Not only does the food industry employ more people than any other in the UK, but our wider supply chains touch millions of people across the world. For Mars Food, our biggest raw material is rice. And while Uncle Ben’s is the number one global rice brand, in reality we source only a fraction of the total rice grown and processed globally, most of which is consumed locally, in rice-growing communities. Still, we have a responsibility to help reduce the impact rice production has on the environment and drive adoption of innovative and more sustainable farming practices by rice farmers.
We are at the end of National Rice Week 2017 and rice consumption in the UK is growing - now at 4.4kg per Brit each year - as eating habits have changed to fit with busy modern lifestyles and to reflect health-conscious diets. However, for 3.5 billion people around the world rice is their main food source and, somewhat unbelievably, 19% of the global population relies on rice for its livelihood. So I think we can agree: that little grain is pretty important.
But there are big environmental challenges for rice farmers. Rice growers use 40% of the world’s irrigation water. Rice cultivation is also responsible for 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions. With populations rising, the stress on water in countries where rice is grown, such as Spain, India and Pakistan, grows too.
We’re committed to addressing those challenges, and this week we announced that all of our basmati rice is now sourced from farmers who are working towards the Sustainable Rice Platform’s (SRP) standard for sustainable rice - a first in the global rice industry. The SRP is a multi-stakeholder initiative to improve the livelihood of farmers and reduce the impact on the environment, and includes important partners such as UN Environment and the WWF. A pilot project run in 2016 following the SRP standards in Pakistan achieved an 8% increase in yield, 30% reduction in water and a 32% increase in net income. Better results for the farmer, a reduced impact on the environment and the best rice for our consumers. Everyone wins.
This is the first major milestone toward sourcing all of our rice varieties from SRP farmers by 2020, a commitment we made back in 2015.
Imagine the impact we could have on farmer livelihoods and the environment if all rice farmers adopted these new practices. We cannot drive this fundamental shift alone; there needs to be a collective effort towards a sustainable future for rice production. Implementing the SRP Standard across all rice cultivation is critical to making every grain count and we’re excited that a number of organisations have already signed up.
Grant Reid, our Global Mars CEO, recently said that the only way we can see a long-term future for businesses like ours is if we do things differently to ensure a healthy planet and everyone in our extended supply chains has the opportunity to thrive. This week marks a step towards making that change a reality; hopefully others will join us on the journey.
Craig Sargeant is general manager at Mars Food UK