Rice (oryza sativa) is the staple food for about one half of the world’s population. This grain has origins going back to about 3000 B.C in India, and grew along the rivers of the Tigris and Euphrates circumscribing the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia. Rice is the staple food of East and Central Asia, the islands of the western Pacific and much of Latin America. These eastern nations are today the main rice-producing countries; places such as China, India, Japan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Thailand and Burma. Rice is much more than a grain; it has fueled economies, been subject to science, and traveled the globe due to world trade.
Rice is found all over the world and in thousands of varieties; there are more than 8,000 varieties found in India alone where it all originated, and in one of the smaller rice-producing countries, the Philippines, there are about 3,500 varieties. Some of these well known varieties include basmati (India), sushi rice (Japan) and jasmine rice (Thailand) each having a different consistency and flavor. Basmati rice is very aromatic, both in its dry state and cooked. It has an exotic smell that is very distinct compared to other varieties. Sushi rice is known for its consistency; it very sticky, which is beneficial when making sushi. Jasmine rice, as seen on the plate, is also aromatic but it has a different smell. It has a more floral smell to it, hence the name Jasmine rice.There are other varieties of wild rice which is altogether a different species (Zizania aquatica). This species is grown in western nations such as the United States and has become a delicacy in markets. It fueled the diets of Native Americans in parts of the Midwest United States. Rice comes in different colors, shapes, lengths, and is grown in different conditions. The harvested rice, which still has the husk around the grain, comes in several different colors including, white, brown, amber, red or black. Some of these varieties are long and slender, while others are short and thick.
The Process of Growing and Harvesting Rice
Rice is grown in tropical, semi tropical and temperate regions; mostly in coastal plains, tidal deltas, and river basins. There needs to be a supply of freshwater because the land needs to be submerged under water. Rice plants are tall stalks, about four feet tall when fully cultivated. The actual plant itself has several stalks with long flat leaves. At the end of the stalk there is a head known as the panicle with spikelets that generates green and yellow flowers which are essentially the grains of rice. The rice plants can survive under water because oxygen is transported from the leaves down to the roots of the plant. Drought, birds and pests are the main threats to rice paddies.
In about 80 to 200 days from planting, depending on the variety, the fields are drained and the rice is harvested. Some fields are harvested by machine, like in the United States, but others are done by hand. The process where the fruit (grain) is removed from the plant is called threshing; this is where the plant is beat against the side of a container, either a box or barrel. The next process is known as milling; this is when the outer husk, surrounding the rice is removed. There are two types of milling, one produces white rice and the other is a more rough form producing brown rice and keeps the bran layer on the kernel. In white rice, the outer husk and bran layer are removed which reduces its nutritional value. This has led to nutritional deficiencies in thiamine and minerals, specifically a problem known as beriberi. Traditionally the Chinese and Indians ate brown rice, which was healthier overall, but once the British introduced white rice, it led to nutritional problems for these countries because rice is a staple in their diet.
Nutritional Deficiencies Meet Technology
Nutritional deficiencies have become a problem in many countries where rice is a major portion of their diet. With the introduction of genetic engineering, science has created a variety of rice where they insert genes into the genetic make up of that rice. This rice is known as “golden rice” and they have increased the amount of beta-carotene, a precursor to vitamin A. Around the world, the World Health Organization concluded that there are about 250 million people that suffer from vitamin A deficiency, which puts them at risk for permanent blindness or other serious ailments. Seeds would be distributed to national governments and given to farmers, where they could earn about $10,000 without paying the usual royalties to the seed manufacturers.
Another type is rice has been created in China by experts at the National Rice Institute. It has been referred to as “super rice”. It is immune to the toxic effects of herbicides. It was described as “resilient and tasty”. Genetic engineering has become a sensitive topic around the world. Most people prefer not to buy food that has been genetically modified. Recently in China there are new labels for products with genetically modified ingredients. Rice research is a large field in China because it is a staple in their diet. It was said that “China has long wanted to be number one in developing rice and other staple foods (NYT).” China has just recently been entered into the World Trade Organizations.
Rice in Japan
In Japan rice is a staple to their society. It is a major aspect to the nation nutritionally, agriculturally and economically. Rice is eaten at each of the three meals of the day. Usually rice is a base for most foods to be put onto. Rice is also made into an alcohol, known as sake, which is similar to a wine. It is typically served during meals, at dinner parties and especially celebrations such as weddings or birthdays. In terms of acreage, tonnage and value, rice is the largest crop. Rice production has been around in Japan since about 250 BC; there were small scale farmers who had rice patties in their irrigated fields. Since 1960, the production of rice has greatly increased; but in 1994, there was a very poor harvest which made it necessary to import rice. The country went from having a surplus of rice, to not enough to supply the country. This poor harvest however made a significant headway for opening Japan to markets of imports, particularly from the United States. The United States has provided Japan with several other food products besides rice, including soy beans, beef, and pork. For example, about 90% of Japans soybeans are imported from the United States; and the amount of beef has increased in Japan due to major corporations buying cattle ranches in the western United States. These partnerships between the United States and Japan exemplify the importance in the global market.
China, the Largest Rice Producer
China is the world’s largest producer of rice. This is probably due to the fact that out of the principle rice producing countries China has the greatest land mass. Rice is a cash crop, and accounts for about half of the countries total food-crop output. Rice and wheat occupy about 85% of the land in China that is under cultivation. China has a few main areas of land that produce much of the rice for the country. One is the Yangtze River basin in central China. This area contains very rich, river-borne alluvial soils rich in oxygen and nutrients. About half of the countries rice is produced in this region because it is farmed all year round. The second area is in south China. It is a very mountainous region, but the flat areas are very fertile and ideal for rice patties. This area is known as the Zhu Jiang delta plain, and is one of the most productive farming regions in China. China is similar to Japan in the fact that rice is a very important crop for the countries agriculture, economy and daily diets.
Rice and the Global Market
Rice is a very affordable crop throughout the world, and is used to feed countries in need. Heads from the major rice producing countries such as China, India, Pakistan, Vietnam and Thailand got together in early October in hopes to create a minimum global price for rice. They formed an unofficial cartel to boost world prices, similar to the way Opec oversees much of the trade in oil. These five countries that met account for about three-quarters of the world’s rice output. This meeting will have positive as well as negative outcomes. Since rice is such an important part to much of the world’s diet, they hope that rice will remain affordable, especially since it is widely used in defense of world hunger. On the flip side, it will create a steady price for growers and farmers as a safety blanket for their crops.
Rice in the News
India and Pakistan have been in a battle for land rights for several years now, particularly in the north western part of India. These two nations are also large producers of basmati rice, and a variety distinctive to this region of south Asia, where it has been grown for centuries in the Himalayan foothills. The issue of rice has bonded these two feuding nations. In the United States a particular strain of rice has genetically been created which is similar and potentially superior to basmati rice, this angered the two Asian nations. India and Pakistan have joined forces to claim their rights over basmati rice. This new strain of rice could eventually impact the Indian and Pakistani economies because rice growing and global exports are such important element both agriculturally and economically.
Rice fuels nations. It accounts for a large portion of Asian and Latin American diets, it is a basis to these nations agriculture and it joins them to the rest of the world through the global market. Rice has been largely impacted by science, which potentially could be both beneficial and harmful to these rice producing countries. Rice demonstrates how food is an integral aspect to a nation’s agriculture, economy and global market.