With growing interest by consumers, customers, and policy-makers in knowing how the production of food impacts the environment, the U.S. rice industry is set to conduct a major research project — the development of a regional sustainability benchmark report to document rice farmers’ continuous efficiencies (or improvements) in natural resource management practices.

Funded by The Rice Foundation, whose mission includes ensuring the long-term sustainability and future competitiveness of U.S. rice, the report will track the industry’s progress in five categories of sustainability over the past 20 years. The categories include productivity, soil loss, water use, energy use, and climate impact.

The benchmark report is an initiative of the USA Rice Federation’s Sustainability Task Force that is guiding the development of the rice industry’s sustainability program. Jennifer James, task force chairwoman and Arkansas rice producer, says the report “will provide the scientific background information necessary to better understand and follow best management practices that enhance long-term, sustainable U.S.-rice production.”

The U.S. rice industry joins the corn, cotton, soybeans and wheat industries in the development of a benchmark report. Those industries, through their involvement with Field to Market: The Keystone Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture, have used their benchmark reports to develop a Fieldprint Calculator.

The Fieldprint Calculator, found on Field to Market’s Web site, is an educational tool designed to help growers assess how operational decisions affect overall sustainability performance. USA Rice, a member of Field to Market, plans to add rice to the educational tool upon completion of its benchmark study. The tool will allow rice farmers to find out how their current land, water and energy use, greenhouse gas emissions, and soil loss compare with national and state averages.

Field to Market strives to champion science-based, sustainable agricultural outcomes capable of meeting the needs of 9 billion people in 2050. It involves all segments of the food chain, from farmers to retailers. Members of USA Rice Federation report that USDA looks favorably on the benchmark reports and Field to Market efforts.

In addition, The National Agri-Marketing Association recently recognized the Field to Market program with an award and praised its efforts to drive and shape the public dialogue about sustainable agriculture.

The rice industry’s development of a benchmark study and progressive involvement with Field to Market comes at a time when the U.S. rice industry must show its proactive commitment to sustainable agriculture in farm policy debates. The next farm bill debate — which could begin as early as this year — will invariably focus more on agriculture’s conservation and environmental contributions and practices to conserve natural resources.

“As the Obama administration and Congress develop new farm policy, the rice industry will use the benchmark report and its involvement in Field to Market to highlight the sustainable nature of American rice,” James said.

Members of the USA Rice Federation report that important customers have asked to see a sustainability statement for U.S.-grown rice. The information gleaned from the benchmark study and other sources will help develop a statement that communicates the sustainable qualities and positive environmental impacts of U.S.-grown rice.

“As rice farmers, we know that we have a good and long track record of protecting our natural resources and diverse ecosystems, and that we have become more efficient over time,” James said. “This benchmarking study will help communicate to our business partners, consumers and policy-makers that the U.S.-rice industry is committed to sustainably-produced rice.”