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Saving Basmati and Other Endangered Grains

Brad Edmondson headshotWords by Brad Edmondson
Energy & Environment
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If you think you're buying basmati rice, think again. "Most of the rice sold as basmati in the United States is not the traditional variety," said Caryl Levine, co-owner of Lotus Foods, which recently announced a plan to import organic, heirloom basmati to promote rice biodiversity.

"Americans get hybrids, like U.S.-produced Texmati, which grow faster and can have higher yields. But hybrids don't have the traits rice connoisseurs look for,” Levine explained. Dehradun basmati is among a handful of varieties in India and Pakistan that are recognized as authentic basmati rice. “It has extra long grains that almost double in length when you cook them, and it is wonderfully aromatic," Levine said. The word "basmati" comes from the Sanskrit word for "fragrant."

Dehradun is the capital city of Uttarakhand, an Indian state in the foothills of the Himalayas. Rice cultivation there is centered in the Doon Valley, between the Ganges and Yamuna Rivers, where the traditional variety is being edged out as fields become suburbs and farmers are encouraged to switch to hybrids. Lotus Foods is partnering with Nature BioFoods, an all-organic subsidiary of the multinational LT Foods, to bring organic, fair trade-certified Dehradun basmati to the U.S. market as a premium product, so that farmers will benefit from those premiums.

"Agribusiness only makes a few varieties of rice available, but much more is out there," said Lotus co-owner Ken Lee. "Our business is trying to share and protect the diversity of rice."

Dehradooni farmers are generating surpluses to sell because they are using System of Rice Intensification (SRI) practices, which involve simple methods and organic matter to conserve the use of water and seedlings. Farmers who switch from traditional methods to SRI usually reduce their labor and materials costs, while research shows that their yields can more than double.

Lotus is now introducing Dehradun basmati in bulk to the natural foods and foodservice trade. The product launch coincides with the company’s campaign, which has a lengthy name befitting its multiple goals: “Do the Rice Thing with More Crop Per Drop, a Water-Smart and Women-Strong Way to Grow Rice."

Lotus learned about SRI a decade ago from Olivia Vent at Cornell University's SRI Rice project, which offers technical assistance to farmers. Vent said that by demanding less labor, SRI improves the lives of women in South Asian villages. The women work extremely long hours, she explained, and tending rice paddies is just one of their jobs.

Levine and Lee visited SRI growers in Madagascar and Cambodia, "and those trips convinced us that this was the right thing to do," Lee recalled. "By creating market incentives, we can move the needle in a positive direction on multiple fronts -- using less water, helping farmers, helping women and giving consumers better choices."

The alliance between Lotus Foods and SRI Cornell "is turning out to be a great partnership," Lee said. Lotus now sells four varieties of SRI or More Crop Per Drop rice; Dehradun basmati will make five. "It's exciting," he said. "We meet store owners and tell them, they tell their staff, and the staff gets the customers on board. Everyone wants solutions, and this rice offers several of them."

Image credit: Flickr/Connie Ma

Brad Edmondson headshotBrad Edmondson

Brad Edmondson is an award-winning writer and presenter who explains social change and how it happens. www.bradedmondson.com.

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