When the Thakrar family migrated to London from Uganda in 1970, they brought the authentic, aromatic taste of their Indian roots with them. Today, the Tilda brand, renowned for its premium pure basmati rice, is a staple for food lovers across the world. Jon Calland, Head of Sustainability and External Affairs, tells Green Business Journal how the company has teamed up with farmers in India to help tackle climate change and reduce the environmental impact of rice production.

Tilda was launched over 50 years ago during the large wave of immigration to the UK from countries such as India, Pakistan and Uganda. The wonderful cuisines from this wave of new consumers had an instant influence on the country’s tastebuds which continues to this day… and Tilda has become a household name among rice connoisseur..

Family-owned until 2014, Tilda is now part of Ebro® group, employing over 250 people at a state-of-the-art manufacturing facility in Rainham, just outside London. The company aims to become one of the most socially and environmentally responsible rice producers in the world.

As Jon explains, “We are committed to helping to shape a more sustainable rice supply chain globally. Most recently, we have been working with 699 Basmati rice farmers in India to trial the use of Alternate Wet Drying (AWD), an innovative farming technique that could transform the way rice is grown. On average this technique reduces water and energy use by 20% and greenhouse gas emissions by up to half.

“We buy rice from over 7,000 smallholder farmers in India. We work hard to engage farmers in an authentic and genuine way that focuses on what matters to them – their livelihoods, their farming practices and their communities. In return, farmers commit to meet our standards and we pay a premium to those that do. This is at the core of the Contract Farming approach that ensures our rice is produced in a way that safeguards people and the planet.”

Tilda started its sustainability journey in the early 1980’s with the introduction of certified Basmati seed – to improve farmers’ yields and the quality of the final product – on a not-for-profit basis.

Jon explains, “We also started our Agricultural Extension Service back then. This service transferred knowledge to farmers on farming best practice, such as the optimal use of fertiliser to ensure a healthy crop, but limit pollution. It was knowledge that we gained from several seasons of running a model farm, to help us understand how to make farming more sustainable for the planet and more profitable for the farmers, at a time when yields were still very low.

“Things have come a long way since, but our farmers are still able to contact the Tilda team via a telephone hotline to get advice and follow up on requests for field visits.

“The aim from the very beginning has been to improve livelihoods and the quality of the product, and the two go hand in hand. Increasingly, as we learn more about our impact on our planet, we need to help the farmers we buy from, to adapt.

So how is Tilda’s sustainability journey progressing?

Jon says, “We are committed to looking at each step in the supply chain to understand how we can make our environmental footprint smaller and then act. This could be revaluating the choice of energy we use to altering our choice of packaging materials to changing how our rice is grown. The ambition is real, and there are many challenges which we acknowledge.

“Our recent AWD project has also helped us take a step forward in this ambition. By working with the farmers to help reduce their water and electricity usage, they have also been able to reduce the amount of methane their farms produce, going some way to helping protect our planet from the detrimental impact of climate change.”

The impact of climate change

Jon adds, “The impact of climate change is an issue that any environmentally aware business will be giving some thought to. Ideally, we need to be able to produce food with less inputs including water and fertilisers, whilst still ensuring healthy yields and a good return for farmers. It’s about optimising that balance for the benefit of the planet and its people.

 “Climate change is certainly having an impact on rice production and in some instances, it is preventing it. Take the current situation in Spain, for example. A second year of drought means that rice cultivation in Spain is likely to come to a halt at least for the coming season. Rice farmers are reliant upon abundant rainfall for rice to take root in the early season. Although from what we understand, rice farmers in Spain will not be able to do any planting this season because of the lack of rain in the crucial early sowing period. By contrast Pakistan suffered severe damage to its own crop from unprecedented flooding last year.

“Climate change means we must find both drought and flood resistant rice varieties as well as more sustainable farming practices if we are to adapt to the more extreme weather conditions we are witnessing around the world. AWD is an example of a more sustainable rice farming technique, which on average reduces water and energy use by 20% and greenhouse gas emissions by up to half, as farmers can achieve multiple drying cycles due to the favourable soil conditions, so their yields remain safe.

“In addition, Bangladesh has benefited from the introduction of flood resistant rice which has increased their output and improved incomes. There are positive actions being taken within the industry, and Spanish rice farmers are unlucky this year. Hopefully, the weather pattern will change in their favour for next year.”

