Rice: The New Frontier of Sustainable Ag
Co-founder and CEO of Lotus Foods, Ken Lee, talks about the winding journey (literally, time spent traveling through China) that brought him and his partner, Carol, to the creation of Lotus Foods and why he says that “rice is the best thing we could have stumbled on.”
Tune in to hear about:
- His best advice for people hoping to change the world in small—and big—ways.
- The System of Rice Intensification and why it could be a global game-changer—if only farmers are willing to try it. (Think 50% less water required, 90% fewer seeds used, no agrichemicals necessary… are you curious yet? And no, it’s not too good to be true.)
- What percentage of the world receives more than half of their calories from rice.
- The feminization of agriculture—why it’s oppressive in the rice industry and how we can flip it to be empowering.
- How Lotus Foods’ Do the Rice Thing and More Crop Per Drop initiatives feed into what they call their “audacious goal” to change how rice is grown on the planet
THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and pretty excited to be here at Bioneers. And today we’re interviewing Ken Lee, which is really exciting for me because, besides feeling like Ken is my friend and certainly colleague, he has been, and his partner, Carol, have been doing a wonderful project called Lotus Foods. And they have gotten four awards, actually, for the work they’re doing, and it is a really honor and privilege to be talking with Ken today. Welcome, Ken.
KEN LEE: Well, it’s great to be here, and I’m really excited anytime I can be around you, Theresa, so thank you for inviting me.
TM: Well, I know that we have something so deep in common. And my father, you know, was Filipino, and I love rice.
KL: It’s interesting how people will identify themselves as rice lovers. I always appreciate that.
TM: You are a rice lover too. You know, you didn’t start out—you were in China. And I’m just so curious, first, what brought you to China and then got you involved in all of a sudden now being someone who really cared about rice and rice production?
KL: Well, it’s interesting, because you mentioned Carol, now my wife, back then as my girlfriend, we decided we wanted to go into business together. And so we had this idea that we would travel for a couple months, just traveling through China and just looking for a business. And we weren’t actually looking for a rice business or a food business; we were just looking for a business. And there were all kinds of opportunities. We met in Hartford, Connecticut, and somehow we had this idea that we should do a business together. And so we thought like a Pacific Rim business would be a good thing. And of course, we had met in Hartford, Connecticut, so we said, “We’d better get to the Pacific Rim!” So we moved to California, and so we basically took trains, boats, planes, all modes of transportation through China.
KL: And of course, while you’re traveling, you have to eat. And we just discovered that there were some really cool varieties of rice that didn’t exist in America. We hadn’t seen these types of rice before. So we took some samples and sent them home, and we just kept going along our way. And so what we were really impressed with was, in the southwestern-most part of China, in Xishuangbanna, there was… We went to this restaurant, and the best we could—because we didn’t speak the dialect.., and so they had their own language—and so we were just pantomiming ordering food, or pointing at other people’s food. And we did our best to say “rice,” and out came this big bowl of steaming black rice. So that was like a moment for us.
TM: Wow, black rice!
KL: Yeah. And so, of course, I think most people may know Forbidden Rice more than they know the company that brought it to them, Lotus Foods. During our trip, we’d ask people who were selling black rice—and we didn’t see it often, but when we saw black rice we would ask, “Tell us about it.” And without exception, they all said, well, in ancient days in China, this rice was known as tribute rice or longevity rice, and it was offered to the emperors as a tribute to their longevity, because of its medicinal value. So there we were in the Forbidden City, and the light bulb went off, and I said, “Carol, we’ll call that black rice Forbidden Rice, the exclusive grain of the emperors!”
TM: So the sparks of an idea, Lotus Foods.
KL: Yeah. And anyways, it turns out that going into rice was really the best thing that we could have stumbled upon. And if I ever were to write a book, I think one of those chapters has to be titled “You’ve Got to Get Out of the House.” You’ve just got to get out into the world and see for yourself and make an opportunity happen. And that was the seed of the company.
And so I think the arc of our evolution took us through many phases, and one was, the first one was actually that there are these really unique varieties of rice that exist in the world, and we now call them heirloom varieties. They were traditional varieties of rice that, at least for Americans, were unknown.
TM: I think most Americans think that, you know, there’s white rice, and that’s about it. And maybe there’s brown rice.
