In late June, a few colleagues and I traveled to St. Paul, Minnesota for the National Cooperative Grocers Association (NCGA) Grocery and Wellness conference. As a newbie to the annual conference, I learned about the history of the NCGA and the importance of each Co-op in this network. As it turns out, Willy Street Co-op is among 120 independently operated stores that make up the NCGA. Formed in 2004 by eight separate regional Cooperative Grocers Associations, the NCGA has allowed co-op member stores nationwide to pool their buying power in order to better compete with chain stores and offer great value to our Owners. NCGA has the second largest volume of organic and natural foods sales in the nation, which means the brands and products we offer and you support have the potential to change the local and global food system one purchase at a time. One significant and inspirational change in the global food system is a new way to farm rice called the “System of Rice Intensification” (SRI).

System of Rice Intensification (SRI)
At the NCGA conference, I took the opportunity to attend a workshop put on by Lotus Foods, a California based importer of SRI, heirloom, organic and fair trade rice. The whole premise of the workshop wasn’t to sell rice but to educate key decision makers in the organic and natural foods industry about an innovative and more sustainable method of cultivating rice. In short, the techniques of SRI farming require less seed and water, all the while producing better working conditions, higher yields, stronger food security, healthier communities, sustainability and biodiversity. The use and success of SRI is so important because rice is the major source of calories for at least half of the world’s population, and in many cases rice cultivating is the only source of income for rural communities. Major global organizations such as Africare, Oxfam and the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) have separately adopted the strategy of SRI in over 40 countries around the world because of the contributions to food security, farmers’ adaptability to climate change and environmental sustainability.

SRI vs. Conventional Rice Cultivation
So what makes SRI cultivation so much more sustainable than conventional cultivation methods?

  • Age of Seeds: SRI seedlings are transplanted at 1-2 weeks old while conventional seedlings are 3-4 weeks old when transplanted. A two-week head start in the growing season is a significant advantage for any farmer, especially with changing growing seasons.
  • Number of Seeds: SRI calls for 1-2 seedlings per planting in damp soil while a half dozen or more conventional seedlings are bunched together and pressed deep into flooded soil. The moist and aerobic soil allows the few SRI seedlings to develop a root system multiple times bigger than the flooded conventional roots that are restricted from air.
  • Spacing of plants: SRI allows about one foot between plantings which is double the conventional spacing standards. The spacing is a key component for allowing the plants room to grow and enable farmers to access rows with manual weeding tools. Additional space is also needed because the SRI plants will double the size of conventional harvest despite the smaller number of plants.
  • Water Use: SRI uses just enough water to keep soil moist, which reduces water needs significantly compared to the constant flooding of conventional fields. Climate change is reducing the amount of fresh water, so plants that require less water are more sustainable.
  • Soil and Environmental Quality: Without the need for flooding, farmers can fertilize SRI via the soil with organic compost instead of being dependent on chemical fertilizers via the water. The reduction in chemical use also contributes to better air, water and soil quality. All of the rice from Lotus Foods are certified organic or certified in transition to being organic.
  • Weed & Pest Control: Integrated Pest Management is encouraged, but the majority of weeding is performed manually with specialty weeders. The SRI varieties of rice are also naturally more resistant to pests and disease. Again, chemical applications are mostly eliminated unless absolutely necessary for crops that are not certified organic.

Inspiration
On the first page of the NCGA conference logistics packet was the intended meeting outcomes and the first one was, “be inspired,” and I was. Honestly, it took a couple of days for the significance of SRI to sink in, but the more I thought about it, the more convinced I was that we need to offer more of these heirloom, organic and fairly traded rices at Willy Street Co-op. Next time you’re in the store and looking for some rice, I recommend you try one of the great Lotus Foods SRI rices in our bulk aisle. The sum of our purchases will make a world of difference.

We offer three varieties to choose from:

  • Volcano Rice: A colorful blend of prized traditional brown and red rice, grown on West Java’s mineral rich volcanic soil. Aromatic and nutrient-dense, Volcano Rice cooks in only 30 minutes, producing moist and tender grains.
  • Madagascar Pink Rice: A long grain rice lightly milled to retain 66% of its wholesome bran layer. With aromas of cinnamon and cloves, it cooks in only 20 minutes and is a great alternative to basmati.
  • Mekong Flower Rice: This popular Cambodian jasmine rice is called Phka Malis, which means jasmine flowers. It has a lovely floral aroma, soft sticky texture and cooks in 30 minutes.

Enjoy!