Biggest lesson learned so far?

“Tilda’s sustainability journey has been an interesting one and over the years, we have learned to focus on the areas where we can have the greatest impact. The two areas that have our current focus are water conservation and reducing greenhouse gas emissions; the latter is an entirely natural byproduct from rice cultivation but can be halved with relatively ‘simple’ changes in farming practices.

“One way to do this is to implement AWD, a technique which involves farmers moving away from the traditional rice farming method of continuously flooding paddy fields to ensure plant roots are submerged. We understand this flooding generates high levels of greenhouse gas, methane, and uses large amounts of water and electricity but there is a better way.

“On average the AWD technique reduces water and energy use by 20% and greenhouse gas emissions by up to half as farmers can achieve multiple drying cycles due to the favourable soil conditions so their yields remain safe. It is a virtuous circle.

“We are currently working to scientifically validate the results of the programme in partnership with experts in the hope that techniques will be adopted across the entire rice supply chain, with the potential for a huge positive impact.”

AWD’s benefits

“Rice fields have traditionally been fed with water that is drawn from rivers and by the monsoon rains; in fact, most rice is grown in areas that are naturally prone to flooding like river deltas, but water is also pumped from borewells.

“Our AWD programme is one of our biggest sustainability schemes to date and the results look promising. It is pioneering in that as far as we know, it isn’t being used on a mass scale. The technique was discovered by climate scientists and has been validated by the International Rice Research Institute.

“The benefit of AWD pipes is in their simplicity. By allowing the field to dry but monitoring the water table and flooding the field only when needed, farmers can reduce water usage and methane gas emissions by half on average. That’s really encouraging when it means less water is used, saving 20% on average which means less energy is used too.

“So far, the farmers we are working with have responded positively. It is a voluntary scheme, and whilst we actively encourage it, we do not – and cannot – mandate it. We plan on rolling this scheme out to even more farmers in India in the coming years.”

Bodhi, a local farmer who has adopted the technique, explains: “We used to water the fields all the time, but since these pipes have been installed, we look inside and only water when required. This saves both water and electricity.”

“We hope that the farmers are encouraged by the positive environmental changes, but also by the positive impact AWD has had on their business operations. The advantages are clear – they will save water, energy – and therefore money – and their yields remain as good or better. That is crucially important, there must be a win-win, and we believe there is.

“We encourage farmers to only use crop protection methods when necessary. The focus of our agricultural extension teams is visiting the farms and walking the fields to address any challenges the farmers have that might damage the health of their crop.”

A complex road ahead

Jon adds, “We wouldn’t put a ‘green’ label on Tilda; every aspect of what we do has some impact on the environment, and we are fully conscious of that. AWD is the sustainability project that we have seen the most success with and we hope to roll it out to even more farmers in India over the coming years.

“We wish that the technology to recycle Ready-To-Heat plastic packaging was better developed and had hoped it would have been more widely available by this point in time. The big retailers have begun collection points and several local authorities are rolling out pilot projects to recycle flexible packaging. Setting up these systems is complex, and we have been contributing to a fund since its foundation in 2021. We can’t fault the people working to bring these systems on-line, however I understand people’s frustration at the pace – but it is a complex issue.”

Solving the puzzle

Tilda collaborates with other companies on best practice and innovation in food production, as Jon explains. “We play an active role in the UK Rice Association as well as the Food and Drink Federation to stay abreast of pre-competitive issues like maintaining supply during Covid, recycling and energy policy. We firmly believe that in the sustainability space, success is judged by the result, and we all have responsibility to solve a piece of the puzzle when it comes to tackling the challenges we face.

“We are already evolving our packaging materials to be more readily recyclable in time for when household collections of flexible plastic begin, starting with dry rice packs.

“All our electricity is sourced from renewable sources. Both our rice mill on the river Thames and ready to heat rice production facilities have reduced their carbon footprint by 13% and 20% respectively since the 2018 base year for monitoring. We are also actively investigating how we can switch away from natural gas to hydrogen when it becomes available in the Thames estuary.”

And finally, how will Tilda evolve over the next 10 to 20 years? Jon concludes, “The food sector in the UK has been transformed over the last 50 years and Tilda has been part of that wonderful journey of discovery. Having the best quality should not come at the expense of our environmental footprint so we need to never be complacent and keep asking how we can improve.”