KL: Yeah, so I think, for us, maybe we’re part of the Uncle Ben’s generation who, everybody, that’s what rice was. And then I think I always pay tribute to Lundberg Family Farms, because they were the ones who really ushered in brown rice, so there’s other things out there than just white rice that we knew about that didn’t have any aroma, didn’t taste very good, or… So we see ourselves following in that lineage. And so we’ve introduced what we call pigmented rice that were part of our small effort to preserve the biodiversity of rice; that there are all these varieties out there, but unless they find markets, they may not be sustainable in themselves.
So that led us to countries like Bhutan, where we discovered a red rice. It was actually just, sometimes we discovered the rice, sometimes the rice discovered us. And so we’ve worked in Bangladesh, and now India and Thailand and Indonesia and Cambodia and Madagascar. It’s taken us all around the world. You know, it’s interesting, I think people would be interested to know that more people derive their livelihood from rice than any other human endeavor on the planet.
TM: Isn’t it like the number one commodity that’s grown in the world?
KL: I think the number is like half of the world’s population get more than half of its caloric intake from the consumption of rice.
TM: Right, I read something like more than half the world gets 60 or 70 percent—
KL: Right, I think that’s about right.
TM: —of their calories from rice, and that there’s hundreds of varieties of rice, in fact.
KL: There are. Just going back to the black rice, my understanding of it there’s a couple hundred varieties of black rice in the world; about a hundred of them are residing in China.
TM: Really? Of just black rice?
KL: Yeah, of just black rice. And the unfortunate part, you know, going back to this idea that, try to preserve the biodiversity of rice, is that most of these varieties live in seed banks now. They’re not out in the field. And so this is, we get into dangerous territory when we have these monocultures and lack of diversity, and it just weakens the gene pool and it makes them more susceptible to disease and blight. And so now, with extreme weather, we need all the diversity we can get.
TM: Well, you know, the other thing I read about rice is that it’s probably the number one use in the agriculture sector of fresh water as well.
KL: Yeah. That’s another crazy—
TM: So it’s very, very water intensive as well.
KL: Yeah. So now, in the world that we live in, where water is our most precious resource, there are numbers upwards of like one-third of Earth’s potable water is used annually to produce rice on planet Earth. And so that’s a crazy number when you consider there’s not enough water for people to drink or for human hygiene, just to bathe themselves. Or even, if we could use some of that water and just let it sink back into the ground where the fragile ecosystems exist.
TM: But rice is water intensive. I mean, when you think of rice we all think of people in paddies up to their ankles in water.
KL: Yeah, it’s a classic “We’ve always done it this way.” But rice is not an aquatic plant. It doesn’t require to be flooded like that.
And so I’ll kind of back up and say, in terms of the arc of our evolution as a company, we started with this idea of trying to preserve the biodiversity of rice, and then it became like, well, let’s introduce organic farming practices to farmers and just stipulate that this is the market, that Americans want this, and so incentivize them with premiums above the farm gate price. And so it went from working with heirloom varieties from small holder farmers to changing their methods of growing from conventional to organic.
And then, by virtue of us being in the marketplace and doing the work, a really important thing happened at Cornell University. It was the Cornell International Institute of Food, Agriculture and Development. It was someone named Olivia Vent, who was working on marketing and thinking that if marketing is not brought to bear for these farmers who are growing rice a new way, using a method called the System of Rice Intensification, known as SRI, then these farmers wouldn’t really benefit from this innovation. SRI is a way of growing rice that doesn’t require you to flood the fields. And it’s like six different steps that you observe, and it’s right from planting young seedlings in rows with plenty of spacing instead of having like a high-density population in the ground. So if you’re a gardener, you know that you thin out your seeds and you don’t kind of crowd them, right? So then you have less competition for nutrients and more photosynthesis. But what happens in terms of rice is if you don’t flood the fields, then you get weeds trying to compete with your rice. And so that’s why you plant them in rows, so that you can take little conical weeders, which looks like a manual lawnmower, and you just walk between the rows and you till those weeds back into the ground to form more of the biomass to feed the plant. But more importantly, it’s about aerating the soil.
On the other hand, if you flood fields, then it’s hypoxic, right? That means, it’s a fancy way to say nothing can breathe, right? The soil can’t breathe, the roots can’t breathe, versus if now you have a—
TM: But rice does well, okay with that situation. It can survive it.
