The Future of Rice: An Interview with Caryl Levine of Lotus Foods on SRI Initiatives

From by Arianna King
The Future of Rice: An Interview with Caryl Levine of Lotus Foods on SRI Initiatives

Over the last few decades, System of Rice Intensification (SRI) has become an increasingly important tool for farmers in the developing world.  Cornell University’s SRI International Network and Resource Center describes the methodology as, “a climate-smart, agroecological methodology for increasing the productivity of rice and more recently other crops by changing the management of plants, soil, water and nutrients.”  The process, first developed in Madagascar in the 1980s, requires less water, fewer agricultural inputs, improves soil quality over time, and increases rice yields by a significant percentage, bringing rural farmers closer to food self-sufficiency.  Food Tank sat down with Caryl Levine, Co-Founder and Co-Owner of Lotus Foods Inc., a natural foods company leading the charge for organic and sustainably produced foods, to learn more about how her work with SRI methods is improving the health of people and the environment in rice producing nations throughout the world.

Food Tank (FT): According to Cornell International Institute for Food, Agriculture and Development (CIIFAD), SRI has been known to increase rice yields by a significant percentage. What does that mean in terms of daily impact on marginalized families and communities employing SRI methods?

Caryl Levine (CL): For subsistence farmers, this kind of increase can mean the difference between not having enough rice to eat and being food self-sufficient. That’s huge. When families start applying SRI practices, they usually start with an experimental plot, and as they see the results and master the new techniques they extend the area. They often achieve household self-sufficiency within just one or two cycles, and after that they have surplus to sell. This makes more rice available to the community, and even generates enough for export. That’s where we come in. Our goal is to prime the SRI and organic pump by paying organic and fair trade premiums, which are 30-50% higher than farm-gate prices. Though it’s just pennies on a kilo of rice, this can really transform rural communities into hubs for agro-enterprises. Our supply chain partner in Cambodia, CEDAC, did a study a couple of years ago and found that the net income, after input and labor expenses, from cultivating rice was highest for farmers who are producing SRI organic rice, with income of up to $745.  SRI farmers (but not organic) earned net incomes of $235; traditional farmers experienced a loss of around $70. 

Like all of us, the rice-farming families we’ve visited use additional income for things like school fees, higher quality food, medicine, home improvements, a motorbike or mobile phone, paying off debts, etc. Farmers also invest in their farms, buy land or livestock, or start new agri-enterprises. Because they have enough rice to eat and sell, they can take some of their land out of rice and use it for higher value fruits and vegetables, or raise fish or poultry. Using fewer inputs, such as purchased seeds and fertilizer, lowers their production costs; that further boosts their net income. Another important aspect of SRI is that it reduces women’s labor, due to smaller nurseries, and fewer and younger seedlings to transplant. This means that other family members can seek work off-farm, which adds to and diversifies household income.

FT:  How have you seen the network of farmers using SRI methods grow and develop since Lotus Foods first started working in the field?

CL: Globally, the number of farmers has increased from about 200,000 in 2005 when we first learned of SRI to more than 10 million today in over 50 countries. Of course we work with a very small subset of SRI farmers (about 3500) who have qualified for international organic certification, but even here the numbers are increasing rapidly. What’s more noteworthy is the number of SRI marketing initiatives proliferating around the world, not just in Asia but Africa and even close by in Haiti. This tells us that with SRI practices these marginalized farmers have graduated from subsistence to surplus and profitability. And most of these projects are promoting traditional varieties, which is very exciting given the tremendous erosion in rice biodiversity that’s occurred over the last 60 years.

FT: You are currently working in Madagascar, Indonesia and Cambodia, does Lotus foods have plans to expand SRI initiatives to other areas?

CL: We are actively scaling operations in these three countries and are developing new supply chains with SRI farmers in India, Thailand, the Philippines and possibly Vietnam. We’ve been approached by SRI marketing initiatives in Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Tanzania, Zambia, Mali, and Liberia. We continue to work with and seek other like-minded manufacturers whose products use rice so that we can work with all of these exciting programs, as we know they are having a positive impact not just on smallholder families but also on the environment through less use of water, synthetic fertilizer and pesticides, and reduced pressure on forests and wildlife. Our consumers and colleagues in the food industry really appreciate what the SRI community is trying to achieve. 

FT: Tell us about the closed-loop growing and processing concept you are working on in Cambodia that includes farmer-owned rice mill cooperatives? How exactly will this work?

CL: This is a very promising model that could be applied and scaled in other countries to create a food system that is a lot more inclusive than what we’ve got now, which is exploitive of rice farmers. It builds on the organic producer cooperatives that CEDAC helped organize. The core model consists of a small mill, biogasifier and warehouse, all jointly owned by SRI farmers.  Access to such local mills cuts costs for transport and processing and farmers can retain the valuable by-products like broken grains (sometimes 40% of the milling process) and bran. Husks power the biogasifiers that generate electricity and produce biochar that can be used as organic fertilizer. The mills will boost incomes by an additional 30 to 100%, and put cheaper rice into domestic and export markets.  Presently, the plan is for farmers to process the rice to the bran stage locally; rice that is destined for export will go to a small finishing plant in Phnom Penh, which can meet more demanding international standards.  This is in a pilot stage now but we’d be delighted to report back with results next time this year.

FT: What is next for building the network of natural food sellers who are as committed to SRI methods as Lotus Foods?

CL: Our SRI rice is by no means only available in natural food stores. We are in Safeway, Wegman’s, Kroger and Costco, among many other mainstream retail grocery and club stores. The network is almost building itself as more buyers, distributors, food manufacturers, chefs and consumers learn about what we’re doing with SRI farmers and how important it is for us to get serious about changing how rice is grown. This isn’t just about using less water, but rice paddies are big emitters of manmade methane. With the aerobic soil conditions under SRI management, methane gas is reduced or eliminated. Conventional rice production is also very exploitive of women’s labor and exposes them and children to toxic agrochemicals. SRI reduces the health risks and sheer drudgery women experience growing a rice crop. We are all trying to eat more ethically and SRI gives us an opportunity to do this with rice. 

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