Deepa is a freelance researcher and journalist. She writes and makes documentaries and videos.
The Story of Rice
The story of rice can be seen as a mirror image of the story of human civilization itself. The domestication of wild animals and plants was key to humans transforming their nomadic habits and settling down in certain locations. Agriculture was the major factor, however, that made us stay in the same place for a long time or even a lifetime, with rice playing no small part in that transformation.
The most cultivated species of rice, Oryza sativa, was domesticated by the ancient people of Asia, while another species of rice was brought into cultivation by the West Africans, Oryza glaberrima. While the African rice remains largely confined regionally to Africa, the Asian rice has spread across the world as a significant crop and staple diet. Even in Africa now, Asian rice is the most cultivated variety.
Globally, rice is the staple food of 3.5 billion people, which is about half the world population. John Kerry King has interestingly observed that in Thailand the very concept of food is rooted in rice, with the two main Thai words for food being "khaw" (meaning "rice") and “kab khaw" (meaning "with rice"). In other words, “food is either rice or something eaten with it."
In this article, we will take a look at the history, diversity, cultivation, culture, and politics of the most widely consumed crop on the planet.
Amazing Diversity: Thousands and Thousands of Varieties
Oryza sativa itself has two types of rice as its subcategories: the japonica variety and the indica variety. The japonica, which is sticky when cooked, grows mostly in Japan, China, and Korea. The Indica type is non-sticky and is cultivated in India and parts of Southeast Asia.
The Asian species of rice can be further broken down into thousands of indigenous varieties. They come in many sizes, leaf colors, husk colors, seed sizes, habitat characters, and even fragrances. They grow in very high altitudes such as in the Himalayas, on the sea coast, and in all other kinds of landscapes. The red rice and black rice have red and black husks respectively, and they are known for their antioxidant properties.
There are also many wild varieties of rice that grow across the world. The International Rice Research Institute based in the Philippines has so far been preserving more than 100,000 varieties of Asian rice, about 1,500 African rice varieties, and above 4,500 wild rice varieties.
According to Ricepedia, an online database on rice, the Oryza sativa species of rice was domesticated in a single region in China, and it was from there that it spread to the different parts of the world. This origin place has been identified as Pearl River Valley, and the domestication event is dated to about 10,000 years ago.
The dwarf varieties of rice can be as small as just above 100 centimeters in height, while the tall varieties can grow higher than even a 6-foot-tall human being. The tall varieties mainly grow in waterlogged geographies, and farmers harvest this variety from their boats and rafts. Some wild rice varieties that grow in water-logged swamps also have yet another curious property: they are perennial, unlike other oft-cultivated rice varieties that are annual plants. The stubbles of the perennial rice plant survive even when the leaves die down, and they later grow back their leaves when climatic conditions are conducive. A few of these varieties can be spotted in the Sundarbans of East India, which is a swampy delta formed by the rivers Ganges, Brahmaputra, and Meghna.
The Process of Domestication
Imagine a time when humans harvested rice from the wild grass that grew around. The edible part must have been much thinner and smaller than what we see inside a rice seed today. As cultivation started, a selection process would have been initiated. The first cultivators would have soon learned to keep aside the seeds that are bigger in size for the next sowing. This selection process continued for generations, through centuries, and gradually the seed size of the cultivated variety grew larger and larger.
How about the fields in which rice is grown? They are human-made swamps that can be puddled into a fine and slimy consistency whenever sowing is done. You will not find any small rocks or pebbles in a paddy field, but only super-fine clay. Think about the hundreds of generations that might have toiled in these fields so as to make it such a unique growing field. These fields might have been tilled a thousand times, and hence the upper layer of fine and loose clay that helps the roots of the rice grow at an optimum level and enables maximum nutrient absorption.
Many believe that it was in the deltas of rivers where there are natural clayey soil composition and high moisture content that rice was grown by the first farmers. In places like the Himalayas, however, you see upland paddy cultivation that has existed for centuries. Though debate continues whether rice originated in China or India, it is also possible that many river deltas saw a parallel evolution at a given point in time—and that time was around 6000 BC and 3000 BC.
