Lotus Rice Sets a Sustainable Standard

Written by Cary Levine, Co-founder/Co-owner, Lotus Foods, Inc.

When my partner, Ken, and I first started importing a black rice from China that we trademarked Forbidden Rice® 20 years ago, what got us hooked were its taste and color and the thrill of introducing this amazing heirloom rice to US consumers. The rice farmers we saw were quite poor, so a key goal was to ensure that they were fairly paid for this exotic and nutritious rice. We could also see that they were growing the rice not in big monocultures but on family farms, and we wanted to encourage this kind of sustainable production.

Fast forward 10 years to 2005 when we learned about the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) from staff at Cornell University. By this time our travels and experience in building a business around rice had taught us that how rice is grown around the world, with large amounts of irrigation, is not sustainable. So we were immediately excited to hear about a growing methodology that enables farmers to achieve high yields of heirloom varieties (or any variety for that matter) while reducing the amount of water normally applied to rice.

SRI is, simply put, a different way to grow rice from what has been recommended for the last 60 years. Interestingly, almost all of the practices have been used in different cultures at different times, but it was in Madagascar that a French agronomist and his Malagasy counterparts and rice farmers put them all together. Farmers do not use any new seeds or technologies; what they change is how they manage their plants, soil and water. To begin with, they use a lot less seedlings and transplant them when they are only 8 to 14 days old, which reduces transplant shock. We all know that from our own gardening experiences. Then, instead of crowding lots of older seedlings together, they place the individual small seedlings about a foot apart, giving them plenty of space to grow, and aisle to go through with a simple mechanical weeder. This reduces competition and promotes photosynthesis. Leaving fields mostly unflooded promotes healthier soils and more prolific root systems to feed the rice plant.

It’s likely that SRI, which was originally known by its French acronym, Système de Riziculture Intensive, would never have left the country had it not been for Professor Norman Uphoff at Cornell University. He was then director of the Cornell International Institute for Food, Agriculture and Development (CIIFAD). In the mid 1990s CIIFAD had been subcontracted by a US-funded development project to identify solutions to save what was left of Madagascar’s rapidly disappearing eastern rain forest, home to thousands of unique species including lemurs. One of the biggest threats to the rain forest was and is low rice productivity. People depend on rice for survival and because of low yields they encroach into the forest to create new land area to plant rice.

CIIFAD learned about a local organization called Tefy Saina that was promoting a novel way to grow rice that produced 2 to 3 times more rice but with less water, seed and only local materials for fertilizer. Prof. Uphoff was intrigued, and initially skeptical, but after a series of trials in cooperation with the national university, in 1997 he began to reach out to his extensive network of colleagues in China, Sri Lanka, India and elsewhere to see if the practices could be validated in those countries.

Today, there are some 10 million farmers applying SRI practices in more than 50 countries, transforming their lives with more rice to eat and sell, while drastically reducing the amount of water they apply to their fields. By the time we learned about SRI in 2005, SRI farmers in a number of countries were generating marketable surpluses of high quality traditional rice. These farmers were among the most marginalized in the world, and their advocates were NGOs trying to help them find ways to improve their food security. Now surprisingly, they had the reverse problem. Farmers using SRI practices were so successful in increasing their yields that they had surplus to sell! These NGOs had no experience in marketing. They knew how to train farmers on SRI, but not how to help them get a better price for their organically grown traditional rice.

After two due diligence trips to Madagascar and Cambodia, we decided that to get at the twin challenges of food security and more sustainable use of water resources, our conscience required us to support SRI farmers. But this meant creating value chains from scratch, working with farmers and NGO partners who had zero capacity and experience in exporting rice.

The road has been rocky for sure, but the benefits have outweighed the hardships any day. We’ve gone from 1 to over 20 containers a year, for example, of traditional organic and fair trade certified jasmine rice grown by SRI producers in Cambodia. This is one of the rices used in Hilary’s Black Rice Burger. Our organic and fair trade premiums are contributing to new rural prosperity and enterprise. We recently learned that our fair trade social development premium was used to build a commune meeting hall in Kampong Chhnang Province. So you are directly helping to promote community dialogue and engagement.

The other rice in Hilary’s Black Rice Burger is of course black rice. Throughout Asia, black rice is the most prized. This is likely due to the health benefits. The black rice in Hilary’s Black Rice Burger is sourced from SRI farmers in West Java, Indonesia. Together with our Volcano Rice, it has “Fair for Life” certification from the international certifying organization IMO. To receive this designation, both producers and processors need to demonstrate that the rice is produced according to stringent social, environmental and ethical standards. We are very proud to be the exclusive suppliers of this rice, and we salute Hilary’s for seeking out the very highest quality rice in terms of health, social justice and sustainable production. You will be pleased to know that this same rice is being used by Theo chocolate in its first certified Biodynamic chocolate bar!

If you are interested in more information about SRI, we encourage you to go to the Cornell University SRI-Rice website, which has a wealth of materials, from research articles to terrific videos. http://sri.cals.cornell.edu/

Two of our favorite videos can be found at the following links.

Spread of SRI in East Africa

Challenging Traditions, Transforming Lives

This fall we are launching a campaign around the themes of water and women, to draw attention to the important implications of SRI not just for water conservation but women’s health and well-being. We hope you will check out our website and follow us on social media to learn more. Enjoy those delicious and healthy Black Rice Burgers! Cary Levine, Co-founder/Co-owner, Lotus Foods, Inc.