Oxfam in Asia - Rice Report Blog 2019

Photo credit: Oxfam in Pakistan

Rice Farmers Serving Happiness to Every Table Except Theirs

Co-written by Ruth Segal, Oxfam GROW Policy Manager

In Asia, where 90 percent of the world’s rice is grown, to say you’re “eating rice” is the generic way to say you’re “eating”. Rice is the way of Asian life. Whether it is a celebration of a life milestone or social ceremony, the grain is the centerpiece of every communal gathering.

But it is not all happiness for the 400 million people who grow this rice, according to Oxfam’s latest research paper, Unfair Harvest. We have focused on the rice farmers of Nepal, Pakistan, and Vietnam, exploring the drivers of inequality in their sector.

Most of the people who grow rice are small-scale farmers, many of them women. Typically, on average, they own no more than two hectares of land. Most of them cannot afford the basics necessary for a decent life. Their poverty is passed on over generations.

The problem is that most of the finished value of their rice crops ends up going to retailers and big supermarkets – with traders in the middle, both big and small, taking numerous cuts along the way.

Small-holder farmers only get about two to six dollars a day from their rice crops. In some countries, rice farmers get as little as four percent of the final price paid by consumers. Supermarkets on the other hand received most of the money from consumers.  

Things are getting worse for farmers. And better for the retailers.

Since 1995, the percentage going to supermarkets has increased by over 11 percent. The amount going to the farmers at the tail-end of the value chain has reduced by 13.1 percent. Their livelihoods are at the mercy of middlemen and sellers who have access to markets and can influence prices.

Women farmers find it especially hard to cope with the multiple socio-economic factors that mean that all their hard work is not translating into a better, more dignified life. In addition to all their labor in the rice paddies, they are required to do most of the unpaid and under-appreciated care work at home.

Many societies assume that men are the heads of households which further tilts the power relation, making it hard for women to negotiate equal control of the family resources. These customs can limit how thoroughly a woman can participate in decision-making, making it harder for her to access markets or receive and act on important information about climate change, for instance.
Bringing happiness back to rice farmers

Without a decent livelihood, happiness continues to elude rice farmers. Their unhappiness remains invisible despite how much they contribute to the economy. Governments focus on keeping rice prices low for city consumers, consequently, the plight of rice farmers living in the countryside becomes secondary.

To make matters worse, there isn’t enough reliable data on gender in the rice sector. For instance, it is difficult to know for certain exactly how much time women spend on unpaid farm work. Today’s data puts more of an emphasis on traditional development indicators and rather than the quality and dignity and rights of people. As a result, both the contribution and plight of rice farmers is largely made invisible.

The steps needed now to address the challenges of small-scale rice farmers, especially women, will determine the future of the rice sector and, indeed, the global food system.

Even as large-scale rice farming grows, small-scale farmers remain an essential part of the food chain. They potentially hold the key to a more sustainable and healthier global food system.

To do this, governments must act bold, be decisive – and be quick about it.

We need better laws to protect labor and women’s rights. Governments should guarantee small-scale rice farmers an adequate minimum price and equal pay for women. They should support alternative business models, such as farmers’ cooperatives, and for farmers to adopt more sustainable ways to grow their rice.

Good progressive law is one solution. But the private sector needs to act too.

All companies involved in the rice trade should commit publicly to uphold the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. They should guarantee safe working conditions and equal opportunities for women across their supply chains – and commit to a sustainable business that slashes their greenhouse gas emissions.

As the Asian saying goes “Talking won’t cook rice”. We need action now!