Reforming Rice: Lundberg’s Greener Farms

Rice farming may look pretty from a distance, with its bucolic images of farmers in conical hats ankle deep in water as they cultivate green sprouts, but it has earned a bad environmental reputation because of its wasteful irrigation systems and incursions into wetlands. And the burning of rice fields has been blamed for childhood asthma cases, from Louisiana to Japan. One study found that asthma-related hospital visits went up 29 percent on days when rice was being burned.

Rice farming may look pretty from a distance, with its bucolic images of farmers in conical hats ankle deep in water as they cultivate green sprouts, but it has earned a bad environmental reputation because of its wasteful irrigation systems and incursions into wetlands. But not all rice farming is environmentally destructive.

States have taken action to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) released into the air during the burning season (September through early November). And California now regulates toxic releases from rice burning in the Sacramento River Valley.

But not all rice farming is environmentally destructive. Lundberg Family Farms has been growing rice in the Sacramento River Valley since the 1930s. All three generations of Lundbergs are dedicated to growing rice organically. In place of chemical fertilizer, the farm rotates cover crops such as clover and beans to provide nitrogen. The field is not burned following harvest, but is turned over so the rice waste can fertilize the soil.

The family recently installed a 196-kilowatt solar system that offsets the energy used in its manufacturing plant. The system is expected to produce 350,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity per year, paying for itself in eight years. "The Lundbergs have always been on course when it comes to environmentally friendly practices," says Dan Kalafatas, vice president of 3Phases Energy, a partner in the project. Jessica Lundberg, the company’s vice president, says green practices are in the genes. "My grandfather always said to leave the land better than how you found it," she says.

Only 300,000 acres of natural wetland remain in California’s Central Valley. According to the California Rice Commission, rice farms provide an additional 500,000 acres of sanctuary to more than 200 species of wildlife. Lundberg Family Farms has teamed up with a local conservationist in Live Oak, California to create a duck egg rescue program. Duck eggs are rescued from the rice fields before harvest, incubated, and then released back into the wild upon hatching. More than 20,000 ducks have been saved over the last 15 years.

But the rice industry is only "going green" slowly. Of 520,000 acres of rice in California, only two to three percent are certified organic, and much of the rest is large-scale corporate agriculture. David Coia, a spokesperson for the USA Rice Federation, counters that "the industry is well known for environmental initiatives." He cites water conservation efforts and programs to control soil erosion.

The politics of rice are not always simple. According to Jim Mason, co-author with Peter Singer of The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter (Rodale), the green mantra "buy local" may not always apply in the case of the international staple rice.

"It might actually be better to import organically grown food from developing countries where the farmers use very simple, eco-friendly methods," Mason says. The Way We Eat concludes that if Third World rice is imported using a non-fuel intensive means of transportation (such as oceangoing cargo ships), the environmental impact would be far less than that of intensively farmed rice grown in California.

—Kathleen O"Neill