More Rice with Less Water

More Rice with Less Water

We are now exactly halfway through the International Water for Life Decade (2005-2015), a designation developed by the United Nations to wake up the world to the water and sanitation crisis. We keep adding people to the planet but water resources are diminishing.  Making agriculture more water efficient has to be a top priority.  In the US, according to the USDA, agriculture accounts for 80% of our water use and over 90% in many Western States.  Globally, one of the largest consumers of water is rice.  Each year, about one third of the world’s freshwater goes to grow rice. That’s A LOT of water!!  Irrigated rice takes 2-3 times more water than wheat or maize, the two other major food staples. Rice is not an aquatic plant but flooding it is an efficient way to control weeds, and in many areas, before pesticide use became so prevalent, farmers raised fish and ducks in the fields, which provided an important source of protein. With competition for water intensifying the world over, using 3,000-5,000 liters of water to grow a kilo of rice is simply not sustainable.  In many parts of India and China, farmers are having to drill deeper and deeper to find water. Decades of pumping water out of the ground, sometimes 8 hours a day for over 100 days each year to sustain the recommended levels is leading to serious shortages.  Only 50% of the world’s rice land is irrigated, but it produces 75% of the world’s rice supply, so a major challenge is to find ways to improve the efficiency of irrigated systems while maintaining or increasing yields.

We are very excited to be working with a visionary methodology for rice cultivation that is rapidly spreading among farmers in more than 35 countries. It is called the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) and it enables even the poorest farmers to increase their yields anywhere from 20 to 100% while using 50% less water, 90% less seeds, and no agrochemicals. It sounds too good to be true, but it is based on sound agronomic principles.  Farmers practicing SRI do not keep their fields permanently flooded; water is drained off periodically. The soil is kept aerated, just like the soils in your garden, and nourished with compost and natural fertilizers. This, together with wider spacing of plants, results in healthier root systems and more productive plants.  Farmers can use their own saved seed and they get good yields with their traditional varieties.  With lower production costs, they are less likely to become indebted and the additional rice, whether eaten at home or sold, also helps boost incomes.  An added benefit of SRI techniques is that because the fields are not flooded and farmers use less or no synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, methane emissions are reduced. It is estimated that flooded rice paddies contribute 8-20% of global methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.

We were introduced to this novel cultivation method through Cornell University’s International Institute for Food, Agriculture and Development (CIIFAD) in 2005. They were interested in collaborating with a private sector partner that could help them link SRI farmers to international markets.  The objective was to promote greater awareness of rice biodiversity, create market incentives for more farmers to adopt SRI practices and assist farmers develop sustainable supply chains for their specialty rices.  After almost 3 years of very intense work with farmer groups and NGOs in Cambodia, Indonesia and Madagascar, in 2009 we succeeded in importing one container (18 tons) of SRI-grown rice from each of these countries:  Madagascar Pink Rice™, Volcano Rice™ and Mekong Flower Rice™.  The Madagascar Pink Rice is a delicious long grain rice with hints of cinnamon and gloves and is produced by the farmers of the Koloharena Cooperative Ivolamiarina in the Lac Alaotra region- the country’s rice basket. From the mineral-rich volcanic soil of Indonesia, Volcano Rice is a colorful blend of nutrient-dense brown and red rice. Reputed to restore vitality due to its high mineral and fiber content, it is grown by the Simpatik Organic Farmer Cooperative in the Tasikmalaya region of West Java. This rice is also certified by the international certifier IMO as Fair for Life, which is considered to most difficult to obtain due to its extensive social and environmental criteria.  Our Mekong Flower Rice comes from the Khmer word for beautiful garland of flowers because of its floral aroma. Leaving the germ and bran layer intact intensifies its fragrance and nutty flavor while retaining the highest nutritional value. It is the first certified organic rice to be exported from Cambodia. These rices are still available in bulk only due to the smaller volumes, but by this fall we hope to get them into retail packages and onto grocery shelves with the rest of our existing product line. Please let us know if you want to find a store near you that carries the SRI rices. Here is a recipe from Leslie Cerier, author of Going Wild in the Kitchen using the Madagascar Pink Rice.

Madagascar Pink Rice with Cashews and Scallions

Here’s a great side dish scented with cumin and ginger. Serve with a bean salad for a great summer meal.

By Leslie Cerier, author of Going Wild in the Kitchen and the upcoming Gluten-Free Recipes for the Conscious Cook (Spring 2010).


  • 2 cups water
  • 1 tablespoon ghee
  • 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
  • 1 cup Madagascar Pink Rice
  • ½ cup cashews
  • 1 teaspoon grated ginger
  • ½ teaspoon sea salt
  • ½ cup chopped scallions


  1. Boil water in a teakettle.
  2. Heat the ghee and cumin seeds in a 4 quart stock pot over medium heat. Fry for 1-2 minutes until they smell fragrant. Add and sauté the rice and cashews for two minutes to coat and flavor the rice and cashews.
  3. Turn off the heat and add boiling water, grated ginger and sea salt.  Resume heat. Cover and simmer 15-20 minutes or until water is absorbed.
  4. Served garnish with scallions.

Serves 4

Caryl Levine

Caryl Levine and her husband, Ken Lee, founded Lotus Foods on a mission to help rice farmers around the world earn a living wage and to bring healthier rice choices to families. Lotus Foods’ partners in fair trade with small family farmers who are growing rice sustainably and preserving rice biodiversity.

Note: This Perspectives Blog post is written by a guest blogger of The opinions expressed on this post do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Dr. Greene or, and as such we are not responsible for the accuracy of the information supplied. View the license for this post.

Get Dr. Greene's Wellness Recommendations

Sign up now for a delightful weekly email with insights for the whole family. Plus Dr. Greene's FREE Top 5 Wellness Tips For 2017.

Got an idea, tip or a comment?

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *