Today’s COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced the critical role of rice in ensuring global food security while combating climate change.
The world eats a lot of rice. Over 3.5 billion people rely on it as a staple part of their diet. The little grain is fundamental to global food security. Of the 820 million people who today go hungry, almost 60 per cent of them live in areas where rice consumption accounts for over 40 per cent of their annual cereal diet. Paradoxically, it is often those who grow food who are among the world’s most food-insecure. For over 100 million rice smallholders, rice is all that stands between them and hunger.
Before COVID-19, the expansive industry that provides this life-giving food to half of the global population was already struggling to cope with the impacts of climate change. Now, the pandemic is ravaging the rice sector, further threatening lives and livelihoods.
Rice production, prices and international trade are all impacted by the pandemic as well as widespread droughts. Panic buying prompted rice-exporting countries to impose limits or bans on exports, while domestic price caps imposed by some importing countries have led to reduced import volumes. Coupled with logistical stoppages resulting from nationwide lockdowns, over half of global rice supply – originating in five key countries – is now at risk. Currently, price surges disproportionately harm poorer households for whom rice is a staple, and where rice can account for almost half of monthly spending.
Meanwhile, lockdowns also make it harder for farmers to obtain vital inputs such as seeds, fertilizers and field labor. Crops already planted are at risk due to a lack of labor as quarantines have forced migrant workers to return home. Missed windows for planting and harvest will devastate yields.
Additionally, with the elderly more susceptible to COVID-19, productivity is also under threat, considering the increasing average age of rice farmers today.
COVID-19 comes at a time when underlying climate change impacts are already compromising food and water security. Southeast Asia, which supplies 50 per cent of the world’s rice exports, is experiencing its worst drought in 40 years.
“The adversities in the rice trade triggered by COVID-19 are an acute preview of what climate change has in store,” said Wyn Ellis, Executive Director of the Sustainable Rice Platform. “But instead of a temporary threat to farmers and food value chains, climate change impacts will be lasting, likely for generations. This pandemic shows us how devastating the consequences of inaction could be and how climate change can intensify existing crises.”
Climate change will exacerbate the vulnerabilities of food systems and human health. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is working closely with partners, particularly through the Sustainable Rice Platform, to strengthen smallholder capacity and resilience to current and future shocks.
The Sustainable Rice Platform, initiated by UNEP and the International Rice Research Institute in 2011, is a multi-stakeholder alliance comprising over 100 institutional members, whose Secretariat is hosted by UNEP’s Regional Office for Asia and Pacific in Bangkok. SRP is working to transform the global rice sector by promoting resource efficiency and climate-smart best practice among rice farmers and throughout value chains. SRP is developing sustainable production standards, indicators, incentives and outreach to boost wide-scale adoption of sustainable best practices in rice production, as well as to reduce GHG emissions from rice farms.
SRP members are also actively helping with the COVID-19 response. Some SRP members are reversing their supply chains to deliver personal protective equipment and hand soap to farmers. The crisis response is also providing valuable lessons in how to deal with climate change impacts on rice. For example, farmers, particularly women, have been leading initiatives against COVID-19 by championing hygienic practices, which is leading the Platform to adapt from knowledge sharing to knowledge co-creation.
As we aim to build back better, farmers will need improved capacity to reduce and prevent far-reaching environmental, social and economic blows of global crises. 3.5 billion people depend on it.