Rice. Half the world’s population—3.5 billion people—relies on it for 60 to 70 percent of their daily calories, and 2 billion for their livelihood.
With an estimated 50 percent more rice needed by 2050 to feed a growing population, genetic engineering has promised better yields and pest/weed resistance—but neither has manifested.
More urgently, conventional rice cultivation is not sustainable. Irrigating rice uses up to one-third of the world’s annual renewable fresh water. It involves large amounts of agrochemicals, and methane emissions from rice paddies contribute to global warming. The health of millions of women—the vast majority of the world’s rice farmers—is threatened through backbreaking work in the unsanitary, disease-breeding conditions of flooded fields.
Fortunately, a grassroots rice growing method, both climate-smart and highly productive, is spreading around the globe. Between 10 and 20 million farmers in 61 countries are adopting the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) on nearly 49 million acres. A Richmond, California rice-importing company, Lotus Foods, is working directly with co-ops, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and businesses that support farmers growing rice using SRI.
“Yield increases of 20 to 50 percent, sometimes 100 to 200 percent; up to 50 percent in water savings; 30 to 50 percent reduction in chemical fertilizers and other inputs; and greater adaptability to climatic conditions result from using SRI cultivation.”
SRI: higher yields, less water, higher incomes for farmers
The System of Rice Intensification has four main tenets. Small, younger seedlings (8-14 days old) are planted, spaced in a grid with one or two seedlings per hill. This minimizes competition and facilitates weeding, which is done with an upright rotational hoe. Soils are kept moist and aerated, which promotes root growth, rather than being flooded as conventional rice fields. Fertilizing is done with compost. The flooded fields of conventional rice foster anaerobic conditions contributing to methane-producing bacteria.
SRI produces many positive impacts—Paul Hawken, editor of Drawdown, lists SRI as #53 of its 100 solutions to reverse global warming. Yield increases of 20 to 50 percent, sometimes 100 to 200 percent; up to 50 percent in water savings; 30 to 50 percent reduction in chemical fertilizers and other inputs; and greater adaptability to climatic conditions result from using SRI cultivation, according to Cornell University’s SRI International Network and Resources Center. Published research also confirms increased nutrient levels in SRI rice.
SRI is highly adaptable and can be tailored to local agro-socio-economic conditions. It was developed in Madagascar in the 1980s by Jesuit priest and agronomist Father Henri de Laulanié.
A Seamless Match
Lotus Foods is bringing SRI heirloom rice varieties to American consumers, while helping farmers. The company’s “More Crop per Drop™” system, an organic version of SRI, allows farmers to produce valuable pigmented, organic rice varieties that otherwise might face extinction, while boosting their incomes.
Lotus Foods launched in 1995, co-founded by Caryl Levine and Ken Lee. A black rice they discovered in China and trademarked as “Forbidden Rice®” together with Bhutanese Red Rice were the company’s first products. Along with creating a needed export infrastructure, Caryl and Ken began developing relationships of trust with farmers. The company assisted most of their producers in transitioning to organic—sometimes paying the cost of certification and other expenses.
In 2005, a beneficial convergence amplified Lotus Foods’ mission. “While we were focused on partnering in fair trade with farmers growing these heirloom rices and using sustainable methods, Cornell was working with Oxfam, WWF, and other organizations to spread awareness of SRI to help low-income farmers produce yields with less input,” said Caryl.
Olivia Vent, communication director for the Cornell International Institute for Food, Agriculture, and Development, was looking for companies to market SRI-grown rices. “We knew if we didn’t create a global market, traditional folk varieties wouldn’t be promoted and preserved,” Olivia said.
Lotus Foods reflected the values she was looking for, namely concern for preserving rice biodiversity, sustainability, and fair trade. When Caryl and Ken committed to creating markets for SRI farmers, Olivia took early retirement from Cornell to work with Lotus Foods as their SRI liaison.
Today, Lotus Foods sells a variety of rice products, including rice snacks, noodles, and Heat & Eat rice bowls. Many include rice that has been grown using the SRI method—such as Organic Jasmine from Cambodia, Organic Madagascar Pink and Red Rice, and Organic Volcano Rice from West Java, Indonesia.
All but two of Lotus Foods’ rice varieties are organic, and all are Non-GMO Project Verified. Any new rice varieties the company brings on in the future will be SRI-grown.
SRI’s global growth
NGOs are stepping up to help farmers adopt SRI. The United Nations is supporting SRI in countries including Mali, Cambodia, and Vietnam. The World Bank is promoting projects in India and Egypt, as well as funding the largest SRI project in the world—involving 13 West African countries. West Africa produced only 54 percent of the rice its people consumed in 2017, spending $4.16 billion on rice imports. From 2014 to 2016, Cornell University worked with CORAF (Central African Council for Agricultural Research and Development) to guide 50,000 farmers in SRI methods (31.6 percent were women). A study of the project found that yields increased by 56 percent for irrigated rice and 86 percent for lowland rainfed rice.
“If 100 percent of rice farmers in West Africa had used SRI in 2017, based on project participants’ results, rice self-sufficiency would already have been achieved with a five percent surplus,” said Gaoussou Traoré, Coordinator of NCoS-Rice in Mali.
A farmer-led project involving 40 small farmers in Zarraga, the Philippines, has reported significant yields with organic SRI cultivation. Those yields are allowing farmers to earn premium prices for their organic SRI rice through direct sales to groceries, restaurants, and food service. Lotus Foods along with two other U.S. organic companies, Nutiva and Dr. Bronner’s, have provided support to the project.
Despite SRI’s success, the method still faces resistance. Researchers funded by agribusiness would rather develop modified seeds and sell agrochemicals than “invest in rice crop management,” according to Gina Ivey of the Gates Foundation, quoted in a recent article in the Huffington Post by John Vidal.
Giving farmers what they need
As a result of Lotus Foods’ work with SRI farmers, in 2017 some 5,000 farm households in six countries earned higher income while using 80 to 90 percent fewer seedlings and 500 million gallons less water, and achieving a 40 percent reduction in methane gas emissions according to the company.
Lotus Foods, a Certified B Corporation, has received numerous awards—recently, a Value Chain Engagement Award from the Climate Collaborative and an Environmental Stewardship award from Whole Foods Market. But knowing they’re pioneering something valuable and “right” brings its own reward.
“Farmers know what to do, they know how to farm,” Caryl said. “We need to give them the opportunity to adapt this method to their needs. SRI provides economic, social, and environmental benefits just by changing the way people grow rice—not many things can do that. We need to encourage manufacturers to include these special varieties in products, adding to their brand stories,”