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Catalyzing a rice-roots revolutionCatalyzing a rice-roots revolution

Q&A with Lotus Foods founders Caryl Levine and Ken Lee

December 1, 2016

10 Min Read
Catalyzing a rice-roots revolution

Rice, the world’s most valuable crop, is second only to wheat in acreage planted and second only to corn in yield. It’s a supply chain that starts with some 250 million farms, mostly small, family operations. Yet conventional rice, grown in flooded paddies, depends on significantly more water than any other crop. Over the last 30 years, a new method of growing rice has emerged. Known as System of Rice Intensification, the method reduces water inputs by half, eliminates chemical inputs, reduces labor and increases yield with fewer seeds. Adoption of SRI has been slow, however, and requires the training efforts of NGOs, as well as market efforts. That’s where Lotus Foods comes in, providing a market for SRI rices under their More Crop per Drop campaign. NBJ spoke with Lotus co-founders and co-CEOs Caryl Levine and Ken Lee.

NBJ: Why ‘More Crop per Drop’ as the name of your program?

Levine: There are a lot of impacts by changing the way we grow rice. It’s amazing that we can have environmental, social, and economic impact. But that’s a lot for any consumer, any retailer to grasp. We decided to try to hone the message into two of the most important challenges of the 21st century, and that is water and women. This methodology can save so much water, anywhere from 30 to 50 percent water. Imagine that 70 percent of the world’s annual fresh water withdrawals are for agriculture. Half of that is to irrigate rice. This is leading to the depletion of surface and ground water sources in many areas. Changing the way we grow rice can have a huge water saving impact.

Then the women issue: Women provide 50 to 90 percent of the labor in growing the world’s rice crop. Something called the feminization of agriculture is on the rise. That means more men who were doing a lot of the work are migrating into towns and cities for jobs, leaving the women to manage the farms. This methodology allows women to produce an acre of rice in better conditions. They don’t have to be sitting in flooded fields where they’re exposed to parasites and leeches and other disease vectors like malarial Mosquitoes. It’s also labor-saving. They use this $20 machine, a conical weeder, to help weed the rice, because when you don’t flood a field, you get more weeds. It’s also doing a secondary job, it’s aerating the soil, which gets more oxygen into the plants, which helps them grow better.

NBJ: How does SRI reduce chemical applications?

Lee: The plants don’t need chemicals. The chemicals are there to attack the weeds. You need to have a method that addresses weeds. I think a point that can’t be understated is when the conical weeder plows through the soil, it turns the weeds back underground and actually forms more biomass to feed the plants. More importantly, as Carol mentioned, it oxygenates the soil, which is conducive to promoting more soil growth, soil biota. By creating more, better soil, it’s enriching the plant itself. That’s why farmers are reporting increased yields. The other thing is the methane. Flooded fields produce upwards of 30 percent of man-made methane on the planet. If we just pull the plug on rice fields, we can eliminate the methane emissions, which is significant.

NBJ: What about carbon sequestration? Reduction of methane, it sounds like is an enormous positive climate impact. Is there also a sequestration element that differs from traditional rice farming?

Lee: I think if you talk to anybody about regenerative farming or any of these carbon sequestration models, any time you can build soil you are sequestering carbon.Then there’s the issue of biodiversity. You have science-based entities that are pushing high yielding seeds. Whereas in India, a recent study shows 300 or 400 ancient heirloom varieties that yield just as well as the “high yielding” seeds. I think these biotech seeds are a hoax in terms in saving the planet and feeding 2 billion more people by 2050. SRI empowers farmers to continue to grow the grains that have culinary and cultural significance to those societies, and not have to buy special seeds from multi-national companies.

Levine: That’s another wonderful impact of More Crop per Drop. There’s nothing the farmers have to buy. They’re not dependent upon the chemicals. They use 90 percent less seed and if they’re doubling and tripling their yield they have enough to feed their family, go to local market, and then also export. It’s a real win-win situation for everybody.

NBJ: What are the barriers to entry?

Lee: On the front side, when you try to get anyone to change anything they do as a daily routine. The farmers always talk about the first time they tried it. Their neighbors would confront them and ridicule them. They would look at their newly planted field with a single blade of grass with plenty of spacing. (Normally they would see five or six of these grass seedlings, which are a foot high.) They’d tell them ‘Your family is going to suffer this year. What have you done? What could have gotten into your brain?’

After two months into the growing season, they see how robust these plants are, and how many branches, they call them tillers and panicles, are emerging out of a single seedling. The seedlings are not competing for nutrients, they’re not competing for solar energy, they have more space and because the water table’s not so high, the roots have to dive down deep, which forms a bigger root ball, which is necessary to support all those branches, those tillers and panicles. It’s a common thing if you’re a gardener, you know to thin your garden. You don’t overpopulate it. It’s really a common sense nothing-to-buy type of methodology.

