Did you know that more than half of the world’s caloric intake comes from rice? That couldn’t be a bad thing, right? After all, rice is cheap, plentiful, and nutritious, and good way to feed the multitudes.
But now consider these facts about traditional rice production: annually, it consumes one-third to one-half of the planet’s renewable fresh water; hundreds of millions of women do back-breaking repetitive tasks in unhygienic conditions; and flooded rice fields contribute mightily to global warming by emitting methane gas.
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Obviously, something needs to be done to rectify the existing systems. Enter Caryl Levine and Ken Lee, co-founders of Lotus Foods.
Back to Basics
It was 1993, long before the current craze for gourmet iterations of rice—Uncle Ben’s boxes were the familiar go-to for most American cooks. On a trip to China, Levine and Lee were bowled over by the taste and appearance of a black rice they encountered; legend held that it traditionally had been reserved for Chinese emperors due to its nutritional and medicinal properties. And thus began their quest to bring a wide variety of whole-grain heirloom rice varieties to market.
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But that was only the beginning. A few years in, they were introduced to a new method of rice farming, the System of Rice Intensification (SRI)—a more sustainable way to grow rice using less water, less seed, and no agrochemicals that results in a double yield for farmers. “Learning about SRI and seeing the benefits for people and the environment is when we realized that growing rice organically wasn’t enough, and that we had to rethink altogether how the world grows rice,” explains Levine. “We have to feed the increasing global population with less water, land, and labor. Especially water, our most precious resource.”
And so that became their mission. Partnering with small-scale farmers in several countries, Lee and Levine worked to emphasize better growing practices by applying SRI methods, while also establishing fair and effective supply chains that would lessen environmental impact and create social and economic justice for farmers. “Working with smallholder farmers has taught us so many important lessons and has enriched our lives. Having real social, economic, and environmental impact is improving livelihoods and creating mutually beneficial relationships around the world,” says Levine.
System of Rice Intensification Results
The results of SRI implementation? Savings of approximately 500 million gallons of water annually; women’s time spent in debilitating manual labor reduced by half, and their exposure to disease vectors drastically reduced; and methane gas emissions from SRI rice fields reduced by 40 percent. And the farmers’ yields? Up to three times higher.
It has been a long and arduous journey, to be sure, with disappointments and setbacks, of course; and Levine and Lee still find themselves dismayed by “all that’s wrong today in our food system, the corporate control of agriculture, and the horrible toll it’s taking on our health and our natural resources.”
But they find renewed inspiration in the people whose lives they touch. “We all have to work, so doing something of value and making a difference by the way you do your business is truly a blessing.”
Try this Lotus Foods Power-Packed Green Rice recipe.