KL: It can survive, it’s learned to survive. It’s like, you know, the planet and all the things that inhabit it are resilient—they want to survive. And so rice finds a way to make it through the flooded fields, but it doesn’t thrive. And so when we say, with SRI, which we market as “More Crop per Drop,” with SRI, you can use 50 percent less water, which is huge, right, if you can cut down that amount of water usage; 90 percent less seeds—why? Because you’re planting less seeds in rows with plenty of spacing. And no agrichemicals. Actually, SRI doesn’t say you can’t use chemicals; it’s not so dogmatic. It’s really a way to manage soil and root systems. But as a company, we say it has to be organic and not GMO.
KL: And so with all these practices, farmers, using less, can produce more. So it’s a more-from-less paradigm. And so it can produce more because now the plant’s not stressed out; it’s actually thriving in that aerobic environment.
The difficulty is, most farmers, maybe 80 percent of small holder farmers in the world, don’t control water. They don’t irrigate; they don’t have access to irrigation or they’re not by a riverside or something like that. And so this notion of letting the water go when… They’re waiting for the water to start raining before they can plant, but then if you don’t dam up the waterways, then the water just flows off the field, and then they’re not really guaranteed that more water’s coming. So, while rice doesn’t need to be grown in flooded fields, it does need water.
TM: It needs water. So they haven’t quite figured out how to conserve that water and then bring it back when they need it.
KL: Yeah, it’s a big challenge for farmers.
TM: Isn’t most rice grown by women? And isn’t this also another benefit of growing rice this way?
KL: You know, it’s interesting you mention that. I was on a panel once, and I mentioned the feminization of agriculture. And one of our hosts, she was like, “Oh, great!” She started clapping like something that’s empowering women, right? But I was like, no, what this means is, the feminization of agriculture means that farming has become so unprofitable for small holders that the men have left the farms to go to the city to find other forms of employment.
TM: Yeah, but that’s been going on for decades.
TM: Isn’t like 70 percent of the world’s food right now being produced by women?
KL: Seventy percent of all, yeah, food. It’s not big ag that’s delivering the food. It’s small holders. And one of the interesting facts is that in the world of rice, only, I think, 5 or 7 percent of all rice is actually traded across borders. Most of the rice that’s grown in the world is consumed within ten miles. So while we have this concept of “local” being like within 200 miles, I mean, rice is really an important crop and it’s consumed right where it’s grown, typically.
TM: If you’re just joining us, you’re listening to Rootstock Radio, and I’m Theresa Marquez. And I’m here today at the Bioneers with Ken Lee, and we’re talking about rice and about how women are actually cultivating rice. If you do hear some music and some interruptions of our interview, know that we’re live at Bioneers and there’s a lot going on here. And Ken, how fascinating to hear about women’s role in growing rice. And also, I had no idea that rice, most of it, a lot of it was consumed within ten miles.
KL: Yeah, I want to continue to highlight some things about women and rice, because when I mentioned feminization of agriculture and the men have left the farms, what does that really mean, practically? It means that women are growing the crops, preparing the food, taking care of the children, taking care of the elderly, going to get water… I mean, all these things. And so with SRI, the ones who are really adopting the methodology and further adding their own innovations—because that’s how SRI is taught; it’s not like a technology, it’s not something you have to buy into, there’s not a lot of buying of things. It’s really, what farmers need to do is open their mind and change their mindset, because they already know how to do the other steps. It’s just a different order and there’s not flooding the fields and things like that.
And so with SRI, if you can actually, year after year, your soil gets better because you’re improving the soil. And it’s actually allowed women to reduce the time in the field and reduce a lot of the drudgery. Because you can see, if you go to rice-growing countries and you go walk around in villages and you can see a lot of bent-over women who have been like bent over in the field for so long that they no longer can stand up.
TM: So they just really have stressed their bodies out. So it’s very stressful, isn’t it, to be bending over?
KL: Yeah. And you know, Olivia at Cornell, she feeds me so much information and makes me sound like I know what I’m talking about. But she introduced me to a woman, she was a PhD candidate named Sabarmatee, I think, in India, and she actually met with a lot of farmers and asked them about the pain of growing rice, the drudgery that’s involved. And there’s this amazing diagram that shows a depiction of a woman’s body and lines going to every part of her body, and they talk about all the pain points that they endure because of how they grow rice.
