On “Food Talk with Dani Nierenberg,” Lotus Foods co-founders and co-CEOs Caryl Levine and Ken Lee talk about supporting rice farmers by introducing their unique crops to global markets and promoting better farming practices. “These [varieties of rice] have lasted through millennia. They are the resilient ones, and they are the ones that will make it through extreme weather—and at the same time, are nutrient dense and good for you,” says Lee.
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Caryl Levine and Ken Lee took a market research trip to China in 1993 and found the black rice—which they named forbidden rice—that provided a starting point for Lotus Foods. Since its start, Lotus Foods has paid its farmers 30 to 40 percent more than farm gate values and striven to participate in a fair-trade system. “In agriculture, people are always looking at metrics like yield and scaling up, but we consider that human asset: the people in the field. After all, it’s smallholder farmers that produce most of the food that is produced on the planet,” says Lee.
Lotus Foods partnered with the Cornell International Institute for Food, Agriculture, and Development in 2005 to promote System of Rice Intensification (SRI): a method of rice farming developed in Madagascar that improves productivity while helping farmers boost their independence from external inputs. Using 50 percent less water, 90 percent less seed, and no agrochemicals, farmers can nearly triple their yields. “SRI is recognized as an incredibly sound, agro-ecological practice,” says Levine. “By changing the way rice is grown around the world, we can have environmental, social, and economic impacts. It doesn’t get better than that.”
Lotus Foods works with over 5,000 smallholder farmers around the globe. According to Levine, of these smallholder farmers, women are pushing the transition to SRI farming in their communities. By becoming leaders in SRI advocacy, women are entering an entrepreneurial environment, backed by their positions of high esteem. And, women can see their communities change as a result of widespread SRI use: “These are smallholder farmers without a lot of land, but SRI has allowed farmers to grow enough rice to the degree to which they don’t need to grow rice on all their acreage. Rather they can grow high-value vegetables, which supplements their own diets or incomes,” says Lee.
Rice is the main source of livelihood for over 2 billion people across the world. According to Lee, more than 25 million farmers over 61 countries are now practicing SRI. “It is still relatively a drop in the bucket, but that is certainly our audacious goal: to catalyze this movement to allow farmers to produce more from less,” says Lee.