Earth First

Rice in Asia | How it’s Grown

"I cannot live without rice"; my mum has said this to me more than once. Perhaps that's a tad exaggerated, but many people might agree with her because rice is a staple food for more than half the global population. You might have had it in sushi, with curry, or even baked into pudding. So, what do these grains go through before they end up in your favourite dishes?

A bite of history

The lion’s share of rice is still consumed in Asian countries, but this staple grain also plays a feature role in several traditional European dishes and has gained popularity over time.2 The cultural significance of rice is found in culinary traditions like risotto in Italy, paella in Spain, and riz au lait in France. Alexander the Great is credited with bringing rice to Greece after his military expedition through Asia around 320 BCE,3  while the Moors are believed to have introduced Asian rice (also known as Oryza sativa) to the Iberian Peninsula.3 Today, Italy is the leading producer of this grain in Europe, but different rice varieties are still grown in certain parts of Greece and Spain.4

How is rice produced?

While rice is a versatile crop that can be grown in a variety of environments, 90% of the global rice supply is produced in tropical nations with high rainfall such as Thailand, India and Indonesia. Rice crops require a large amount of water to grow, so most farmers flood their paddy fields at all times with a layer of water around 3-10 centimetres in height. In the tropics, where there are seasons of heavy rainfall, the water for paddy fields often comes from irrigation systems that are linked to nearby dams and rivers.5

Pests and diseases are a frequent nuisance in paddy fields, as an estimated 37% of rice crops are lost yearly to insects and birds.6 Thus, to supply the sheer amount of rice produced each year, farmers are pushed to use fertiliser and spray pesticides to keep rice seedlings healthy and pest-free. Even though organic rice is considered more desirable in the European market,7 growing rice without fertiliser or pesticides yields less rice and is typically less profitable for farmers who rely on these crops for their livelihoods.8

The harvesting can begin when rice seedlings have matured and their kernels have turned a golden brown. First, the crops are cut and then threshed to remove the actual grains from the harvested material. All the collected grains are then dried as soon as possible to get rid of most of the moisture in the rice, which can be done manually by drying the grains under the sun or by using mechanical dryers.9 A crucial step in rice production is milling, when the husk and bran layers that encase a rice kernel are removed to make the rice edible.

Fun Fact: Have you ever wondered what the difference between brown and white rice is? Well, you get brown rice when only the husk is removed from the kernel, whereas kernels that are further milled or polished to discard both the bran and husk layers end up as white rice. You may have also heard of red and black rice – they’re rice varieties with some extra pigments called anthocyanin in their bran layer.10

The Future of Rice

A pressing concern for rice farmers is climate change and the increasing frequency of droughts that can devastate rice production. Growing rice in flooded fields also releases methane - a greenhouse gas contributing to global warming. When paddy fields are flooded, the layer of water prevents oxygen from reaching the soil and anaerobic bacteria can then thrive in the soil layer while producing methane gas. What all this means is that the conventional way of growing rice is becoming unsustainable.11

Luckily, researchers and farmers are testing out new ways to grow rice, such as the system of rice intensification (SRI) that involves alternately wetting and drying rice plants and ultimately uses half the water that constant flooding does. This technique also requires fewer seeds and uses organic matter for fertiliser, increasing total rice yield by 20 to 200 per cent.12 Yet more scientists are looking to breed extra resilient types of rice like Green Super Rice (GSR) that can withstand harsh environments in floods, droughts or salty soils,13 so if you’re a big fan of rice, then don’t worry because the future of your favourite complex carb is in good hands.

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