The Type of Rice You Buy Matters

This new way of cultivating rice enables small-scale farmers to double and triple their yields while using less seed, less water and fewer chemicals. (Photo: Lotus Foods).

When I wrote about the record-breaking yields being achieved through SRI (System of Rice Intensification) rice growers, I was excited about the reports of poor farmers growing more rice with less water, fewer pesticides and fewer fertilizers than they would otherwise have used. By feeding the soil biology with compost, focusing on the health of individual rice seedlings, and by drastically reducing the amount of flooding in rice fields, these farmers were rethinking almost every aspect of how rice has been grown in recent times (not to mention, many aspects of traditional rice farming too.)

Yet when I interviewed one of SRI's pioneers, Professor Norman Uphoff, senior adviser to the SRI International Network and Resources Center at Cornell University, he warned me about leaning too hard on hyperbole:

“There is no secret and no magic with SRI. Its results are and must be explainable with solid and scientifically validated knowledge. From what we know so far, SRI management practices succeed in large part because they promote better growth and health of plant roots, and increase the abundance, diversity and activity of beneficial soil organisms.”

In a media environment where we are forever searching for the next magic bullet to problems like climate change or global hunger, Uphoff's word of caution is an important one.

Still, the fact that SRI growers have been consistently achieving impressive yields while reducing their reliance on external chemical inputs, and using drastically less water than traditional paddy growing methods, was worthy of note and further support. Especially impressive is the fact that SRI rice farming may also help to reduce methane emissions from rice farming. (Despite all the column inches devoted to cows and global warming, rice farming is also one of the largest global sources of climate-warming methane emissions, and the problem may be getting worse.)

Indeed, excited by the potential to change the economics of input-dependent rice farmers, international development and environmental charities like Oxfam and the World Wildlife Fund have become increasingly supportive of SRI rice farming.

But what about the rest of us? How can consumers in the U.S. support this promising form of agriculture, especially when we have no direct relationship with our rice farmers, and we often get this staple as a commodity from the bulk bin?

That's where California-based Lotus Foods comes in.

rice varieties from Lotus Foods

Under their More Crop Per Drop program, Lotus is marketing several unique varieties of organic rice grown using SRI methods. Varieties include Organic Brown Jasmin and Organic Jasmin, Organic Brown Mekong Flower and Organic Mekong Flower, Organic Volcano Rice, and Organic Madagascar Pink Rice. And I have to say, having sampled most of the product line so far, they are utterly delicious. And you can enjoy your rice while reading about the groundbreaking techniques that are being used to grow it:

Farmers following SRI principles do not keep their fields continuously flooded. Instead they alternate the wetting and drying of rice paddies. And instead of randomly transplanting clumps of rice seedlings, 4 weeks old or more, into flooded fields, they plant very young seedlings (8-15 days) singly and carefully in rows with wide spacing. Soil is then kept moist but not flooded. This exposes the soil and the beneficial organisms living in it to the air and sun. Adding compost to the soil builds the health of the soil. Controlling weeds with a simple rotary weeder actively aerates the soil, delivering oxygen to the roots and soil organisms. Larger, healthier root systems and more abundant and diverse communities of soil organisms enable the plants to produce many more grain-bearing tillers (stalks), bigger panicles (ears of grain), heavier grains, and more biomass, which is a benefit to poor households who need the straw for animal fodder.

Being married to a nutritionist, I've had some external pressure to get into whole-grain rice for some time — and I've usually found it tastes not unlike cardboard. Both the Organic Brown Jasmin and the Brown Mekong, however, were a revelation. They were nutty. They were flavorful. They were deliciously tender. Similarly, the Madagascar Pink Rice — which is partially milled to retain some of its hull, is quite amazing too. Most importantly, they taste different from each other. (Yes, this was a revelation to someone who has always found rice pretty boring.)

The rice is by no means cheap when compared to the brown commodity rice in the bulk bin, but it is utterly worth it. In fact, it's become somewhat of a staple for my lunches. Sauteed with some onions, garlic, veggies — and perhaps a little bacon — and then cooked in stock, I have come to crave my brown rice fix.

If this SRI rice can help farmers lift themselves out of poverty, and reduce methane emissions in the process, then that's just a bonus.

Lotus Foods' More Crop Per Drop rice varieties are available in co-ops, Whole Foods Stores and other retail outlets across the country. They can also be purchased through Lotus Foods' online store.