Food We Eat : Rice (Part 1 of 2)

See above
See above (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Rice is a popular cereal crop commonly used as human food. It is actually a type of grass and belongs to a family of plants that includes other cereals such as wheat and corn.


Rice is rich in nutrients and contains a number of vitamins and minerals. It is an excellent source of complex carbohydrates—the best source of energy. However, a lot of these nutrients are lost during milling and polishing, which turns brown rice into white rice by removing the outer rice husk and bran to reveal the white grain.


Two species of rice are considered important as food species for humans: Oryza sativa, grown worldwide; and Oryza glaberrima, grown in parts of West Africa. Both of these belong to a bigger group of plants (the genus Oryza) that includes about 20 other species.


The International Rice Genebank – the world’s largest collection of rice diversity – contains more than 112,000 different types of rice including species of wild rice, the ancestors of rice, traditional and heirloom varieties, and modern varieties.


A brief history of rice

The origins of rice have long been debated. The plant is of such antiquity that the exact time and place of its first development will perhaps never be known. It is certain, however, that domestication of rice ranks as one of the most important developments in history. Rice has fed more people over a longer period than has any other crop.


Pottery shards bearing the imprint of both grains and husks of the cultivated rice species O. sativa were discovered in the 1960s at Non Nok Tha in the Korat area of Thailand. Rice plant  remains from 10,000 B.C. were discovered in Spirit Cave on the Thailand-Myanmar border. In China, extensive archeological evidence points to the middle Yangtze and upper Huai rivers as the two earliest places O. sativa was cultivated in the country. Rice and related farming implements dating back at least 8,000 years were found there and rice cultivation seems to have spread down these rivers over the following 2,000 years. 


From early, perhaps separate, beginnings in different parts of Asia, the process of diffusion has carried rice in all directions and today it is cultivated on every continent except Antarctica. In the early Neolithic era (10,000 to 8,000 B. C.), rice was grown in forest clearings under a system of shifting cultivation. The crop was direct seeded, without standing water—conditions only slightly different from those to which wild rice was subject. A similar but independent pattern of the incorporation of wild rice into agricultural systems may well have taken place in one or more locations in Africa at approximately the same time with O. glaberrima.


Puddling the soil—turning it to mud—and transplanting seedlings were likely refined in China. Both operations became integral parts of rice farming and remain widely practiced to this day. Puddling breaks down the internal structure of soils, making them much less subject to water loss through the drainage of water through the soil. In this respect, it can be thought of as a water-saving management practice.


The combined forces of natural and human selection; diverse climates, seasons, and soils; and varied cultural practices (dryland preparation with direct seeding and puddling of the soil with transplanting) led to the tremendous ecological range where rice is grown now especially in Asia. 


Within the last 2,000 years, dispersal and cultivation of the cultivated rice varieties in new habitats have further accelerated the diversifications process. Today, thousands of rice varieties are grown in more than 100 countries.


Why Grow Rice?



Rice is unique because it can grow in wet environments that other crops cannot survive in. Such wet environments are abundant across Asia where rice is grown. 


Irrigated lowland rice, which makes up three-quarters of the world rice supply, is the only crop that can be grown continuously without the need for rotation and can produce up to three harvests a year—literally for centuries, on the same plot of land. Farmers also grow rice in rainfed lowlands, uplands, mangroves, and deepwater areas.


Rice plays an important role in many cultures. For thousands of years different parts of the rice plant have been used in religious and ceremonial occasions, as medicine, and as inspiration and medium for a great number of artwork. Rice shortages affect society far beyond the cold statistics that price, caloric intake, yield growth rates, and international trade suggest. Any significant disruptions of rice supplies can and do have far-reaching social and political ramifications.


Rice and food security


One fifth of the world’s population—more than a billion people—depend on rice cultivation for their livelihoods. Asia, where about 90% of rice is grown, has more than 200 million rice farms, most of which are smaller than 1 hectare. Rice-based farming is the main economic activity for hundreds of millions of rural poor in this region. In Africa, rice is the fastest growing staple. This increase in the demand for rice is also true for Latin America and Caribbean countries.
Mexican Beans & Rice
Mexican Beans & Rice


In most of the developing world, rice is equated with food security and closely connected to political security. Changes in rice availability, and hence price, have caused social unrest in several countries.


To keep rice prices stable and affordable at around $US300 a ton, IRRI estimates that an additional 8-10 million tons of rice needs to be produced every year.


The challenge, above anything else, is to produce this additional rice with less land, less water, and less labor, in more efficient, environmentally-friendly production systems that are more resilient to climate change, among other factors.


Rice and Poverty

Rice is the most important food crop of the developing world and the staple food of more than half of the world’s population, many of whom are also extremely vulnerable to high rice prices. Worldwide, more than 3.5 billion people depend on rice for more than 20% of their daily calories.

Contribution of Rice to Calorie intake
Contribution of Rice to Calorie intake


In 2009, nearly one billion people were living in poverty, including 640 million in Asia where rice is the staple food. Rice is so closely linked with poverty that in 2008, when rice prices tripled, the World Bank estimated that an additional 100 million people were pushed into poverty.


Rice consumption can be very high, exceeding 100kg per capita annually in many Asian countries. For about 520 million people in Asia, most of them poor or very poor, rice provides more than 50% of the caloric supply. In sub-Saharan Africa, urban dwellers who only a few decades ago rarely ate rice now consume it daily. Per capita consumption has doubled since 1970 to 27kg. In South America, average per capita consumption of rice is 45kg. In the Caribbean it has already risen to over 70kg.


Asia, where about 90% of rice is grown, has more than 200 million rice farms, most of which are smaller than 1 hectare. Rice-based farming systems are also the main economic activity for hundreds of millions of rural poor, many of whom do not own their own land. For the extreme poor (less than $1.25/day), rice accounts for nearly half of their food expenditures and a fifth of total household expenditures, on average. This group alone annually spends the equivalent of $62 billion (Purchasing Power Parity – PPP) for rice. 


In Africa, rice is the fastest growing food staple. The gap between demand and supply in sub-Saharan Africa, where rice is grown and eaten in 38 countries, reached 10 million tons of milled rice in 2008, costing the region an estimated $3.6 billion for imports. Rice is also one of the most important and fastest growing staple foods in Latin America, especially among urban consumers and particularly the poor. Like Africa, the region is a net importer of rice, with a projected annual deficit of 4 million tons by 2015.

South Indian Rice Meal
South Indian Rice Meal
Top 20 Rice Producers by Country—2011
(million metric ton)
 People’s Republic of China 202.6
 India 155.7
 Indonesia 65.7
 Bangladesh 50.6
 Vietnam 42.3
 Thailand 34.5
 Burma 32.8
 Philippines 16.6
 Brazil 13.4
 Cambodia 8.7
 Japan 8.4
 United States 8.3
 South Korea 6.3
 Pakistan 6.1
 Egypt 5.6
 Madagascar 5.0
 Nigeria 4.5
 Nepal 4.4
 Sri Lanka 3.8
 Iran 3.2
Source: Food and Agriculture Organization


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