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The Voyage of Rice
Rice traveled from Asia to other places in the world along with sea voyagers and land explorers. Around 300 BC, when Alexander invaded India, the Greeks took rice back to the Middle East. There is also evidence that rice was initially a medicine for Roman local physicians.
West Africa imports half of the rice that the country consumes, and 90% of the locally cultivated rice is supplied by traditional networks constituting farmers, local millers, and traders. Asian farmers cultivate 87% of the total quantity of rice consumed by the world. The major rice-producing countries today are China, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Vietnam.
The Role of Rice in Culture and Customs
For the Indian farmer, rice is a divine offering to gods. In Indian culture and agricultural practices, there are many rituals that put rice in the center of worship. Before the tilling of the land, the farmer may worship the earth using rice and flowers. When the godman comes to the village to pronounce the blessings and forewarnings from gods, people welcome him by throwing a handful of rice over his head. Certain communities daily decorate their courtyard by drawing elaborate and symmetric patterns in front of their front boor using rice powder made into a paste using water.
In many temples, cooked rice is the offering to the gods. The people of Bali believe that it was the god Vishnu that made the earth produce the first rice plant and that it was the god of the skies, Indra, who taught humans to cultivate rice. In Myanmar, the belief is that the ethnic group Kachins brought rice to earth right away from the center of the earth. The Chinese, however, believe that a dog helped humans discover rice as a last resort of food for fighting poverty and death in the aftermath of a severe flood that destroyed all other food sources.
There are seemingly endless collections of proverbs, anecdotes, phrases, and festivals related to rice in all the countries that traditionally cultivate it.
The traditional way of cultivating rice is in human-made mud ponds, and the benefit of this cultivation method is that the water in the pond prevents weeds from growing. The paddy field also serves as a water conservation structure for the larger agrarian ecosystem.
Dry-land cultivation of rice is another potential practice that evolved only about 5,000 years ago. In the mud pond cultivation method, rice can either be replanted in bunches after growing them in a nursery or can be sowed by direct broadcasting. In dry-land cultivation, broadcasting is the only viable method. Recently, methods such as SRI (system of rice intensification) have been introduced, where single saplings are planted in straight lines at a fixed distance apart.
Rice is mostly cultivated in tropical, temperate, and sub-tropical climatic regions. The plant requires sufficient irrigation and plenty of sunlight to give a good yield. After harvest, the straw is mainly used to feed the cattle and for thatching roofs. Rice kernel is then milled for removing the hull and the bran. When the hull is removed and bran is retained, it is called brown rice, which is a source of many rare nutrients. Bran is also used for producing edible oil.
The Politics of Rice
Rice has a political history as well. As mentioned earlier, it was when Alexander the Great invaded India that the Greeks became aware of rice as a food crop, and they introduced rice to Greece and other Mediterranean countries. The Ottoman emperors also promoted rice cultivation in their captured territories, including East Europe and West Asia.
Asian countries have often faced civil unrest whenever there has been a price increase in rice. It was the green revolution—a revolution that was sparked by the entry of chemical fertilizers and pesticides and also hybrid rice varieties—that helped South Asia gain food security through increasing rice production. The new strains of rice thus developed had disease resistance and enhanced productivity. Countries such as India gained food security through the green revolution as well and also became an exporter of rice.
The Most Widely Consumed Crop on the Planet
Being a very versatile crop, and adaptable to different climates, rice can be described as the single crop that has fed a greater number of people on this planet than any other.
Worldwide research in rice is now focused on increasing productivity and making varieties that can be cultivated year round. The recent two decades have seen great leaps in the mechanization of planting, weeding, harvesting, and post-harvest processing of rice. This has made the labor-intensive ways of rice cultivation more farmer friendly and modern.
- S.D. Sharma. Rice: Origin, Antiquity and History. 2010, CRC Press.
- John Kerry King. April, 1953. "Rice Politics."
- Ricepedia. "Cultivated Rice Species."
- Asian Geographic. "
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Deepa (author) from India on September 15, 2020:
Thank you, Ankita.
Ankita B on September 14, 2020:
Excellent article and well structured. Thank you for sharing.