Rice is nice, but is it vegan? I get this question a lot. It usually comes from people who are either new to the subject (and aren’t yet quite clear on what the term vegan means) or current vegans who wonder whether there are any negative environmental impacts of rice farming that could render the food non-vegan.
Is it vegan? Yes, rice is 100% vegan-friendly. In fact, as a cereal grain, it’s the most widely consumed food in parts of the world that largely subsist on vegan and vegetarian diets. It’s the agricultural product having the third-highest production worldwide second only to sugar cane and maize.20
Though the other two food stables edge it out in worldwide production, rice is actually consumed more than either one—since large portions of maize and sugarcane crops have uses other than human consumption.
As such, rice is the single most important grain in terms of human nutrition and calorie intake, and provides over one-fifth of the calories consumed worldwide.21
Why Rice Is Considered Vegan
Rice is a Plant Food (Animal Ethics)
For those of you who are new to the subject, veganism is simply the practice of avoiding the use of animal products, and the vegan diet entails abstaining from animal foods and foods involving the exploitation of animals (e.g. deriving honey from bees). It’s based on a philosophy that rejects using animals as a commodity.
In The Rise of Critical Animal Studies, Helena Pedersen and Vasile Staescu argue that vegans are ethically opposed to the idea that the life animals (both human and non-human) should never be regarded as a commodity to be purchased and sold.1
In his book, Animals and the Limits of Postmodernism, Gary Steiner argues that we should, as best as we can, abstain from the use of animals as food, entertainment, and in experimentation, manufacturing, etc. That animals are entitled to a life free of exploitation.2
In practice, this means avoiding the consumption of animals and foods containing animal-derived ingredients, as well as avoiding commodities like leather, etc.
Rice is a plant food and doesn’t require animal-derived additives, etc. Granted, it’s not always this simple. For example, some vegans avoid eating figs because they sometimes contain wasps. But, generally speaking, if a product is an actual plant then it’s good to go.
Ecological Impact of Rice Cultivation (Environmental Ethics)
Then there’s the ecological impact to consider. For example, many vegans like to avoid palm oil as its cultivation has devastating impacts on the environment and endangered species.3-8
Unlike with palm oil, a clear line hasn’t been drawn from rice cultivation to concern for specific species—like the effect of palm oil on the Orangutans.
For this reason, rice is not considered a problematic food in the vegan community.
However, that’s not to say that no one has voiced concerns.
There is a branch of veganism known as environmental veganism that focuses primarily on conservation. They reject the use of animal products due to the ecological impact of hunting, trapping, and fishing. They also take issue with farming practices that are considered environmentally unsustainable.
However, even environmental vegans have yet to advocate that people avoid eating rice.
Emphasis on the negative aspects of rice farming typically come from omnivores who advocate eating animals. They try to “debunk” the vegan diet by creating awareness around the negative effects farming can have on animals and the environment.
For example, an article was put out by the Daily Utah Chronicle wherein the author argues that the simple act of growing crops like beans and rice requires the elimination of wild animals inhabiting the lands that are converted to crop fields.9
Some environmentalists maintain that rice fields are among the highest sources of atmospheric methane (CH4), a compound that contributes to global warming. They say that in order to meet the projected needs for an increasing global population, that the annual world’s rough rice production would need to increase an estimated 760 million tons (a 65% increase) over the next 30 years.10
Methane is a compound that plays an important role in ecological systems and even a small change in its concentration can have a strong influence on the atmosphere.11
Like CO2, methane (CH4) is an important greenhouse gas as it helps trap thermal radiation from the earth’s surface.12 For this reason, the compound is known to significantly contribute to global warming.13
Anyway, without any improvements in current technology, the methane emissions from rice fields would be expected to increase exponentially.
These claims seem to be somewhat substantiated. Evidence for there being an increase in atmospheric methane concentration has been reported as far back as the 1980s.14,15
Since then, several measurements have been taken at various spots around the world showing an average annual increase of about 1% per year.16,17
It turns out, the increasing concentration of atmospheric methane accounts for upwards of 20% of the radiative force added to the atmosphere.18
Radiative force is the difference between the sunlight absorbed by the earth and the energy radiated back out to space.
Why is this not an issue for the environmental vegan community? Well, we humans have to eat something. And about anything we could possibly choose to eat would have some impact on the environment and wildlife.
It’s all about finding the best sources of food to meet nutritional needs. And rice cultivation is hardly the worst offender when it comes to methane emissions.
On their informational article covering greenhouse gas emissions, the EPA mentions livestock as a key contributor to CH4 emissions.19 Rice crops were not mentioned once.
