2014 Leadership award winner for Vision

Caryl Levine

Lotus Foods

Having pioneered an effort to take rice farmers from conventional to organic farming, Levine and her husband, Ken Lee, had already made an environmental impact. But they found an even higher calling when they joined an innovative sustainable-farming program that would benefit rice suppliers, consumers and the environment.


Organic rice was Levine and Lee’s goal when launching Lotus Foods nearly 18 years ago: educating farmers in Southeast Asia about the value of organic farming, and teaching consumers the benefits of eating organic rice. The many heirloom varieties the brand comprises today were virtually unknown in the U.S. before Lotus Foods brought back the likes of black Forbidden Rice from China and red rice from Bhutan. “From the very outset, we always wanted to be innovators,” says Levine.

But it wasn’t until Cornell University approached the company for a partnership that the couple embarked on an even bolder effort. Researchers were seeking to implement an improved method of rice farming, called System of Rice Intensification, that would conserve resources—primarily water—and increase yields for rice farmers. Joining forces with an established business that had the marketing knowhow, a positive image and a growing following ensured a ready and willing consumer base for the resulting crops.

SRI became the catchier More Crop Per Drop, which also became the name of the company’s line of sustainably grown rice, and Lotus Foods set to work on showing consumers what made their new rice so special.


Traditional rice farming in countries such as Bhutan, Cambodia, China and Indonesia involves a surfeit of resources that often drain farming families to the point of poverty. “Imagine being a farmer and not having enough to eat,” Levine says. With the demand for water, fertilizer, pesticides and other supplies in conventional farming, “it was a negative sum at the end of the harvest.”

Where old methods called for continuous flooding of rice paddies, SRI taught farmers to alternate wet and dry periods, resulting in a 25 to 50 percent reduction in water use and fewer methane emissions (caused by the rotting of roots with constant flooding). The SRI process calls for transplanting rice seedlings at a much younger age (days versus weeks), using 90 percent fewer seeds and less land. “Farmers who are adopting this methodology are getting double and triple their yields,” Levine notes.

Fair trade pricing, reduced labor and less land dedicated to rice farming mean families have more earnings, time and resources, Levine continues. Women, typically the primary farmers, have more time for childrearing, money to send children to school and land to grow fruit and vegetable gardens, giving them not only a more varied diet but crops that sell for higher prices than rice in the marketplace.

Consumers get a clean, nutritious, flavorful array of products that are organic and fair trade certified, as well as a chance to contribute to the well-being of families and communities on the other side of the globe. “Just by how we change the way we grow rice, we can have environmental, economic and social impact,” Levine says.


Innovation fuels success and growth, and Lotus Foods continues to build awareness and sales with two new product introductions. Heat & Eat Bowls provide shelf-stable, fully cooked rice for busy, on-the-go shoppers, using a new method that retains the texture and taste of fresh-cooked grains. “I think it introduces more consumers to whole grain and more nutritional rices,” says Levine of the convenient, user-friendly product line.

The newest Rice Ramen offers not only more nutritious noodles, using Forbidden Rice, Jade Pearl Rice, and millet and brown rice as the base for three varieties, but a gluten-free option too. Initially exclusive to Whole Foods, the product will be available to all buyers starting with the Winter Fancy Food Show in January.

Levine is quick to note that the award is as much for her husband and co-founder, Lee, and the company as a whole. “We have an amazing team at Lotus Foods,” she says. “And everyone is there because they want to be there and they really see the difference we make on a daily basis.”

Learn more about the Leadership Awards and the other winners, honorable mentions and nominees at specialtyfood.com/leadershipawards.