Lake Alaotra, Madagascar

Our Madagascar Pink Rice has an unusual story, like a modern day Jack in the Beanstalk tale, complete with "magic" seeds. Rakotomandimby Jean Baptiste, also known as Dista, is a farmer in the Lake Alaotra region of Madagascar. One day in June 2000, on returning home from the market with bags he had purchased to store his harvested rice, his attention was captured by two unusual grains lodged in one of the bags. Curious, he planted them in his home garden and watered them well. One died but the other grew. And grew. And kept on growing.

It produced 63 grain-bearing panicles, about twice the number of his other rice. He and his neighbors were amazed. He saved the seed for the following season, and subsequently harvested two large bags. It was time to cook the rice. However, Dista refused to allow any family or friends to eat it, lest it have ill-effects. He tested it first. The rice was delicious! He waited one more day before inviting other villagers to try it. "Varin'i Dista" (Dista's Rice) was an overnight success. Neighbors requested seeds and now the rice is grown on many farms and is prized by farmers and consumers alike. It has a long grain that elongates at cooking, tastes slightly sweet, and some locals claim it has healed them of illness.

This rice is grown using the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) methodology. Because of this, farmers are getting yields of 8-10 tons of rice per hectare (about 2.5 acres) as compared with only 2-4 tons per hectare before. And the grains shatter less in milling so farmers go home with fuller bags. Additionally, the rice is more nutritious, which may be the reason villagers claim it has a healing effect.

We discovered this wonderful, soft rice on a trip to Madagascar in 2006. The president of the KH Amparavarafola Cooperative invited us and cooperative members to his home for a luncheon under the trees where we were served "Dista's rice" with a savory stew of vegetables and duck prepared by his wife. We were struck immediately by the lovely pink color, subtly sweet flavor and amazingly soft (but not mushy) texture.

KH stands for "preserve our heritage" and is a national network of local associations, each with 10-20 households that emphasize natural resource conservation in their agricultural practices. Although the area around Lake Alaotra is considered to be Madagascar's rice basket, family incomes are less than $200/yr. Productivity is low due to weathered soils, poor land management, erosion, and farmers don't have money to buy tools, seeds or hire labor. In communities where SRI is being adopted, though, we saw signs of new prosperity – a new roof being put on, a freshly painted house, and even occasionally a motorbike. This was where we began to see that this simple method of farming could bring an end to poverty, while at the same time conserving natural resources and producing higher yields of more nutritious rice.

Madagascar is where the principles of SRI were developed in the 1980s by Father Henri de Laulanié, who lived and worked with Malagasy rice farmers for 30 years. The methodology was then locally extended by the NGO Tefy Saina. In the mid-1990s, it came to the attention of Glenn Lines, who was managing a USAID-funded project for the Cornell International Institute for Food, Agriculture and Development (CIIFAD). CIIFAD had been contracted to raise lowland rice productivity along the margins of what remains of Madagscar's rainforest, to reduce further encroachment on the forest. Though at first skeptical, CIIFAD urged further investigation and validation, not only in Madagascar but other countries. We have worked closely with CIIFAD to bring to market our three new SRI-grown rices. SRI is now being adopted in some 33 countries around the world resulting in many economic, environmental and social benefits.