Also, above it was mentioned that without any improvements in technology, methane emissions would only go up. Well, it turns out there are several new promising technologies on the horizon.
Promising candidates include:10
- Using rice varieties that have lower emission potentials
- Modification of water and soil management
- Minimizing the use of easily degradable carbon sources
- Combining methane inhibitors with fertilizer
- Reducing the frequency and intensity of soil disturbances
As for some animals being harmed in the clearing of land, most vegans are primarily concerned with what’s known as non-maleficence, which is the ethical imperative to avoid purposefully doing any harm.
For most people, there’s a huge difference between accidentally causing harm to an animal versus purposefully and systematically seeking them out for use of their bodily resources.
Well, that wraps it up for now. Just know that as a vegan you have the green light to eat all the rice that you want.
Thanks for reading.
- Helena Pedersen, Vasile Staescu in Nik Taylor, Richard Twine (eds.), The Rise of Critical Animal Studies: From the Margins to the Centre, Routledge, 2014 (262–276), 267. https://books.google.com/books?id=vQNgAwAAQBAJ&pg=PA267#v=onepage&q&f=false
- Gary Steiner, Animals and the Limits of Postmodernism, Columbia University Press, 2013, 206. https://books.google.com/books?id=SfFnIsnSEIQC&pg=PA206#v=onepage&q&f=false
- Clay, Jason (2004). World Agriculture and the Environment. p. 219. ISBN 978-1-55963-370-3.
- “Palm oil: Cooking the Climate”. Greenpeace. 8 November 2007. Archived from the original on 10 April 2010.
- “The bird communities of oil palm and rubber plantations in Thailand” (PDF). The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).
- “Palm oil threatening endangered species” (PDF). Center for Science in the Public Interest. May 2005.
- Shears, Richard (30 March 2012). “Hundreds of orangutans killed in north Indonesian forest fires deliberately started by palm oil firms”. Daily Mail. London.
- “Camera catches bulldozer destroying Sumatra tiger forest”. World Wildlife Fund. 12 October 2010.
- The Environmental Impact Of Veganism – Daily Utah Chronicle Nicholas Coleman – http://dailyutahchronicle.com/2017/04/18/environmental-impact-veganism/
- K. MinamiH. -U. Neue. Rice paddies as a methane source. May 1994, Volume 27, Issue 1, pp 13–26
- Thompson, A. M. and Cicerone, R. J.: 1986, ‘Possible Perturbations to Atmospheric CO, CH4 and OH’,J. Geophys. Res. 91(D, 10858–10864.
- Wang, W. C., Yung, Y. L., Lacis, A. A., Mo, J. E., and Hansen, J. E.: 1976, ‘Greenhouse Effects due to Man-Made Perturbations of Trace Gases’,Science 194, 685–690.
- Ramanathan, V., Cicerone, R. J., Singh, H. B., and Kiehl, J. T.: 1985, ‘Trace Gas Trends and Their Potential Role in Climate Change’,J. Geophys. Res. 90(D, 5547–5566.
- Graedel, T. E. and McRae, J. E.: 1980, ‘On the Possible Increase of the Atmospheric Methane and Carbon Monoxide Concentrations During the Last Decade’, Geophys. Res. Lett. 7, 977-979.
- Rasmussen, R. A. and Khalil, M. A. K: 1981, ‘Increase in the Concentration of Atmospheric Methane’, Atmos. Environ. 15, 883-886.
- Blake, D. R. and Rowland, F. S.: 1988, ‘Continuing Worldwide Increase in Tropospheric Methane, 1978 to 1987’,Science 239, 1129–1131.
- Rowland, F. S.: 1991, ‘Stratospheric Ozone in the 21st Century, The Chlorofluorocarbon Problem’,Environ. Sci. Technol. 25, 622–628.
- Watson, R. T., Rode, H., Oeschger, H., and Siegenthaler, U.: 1990, ‘Greenhouse Gases and Aerosol’, in Houghton, J. T., Jenkins, G. J., and Ephraums, J. J. (eds.),Climate Change, the IPCC Scientific Assessment, Cambridge Univ., New York 1–40.
- Overview Of Greenhouse Gases https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/overview-greenhouse-gases
- “Crops/Regions/World list/Production Quantity (pick lists), Rice (paddy), 2016”. UN Food and Agriculture Organization, Corporate Statistical Database (FAOSTAT). 2017.
- Smith, Bruce D. (1998) The Emergence of Agriculture. Scientific American Library, A Division of HPHLP, New York, ISBN 0-7167-6030-4.