So the point I’m trying to make is, you know, we’ve, development agencies worldwide have tried to help alleviate poverty and help farmers to produce more. But the impact has been that they come in with their own solutions, and they’re maybe not appropriate, or they’re invariably inputs in seeds. So they’re like synthetic, chemical fertilizers and special seeds, largely proprietary to multinational companies.
TM: Like Golden Rice.
KL: Like all those kinds of things. And so with all this supposed innovation, what we’re seeing is a degradation of soil and more dependence on foreign aid, and farmers going into extreme debt. And sometimes the only way out, you see now a rise of farmer suicides. And sometimes they’ll just take those chemicals themselves because they don’t see any way out.
TM: Oh wow…
KL: So this is the plight of typically small holder farmers. They don’t have enough land to grow enough rice. So imagine being a rice farmer and not having enough rice to eat. So then they’re tempted to go with these chemical fertilization routes because of the promise of greater yields. But over time, what we’ve seen from the Green Revolution is that it staved off hunger for so many millions of people, say in India, but in the end you have degraded soils that are diminished. And so, really, the development community or agriculture in general hasn’t developed any new tools for whoever’s farming, whether it’s women or men. And yet so many millions or billions of dollars have been poured into these efforts to improve conditions.
TM: With chemicals mostly.
KL: Yeah, right.
TM: So, you know, one other part of this, of course, is this way of producing rice, and particularly organic and these heirloom specialty rices. Is it helping bring more money to the grower, to the farmer?
KL: Yeah, and again, I don’t have those numbers with me, but we keep seeing improvements in terms of livelihood from farmers who actually can grow more rice with less, to the degree that sometimes they don’t have to plant all of their field in rice. They can maybe grow other high-value vegetables, which certainly supplements their own diets, or they can take these vegetables to the marketplace and sell them, further raise livelihood.
And what you see is also this changing paradigm where women now are claiming a space within the community where they’re elevated because of their ingenuity and resourcefulness, where now they’re open to new ways or more entrepreneurial activities, and so becoming leaders of the community in that regard.
TM: Oh wow, so it’s empowering. It’s doing what the FAO and the United Nations keep saying we must do, and that is raise women up and give them, empower them more.
KL: Yeah, and you know, I think of Paul Hawkens’ work with Project Drawdown. And if you look, you know, we’re a food company and what’s heartening is when you look at the categories of the 100 things that Paul’s talking about that we can do as human beings that we know how to do now, that would help us to draw down the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, there’s like 30 or 40-some of them are food-related. So food is the number one space that we can actually change this global warming dynamic. But what’s really surprising is that two single ideas of those hundred are educating girls and family planning—this social, seemingly unrelated thing to climate. You would think it would be like driving electric cars or—
TM: Right. They’re like number 6 and 7 on that list.
KL: And then for me, the real heroes in the story are these farmers who actually take the risk of changing out how they grow rice, and they’re the real, real stars. And for us, in the supply chains we work in, where we’re working with SRI farmers, there’s always like a dynamic personality on the ground who’s made it possible to actually have all this happen, like Dr. Yang Saing Koma in Cambodia. He won the Ramon Magsaysay Award—it’s like the Southeast Asian equivalent of the Nobel Peace Prize. And he singlehandedly created an organic community in Cambodia. And so that’s where we source our jasmine rice from.
And then there’s Emily Sutanto at Bloom Agro in Indonesia. It’s a country that never allowed exports of rice, and so she worked out some deal with the government saying SRI is good for farmers—they can empower farmers and take control of their food sovereignty, and really important aspects like that, and save water. And so they said okay, if you can get organic certification, we’ll let you export rice. And so all the men said, “No, you can’t do that,” and of course—
TM: (Laughing) The women said, “Oh yes we can!” Go girls!
KL: Yeah! So she’s an example of that type of determination. And it’s all these—that’s the common thread for any of these supply chains we work in: that there’s someone there that made it happen. So there’s tremendous power in one individual taking action.
TM: So is it growing, the whole SRI and rice, is it starting to spread? Do you see it? It sounds like it’s very viable.
KL: It’s interesting, you know, if you track SRI, it started as a poverty alleviation program in Madagascar in the ’70s and ’80s. It was actually a Jesuit agronomist priest named Father Laulanié who was trying to help small holders have better yields. And through observation, he noticed that the water had escaped from one of the fields—maybe the water broke away. And he noticed that the rice that wasn’t flooded was doing better than the rice that was underwater. And so I think they played around with this notion and developed this SRI system of rice intensification.
