According to the USDA organic survey acres of land growing organic rice is down from 2008 to 2014 by 6.5%, with total farms growing it down to 85 from 101. This shouldn’t be surprising. The 2008 survey also found that organic rice yields are 41% lower than conventional rice. Similar yield gaps can be found in other organic crops, but rice seems to offer its own unique set of challenges. Rice acreage fell for conventional farmers in the US during this time period as well with a combination of severe weather, competition from overseas, and better prices from other crops. Rice in the United States faces threats from disease, weeds, and even shrimp. California appears hardest hit with organic rice farms down to 46 from 73. This, again, makes sense considering the severe drought there. With modern technology, however, some conventional rice farmers there appear to be thriving.
GMO Free USA recently featured an organic farmer growing rice for Chipotle that can’t quite keep up to the demand and is trying to convince other farmers to grow it as well. Chipotle has even taken to calling Steve McKaskle the rice whisperer. This unsustainable method of growing rice destined to be marketed to customers seeking an elitist lifestyle is being made profitable with our tax dollars. While I applaud Mr. McKaskle’s entrepreneurship and ability to adapt to changing markets (a wink to Rob Walbridge), I question the politics behind giving his farm hundreds of thousands of dollars from federal and state governments.
More recently a $1 million USDA grant was announced to study organic rice farming. Dr. Xin-Gen Zhou is leading the study, who wants to help organic rice producers develop better methods of weed and disease control. Dr. Zhou explains that, “Rice is important to the world, and the acreage devoted to rice is really too small in the U.S. compared to the rice acreage in other countries. That’s why the potential impact of this project is so important.”
The organic industry appears to be in a panic over rice. A large portion of it comes from Cambodia, and Cambodia seems to want to keep it for themselves now. But instead of using public funding to support the tastes of Americans that can afford higher prices for unnecessary goods, maybe we should be taxing it instead. Terry Anderson and Henry Miller recently wrote an intriguing piece about how organic food should be taxed to help solve real problems. If the problem is too much of a demand for a product that just can’t keep up, taxing it to lower demand seems like a no brainer. The money could be used to fund drought resistant and biofortified varieties that could help rise developing nations out of poverty, rather than help Chipotle’s customers and investors. Even some organic proponents don’t see the value in buying organic rice.