; in many places, they also lack control over either the land itself or the capital required for farming. In India, for example, only 13% of women own the land they work on and rarely in their own name. Yet, they provide between 60 – 80% of agricultural labour.

Likewise, women are likely to have little or no capital of their own with which to pay for land rent, agrichemical inputs, and machinery used in rice farming.

In many cultures, they hold much weaker positions in terms of bargaining, with those who provide loans or buy rice crops (often the same person). If working on another’s land, they also often face persistent discrimination in terms of wages and sexual harassment.

Climate change is again driving worsening conditions.

According to Oxfam, "Women farmers are highly vulnerable to climate change because they are often dependent on climate-sensitive livelihoods, have unequal access to productive resources such as land, and have less of a support system to fall back on in times of crisis."

At the same time, their growing role in agricultural communities means that supporting women farmers is essential for efforts to make rice production more sustainable.

It is therefore also important from a women’s rights perspective to consider buying Fairtrade or organic rice, which at least go some way towards protecting their interests.

By ensuring a fair price for rice, Fairtrade helps to address some of the problems that women face in terms of exploitative treatment by buyers and lack of capital for reinvesting.

Both Organic and Fairtrade certification also require companies to comply with the International Labour Organisation’s core Conventions.

As well as basic rights important to all workers, such as freedom of association, the Conventions include clauses on equal pay and non-discrimination. Organic does not, however, focus on policing workers’ rights issues.

Companies addressing women’s rights

We asked all the companies in our table what they were doing to support women in their supply chains. Just Trading Scotland, which owns the Kilombero brand, replied about its special initiatives to support women in its rice supply chain:

"50% of our rice farmers are women and are supported through KASFA (Kaporo Smallholder Farmer Association) who have set up a finance scheme for the women farmers to purchase ploughs to reduce the backbreaking manual labour.  

"They can then use these as an additional source of income by renting them out to fellow farmers, or by offering a member of her family to plough another farmer's field."

So far, over 100 women have purchased ploughs using the scheme.

Buying ‘fairer’ rice 

Only one of the products on our table, Kilombero rice, is marketed as fairly traded.

There are lots of reasons why Fairtrade certification has been so slow into the rice market. Strong trade relations between Europe and the US, for example, where there are subsidies for rice farmers, make our market a hard one for small farmers to access. Indeed, Europe is a comparatively small market for rice, making it less worthwhile for farmers to pursue European Fairtrade accreditations. Fairtrade has also traditionally had stronger relations with farmers in Latin America, where rice is not a staple crop. 

Organic certification from the Soil Association includes some workers’ rights protections, requiring farmers to comply with the ten core ILO Conventions, covering areas such as child labour, forced labour and discrimination, however, it does not put emphasis on policing this.

Some specific sustainable rice growing practices may also have benefits in terms of workers’ rights. 

Not only, for example, does SRI help limit rice’s climate impacts and therefore the associated threat of worsening conditions for rice farmers, it allows farming to take place in damp rather than flooded paddy fields, reducing the risk of water-borne diseases and infections; and it reduces the need for transplantation of seedlings, thus limiting the amount of work that places strain on the back. 

Seed sovereignty

For many of the reasons above, seed sovereignty remains an urgent issue for smallholder farmers around the world. 

Seed sovereignty is defined as “The farmer's rights to breed and exchange diverse Open Source Seeds which can be saved and which are not patented, genetically modified, owned or controlled by emerging seed giants’”

Smallholder farmers are often encouraged to move from using local seed and crop types, which are saved and resown year on year, to planting commercially-bred varieties.

 An increasing number of companies patent seed varieties, thereby placing legal restrictions on farmers’ right to preserve and resow or sell these types.

In some countries, this means that farmers repeatedly have to buy new seeds year on year. For farmers who lack capital – so women in particular – the situation often leads to debt, making them reliant on lenders and vulnerable to exploitation.

GMO rice cannot be grown in or imported to the UK. However, in 2018 a genetically modified rice variety known as Golden Rice was approved for cultivation in four countries, Canada, USA, New Zealand and Australia, and was being considered in Bangladesh and the Phillippines.

The rice is genetically engineered to have a higher Vitamin A content, celebrated by some as a potential means to end blindness from malnutrition. 

Critics, however, say that it merely diverts money from addressing the root causes of malnutrition and in fact has a lower yield than normal varieties. 

The biotech giant Syngenta owns commercial rights to the seed, and many fear that it will give them further control of the rice industry and the ability to impose high costs at their will. Farmers also fear cross-pollination, whereby dominant, low-yielding GMO rice will spread to other varieties.

Trials for GMO rice have indeed had an appalling record of contamination in the past. An experimental crop grown on a test site in the USA between 1998 and 2001, for example, turned up in commercial rice supplies in 24 different countries a full five years later.

Governments around the world are accused of protecting industrial rice, and the agribusinesses that profit from it, at the cost of local food crops and farmers.

In 2011, Colombian government authorities stormed warehouses and trucks belonging to rice farmers in the province of Huila and destroyed 70 tonnes of rice, which they said had not been processed according to the law.

It had just signed a trade deal with the US, which required it to provide legal monopoly rights over seeds sold by US and European corporations. Sadly, such laws are repeatedly written into international trade agreements around the world.

In November 2018, the UN made a landmark move to recognise seed sovereignty.

Its Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas includes the right to save, exchange and sell farm-saved seeds.

The Resolution is a positive step for thousands of rice farmers around the world. 119 states voted for the resolution. The UK was amongst the seven that voted against.

Company behind the brand

Just Trading Scotland is a not-for-profit Fairtrade food importer, trying to create markets for small-scale producers in Asia and Africa. It says that the ‘real beginning’ was when it  began to sell Kilombero rice in 2008.

The rice comes from KASFA, the Kaporo Smallholder Farmer Association in Malawi. KASFA began as a small group of farmers who all grew Kilombero rice in the Karonga region in the North. Now, the association has over 8,000 members.

It uses permaculture techniques and says “as much as possible we don’t allow our farmers to use fertiliser. We teach our farmers to let the rice stalks decompose in the fields and then when the first rains come, grass grows in the fields, so we plough it and allow to decompose there.

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