The adaption of this method didn’t really take hold till the turn of the century. So there’s something about human nature as well, I think, that is resistant to change. “Oh, we’ve always done it this way. Oh, we equate certain wisdom with the ages.” And so it’s held people back. But now, more and more people, to the tune of, I think it’s, we’re going on almost 60 countries now have adopted SRI methods, maybe 25 million farmers—which is really just a drop in the bucket.
TM: That’s fantastic!
KL: But it’s certainly a trend to watch. And it’s one that’s inspired us to say this is our audacious goal. We’re a small company with a big mission, we like to say. And so our audacious goal is to change how rice is grown on the planet, because if you can save water—
TM: I love your audacious goal!
KL: Well, you know, the other thing I haven’t even mentioned was methane, right? So when you flood fields—
TM: Oh, global warming here!
KL: —when fields are flooded and because it’s hypoxic, it manifests as methane emission. So rice fields that are flooded are the number three manmade reason for methane, right behind cows, and fossil fuel extraction is number one.
KL: So, and of course, methane is a short-lived greenhouse gas.
TM: And certainly one of the worst greenhouse gases, for sure.
KL: Right. And when it dies, it turns into CO2, which lasts another 100 years on the planet. So it’s a real serious problem. But if we pull the plug on the rice fields and we can grow more rice because of it, and you don’t have to emit methane… And there’s some studies also that I’m not totally familiar with that talk about nitrous oxide, which is another nasty greenhouse gas, and that reduces that as well. But I can’t speak to that. We’ll have to go look it up.
TM: (Laughing) Google it! You know, it’s lovely especially to be at Bioneers here, where we see so many solutions. I love coming here because it gives me much more faith in the human family, that we do have solutions. And if only we could figure out how to change. When people have changed to the SRI, what stimulated them to do that? What do you think?
KL: I think farmers are very smart, resilient. From going around and talking to farmers, it’s interesting, you know, when the pioneers, the first one to do it in their community, there’s a consistent story that they tell, and that is they plant their seeds with plenty of spacing in rows, and it doesn’t look very abundant. And so their neighbors always come over to them and accuse them of being irresponsible, like “Your family will suffer now—you’re not going to have enough rice.” But then they see, after maybe two or three months into the growing season, that the plant is really healthy and it’s got more panicles and tillers—you know, the arms and then the branches of the plant. And of course—
TM: They’re getting more for less.
KL: And there’s more rice hanging off there. And then you hear anecdotal stories about farmers: in the milling process there’s less shattering of the grain, so that means more, higher-quality rice.
TM: You know, Lotus Foods has, it’s just been so fun to watch it grow. Can you tell us where, you know, if our listeners are saying, “Yeah, I’m going to buy some of this rice…” By the way, listeners, you should, because as I said, it’s quite delicious. So where could they purchase Lotus Foods rice?
KL: Well, it’s interesting, you know, we’ve experienced a lot of growth in recent years—
TM: Oh good.
KL: —since we’ve met, and so we’re in multiple channels. We started as a food service company because we didn’t have any money to put it into fancy packaging, so we just sold big bags of rice to chefs, typically white-tablecloth chefs in the San Francisco Bay Area. But since that time, we, of course, we’re mainly a natural foods brand, so you’ll find us in all the kind of a Whole Foods or natural, independent, cooperative type of stores. But we’re also, you can find us in the mass-market grocery stores, like the Safeways and Krogers.
TM: Oh, that’s wonderful. I’m excited.
KL: Yeah, so we’re in a lot of places. We’re on Amazon. We’re also in specialty stores and, as I said, restaurants as well. And we actually now have, you know, not just selling raw rice anymore. We’ve added what we call added-value products, and so we have rice ramen noodles and pad thai noodles and rice crackers. And so now we have some of these products in club stores, like Costco.
TM: Super! So I’m going to say it’s rice on a mission here, and so worthy of supporting out there, listeners. Ken, what a great honor for me to be interviewing you now, and I just am so pleased with your work, and thank you so much.
KL: Yeah, well, thank you for the platform, because I think maybe a lot of people still don’t know that… They think maybe rice is just rice. But we’re really trying to educate people. We have a program called Do the Rice Thing that highlights our “More Crop per Drop” discussion around why it makes a difference in how rice is grown. So we really encourage people to vote with their wallet and do the rice thing!
TM: Yes! Thank you so much, Ken.