First Person

Rice is life

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Malian rice farmer Moussa Ag Demba visited an Iowa organic farm last week. Photo: Sarah Peck / Oxfam America
Malian rice farmer Moussa Ag Demba visited an Iowa organic farm last week. Photo: Sarah Peck / Oxfam America

I admit it: I’ve taken rice for granted. I’ve let it languish, starchy and plain, in neglected cardboard take-out containers. I’ve pushed it to the side of my plate in order to get to the good stuff.

But over the last few days, I’ve come to see this humble grain in a whole new light.

It all started during lunch last Friday at a brick-walled Vietnamese restaurant on the outskirts of Des Moines. With me were Minh Le, Oxfam America country representative in Vietnam; assorted staffers and translators; Moussa Ag Demba, a farmer from Douékiré, Mali; and Duddeda Sugunavva, a farmer from Andhra Pradesh, India.

Oxfam America, Africare, and WWF-International had invited these farmers to the US—along with a Vietnamese farmer, Le Ngoc Thach—to talk about the System of Rice Intensification (SRI). This innovative approach to growing rice produces higher yields using less water and fewer pesticides. All three farmers led their communities in introducing SRI, and were here to share their success stories with everyone from US government officials to agriculture experts at the World Food Prize Symposium.

But that day at the restaurant, the farmers were hungry. And they craved something more familiar than the meat-and-potatoes Iowa cuisine.

Then rice arrived, white and gleaming, each serving molded into a perfect dome.

“If I’d known the food was like this, I’d have been here earlier,” said Ag Demba, digging in to a heaping portion. Beside him, Sugunavva—a birdlike woman wrapped in a voluminous fuzzy cardigan—worked her way through three plates. Her meal finished, Sugunavva wandered over to the restaurant’s sunlit window, smiling contentedly and unbuttoning her cardigan to reveal a jewel-green sari.

“Rice is life,” said Minh Le succinctly when I asked her about its significance. “For many Asian people, it’s not only a way of earning a living, but a way of sustaining their culture. It has a lot of spiritual value.”

According to More rice for the people, more water for the planet, a new joint report from Oxfam, Africare, and WWF, the benefits of SRI have already reached more than 40 countries. In this season alone, said Le, Vietnamese SRI farmers could grow as much as 10 percent more rice while using 30 percent less seeds and fertilizer, allowing them to earn an additional $8.7 million from their harvest—all of which will go straight back to the small-holder farmers, mostly women, who grow the country’s food supply.

The next day, we tasted SRI rice: a variety known as Mekong Delta Pink Flower. Oxfam America helped bring this variety to Cambodia in 2003, Le told me; and now, after a trans-continental journey, it graced an outdoor buffet table on a farm near Marshalltown, Iowa.

The rice was part of a special World Food Day meal shared by the international guests and local Iowa farmers. Combined with a fresh, herbal, locally-sourced chicken soup, the fluffy brown grain tasted delicious—nothing plain or boring about it.

And this time, I noticed, almost everyone—locals and visitors alike—came back for seconds. Facebook Twitter Instagram YouTube Google+