Q&A: An exotic rice importer who saves water, women’s backs

Name: Caryl Levine
City: El Cerrito
Position: Co-founder, Lotus Foods

J.: You and your husband founded a company importing various kinds of heirloom rice from around the world. What sparked this idea?

Caryl Levine: It started with a market research trip through China in 1993, where my husband Ken [Lee] and I were looking for an entrepreneurial business idea. We had no idea it would be in the food industry. We were in this village in southwestern China that has 26 different ethnic minorities. We were served this steaming bowl of black rice with a roasted nutty flavor with a hint of fruit. Everyone told us it was very nutritious and had numerous health benefits. They said it had been reserved for the emperors to ensure them a long life. Later, we were in Beijing, in the Forbidden City, when Ken had the idea to call it Forbidden Rice, the Emperor’s Exclusive Grain. We shipped some home, and sent it to a dozen top Bay Area chefs. Everyone is always looking for the next exciting ingredient and plate presentation.

Caryl Levine

Where is the majority of the rice you import grown?

Asia and Southeast Asia, with some in India, Cambodia, China, Africa, Madagascar and Italy. In addition to discovering and creating a market for Black Forbidden Rice, our vision was to keep the biodiversity of rice alive. Twenty years ago, the most exotic rice varieties in this country were basmati and jasmine, no one knew about these heirloom varieties like black or red from Bhutan. If there’s no market for them, farmers won’t grow them. We are ensuring that small family farmers can get a fair wage for growing these varieties.

Tell me about your campaign to incentivize farmers to use less water to grow rice.

For 5,000 years, people thought rice needs to be flooded; but it survived in water, it didn’t thrive. We started an awareness campaign called “more crop per drop,” about SRI, or System of Rice Intensification, in which farmers use 50 percent less water and no chemicals, doubling and tripling their yield. Almost 4 billion people eat rice daily to survive and it’s grown on the backs of women. With this new system, they use a weeder and are standing straight instead of bending over, weeding and transplanting. Women who adopt this are spending so many fewer hours in the fields. They have more time for child-rearing and other activities that may bring more income. With women not having to work in flooded fields, they aren’t as exposed to disease, like the malaria mosquito, and it improves their food security, health and income.

Tell me about your involvement with the Clinton Global Initiative.

In 2008, Ken was invited to speak about how we’re helping to alleviate poverty with some of our small farmers using the SRI method. In 2014, I was invited back to speak about sustainability. I was on a panel with companies like General Mills and McDonalds. It was like David and Goliath, it was wonderful for me to be in that company and for the larger companies to hear what we were doing and realize what impact they could be making. Last year, we got to bring one of our Thai SRI farmers to be on a panel that Chelsea (Clinton) hosted.

Buying local is prized among people who care where their food comes from. How do you counter that message, since your products likely appeal to those same consumers?

We’re considered a local company, and we live in a global world. When you bring a container of rice [by sea], you’re using less energy than you might when you’re growing rice on the East Coast and shipping it cross country. Also, how we’re growing it creates no methane emissions, so it’s better for the environment. It isn’t so black and white.

What was your Jewish upbringing? Do you feel your Jewish values influence the way you run your business in any way?

I came from a Conservative Jewish family on Long Island. I chose piano over Hebrew school, but I’ve always identified with my Jewish heritage; I kept my last name because it’s part of who I am and it’s always identified as being Jewish, it gives me away. When I meet interesting and smart people and then realize they’re Jewish, I think, “Aha! It’s because you’re Jewish. You’re my tribe.”

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Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."