Levine: The barrier is how do you change five thousand years of rice cultivation overnight? You can’t. The farmers need technical assistance, and that’s also an incredible, beautiful part of this private sector/ public sector partnership that Lotus Foods is a part of. This methodology was promoted for the last 20 plus years through Cornell University with support from World Wildlife Fund and Oxfam and AfriCare and Mercy Corps because it was a poverty alleviation and food security issue. Because of its success and yield, all of a sudden they said ‘We have to get a company that has channels to market so that these rices don’t go undifferentiated and that the farmers get the price premium in the global marketplace.’ They went shopping for someone doing global rice and the only company they found was Lotus Foods. They cold called us over 10 years ago to ask if we would be interested in putting these rices through our distribution channel. When we learned about SRI, of course we were just saying, ‘oh my goodness, this is just unbelievable.’ We totally committed ourselves to this methodology and re-branded and have never looked back.

NBJ: How did all of this get started and what’s holding it back?

Lee: The methodology was discovered by a Jesuit agronomist priest in Madagascar in the 70s. To your question about barriers, it seems like any real, big change almost needs a new generation. In the 70s, Father Laulanié introduced this concept in Madagascar. It really wasn’t until the turn of the century that this took hold. It’s in 58 countries now. It really wasn’t being practiced widely until the turn of the century. It took 30 some odd years to really get going, and now I think you see governments getting on board and advocating SRI and targeting certain acreage by certain dates as a food security issue.

Levine: Also, the scientific community hasn’t gotten behind this because they want to see a total scientific technology. This is a methodology of six different little steps that changes conventional rice production into SRI. Farmers are the best ones to know how to adapt to their farms and to their specific regions. That’s the beauty of it. Yet, it has been proven time and time again, in country after country, farmer after farmer that this works. Also, Big Ag might not want to embrace it because they want to sell inputs. 

NBJ: It seems like growth within a region would be exponential. One farmer does it, and then the number begins to double.

Levine: Exactly. It’s true grass roots. The neighbor who said, ‘Buddy, you’re going to starve,’ sees it and then says, ‘Oh my God, now teach me how to do this.’ The technical assistance through NGOs helps so much. Farmers see how it’s grown on a model farm or somebody else’s and technical assistance says, ‘OK, don’t switch all your crops, just take a small piece of your land and do that, and see it.’ They see it from the very first crop.

Lee: A lot of these farmers are subsistence farmers. A lot of times they have small plots of land, and that means they don’t even have enough land to grow enough rice to feed their family for the whole year. Now, they get to watch someone else do it, and they get to see the end result, being the harvest, and they’re amazed

NBJ: What percentage of rice growing land has converted?

Lee: I think it’s got to be a small bit. There are maybe 15 million farmers now, so I think we’re looking at just a few percentage points. It’s just the tip of the iceberg. We see our work as trying to catalyze a revolution. A change in how rice is grown on the planet. All it takes is a bunch of farmers saying, ‘I make more money now per acre because my input costs are less, my yield is greater and I’ve tapped into an international market after satisfying my own needs.’ It’s a compelling story, and I think other people will want to get involved. Everyone, regardless of race, nationality, borders, they all have the same aspiration to have food, clothing, shelter and a better life for their kids.The other thing is, it’s open sourced. It’s not some trademarked technology that’s owned by some entity. This is something that’s shared widely. It’s taught with tremendous respect to the farmer. They understand their soil and the crop they’re growing. It’s just explained in terms of the basic tenets, and then they can adopt as they see fit. You can actually use a little bit of chemicals if you’d like. It’s not a dogmatic approach. As Lotus Foods, we specify SRI that is organic. We build in a fair trade component. Also, by being organic, it’s non-GMO. SRI could actually be done with chemicals and GMO seeds. It’s really about a better management system of the water, the soil and the seeds.We’re trying to focus it so that we can differentiate what we’re doing. We think, by helping farmers, by helping the planet and the soil, all these aspects, that’s the complete package. Our intention is to deliver the full impact of SRI.

NBJ: What is the role of the consumers in the transition?

Levine: The role of the consumer is to be a part of the solution. We’re making not only some of the world’s most nutritious rice that tastes great, but the consumer can also be a part of the solution for their families, for global warming, for improving the lives of farmers. They have an opportunity to decide what they’re going to purchase and what they’re going to feed their families.

NBJ: Do you think consumers are getting it?

Levine: I think so. Lotus Foods is a very small brand with a very big audacious mission. We’re over 20 years old. I think it’s taken all this time for people to really appreciate and trust our transparency, our mission, our goal. This campaign is perfect timing for us. I think we’ve got the foundation of the natural foods consumer on our side. I think they’ll listen to the story a little more intently.

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