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More Crop Per Drop: Engaging Consumers for Positive Change in Rice Production and Consumption
June 25, 2012
In 1993, in a Dai minority village of China’s Yunnan province, we sat down to steaming bowls of black rice. The flavor was so delicious – a roasted nutty taste with hints of fruit. We went to the market the next day to buy some and find out more about this amazing grain. Called 'hei mei' (black rice) in Chinese, we were told that it was also known as 'longevity' or 'tribute rice,' and was once reserved for the Emperors to ensure their good health and long life. It was a revelation. Growing up in the US, neither of us had ever really been exposed to anything other than polished white rice. That was the start of our business and a learning process about the importance of rice biodiversity and the uncertain existence rice farmers lead due to weather, prices, costs of inputs and credit, and lack of voice in the marketplace. Co-Authored with Caryl Levine, Co-founders and Co-owners of Lotus Foods, Inc
From the beginning, the three pillars of our business model have been to preserve local rice biodiversity, promote sustainable rice production, and enable farmers to earn a living wage. From 1995 until our brand refresh in 2009, we focused primarily on making consumers aware that rice can come in different colors, sizes and tastes, like the ‘hei mei’ from China, which we registered in the US as Forbidden Rice®, and red rice from Bhutan.
In 2008, our company underwent a major transformation and expansion when we committed to work with low-income farmers who are using a more water- and climate-smart way to grow rice called the System of Rice Intensification (SRI). SRI principles and practices involve no proprietary seeds or new inputs. Instead they change how farmers manage their basic resources: their soil, water and plants. Instead of random clumps of 30-day old seedlings planted into flooded fields, SRI farmers transplant individual 8-15 day-old seedlings at wide spacing in rows in soils that are kept moist not continuously flooded. Use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides are minimized or eliminated, in favor of organic matter. These field conditions reduce competition among plants and promote much larger root systems, which translate into more productive plants. With these methods, family farmers can double and triple their yields with 80-90% fewer seeds, 50% less water, and fewer or no purchased agrochemicals. And because fields are not constantly flooded, little or no methane gas is produced. Any variety of rice performs well under SRI including heirloom varieties, not just high-yielding varieties produced by research labs.
We saw markets as critical to give farmers incentives for adopting SRI methods and preserving traditional varieties. Thus, in 2009, in planning our brand refresh, we made the conscious decision to engage consumers in a very active way in the larger story, and enable them to be “Part of the Solution.”
For people to appreciate the value of SRI, however, they need to know something about how rice is grown and the associated problems. Telling this story is extremely complex. Growing enough food to feed another 2 billion people under more erratic climate conditions, with less land and water, and without adding to global warming is a major challenge of this century. Rice is at the nexus of this challenge. Half the world’s population depends on rice for daily calories and most of the world’s rural poor depend on growing rice for their income. But growing the global rice crop uses up a lot of water each year–up to one third of the planet’s freshwater supplies. This is not sustainable. According to the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), by 2025, one-quarter of the world’s irrigated rice lowlands, which provide three-quarters of the world’s rice supply, will suffer some degree of water scarcity. Heavy use of synthetic fertilizer and pesticide degrade soil and water quality, and continuously flooded paddies are a major source of atmospheric methane. Clearly, neither the problem nor solution is easily communicated on a label or retail bag.
Although the benefits of SRI are many, our market research indicated that most people could relate to the issue of increasing water scarcity, so we decided on the tagline “More Crop Per Drop” to designate those rices grown using SRI. This involves a graphic and the photo of a SRI farmer in Indonesia, comparing SRI and conventional rice plants. With our More Crop Per Drop™ icon [include the icon] we seek to raise awareness about the importance of growing rice with less water and supporting farmers who are innovating these “beyond organic” practices. We enlist consumers to be part of the solution through messaging on our retail bags, bulk bin labels, trade labels for store shelf channels, through social networking, speaking engagements, print materials, and trade shows. The QR code on our trade labels links to an interview with a Malagasy farmer whose life has been transformed using SRI practices. Our company’s website and Facebook page reflect this unique mix of advocacy and education. An important factor in our ability to play this role is the unique network of colleagues and partners we work with, so we know the information we receive and share is credible and of the highest quality. This network includes the SRI-Rice program at Cornell University, national and international NGOs such as Oxfam, and SRI projects throughout the world. If we are successful and garner widespread consumer support, we hope our More Crop Per Drop™ initiative can contribute to the global discourse about how rice is grown with a positive impact on food security, rural development, and climate change. And equally important, consumers will have access to a wider array of healthy rice choices.