Rice is invaluable, providing a source of energy for billions of people, supporting economies, and playing a key role in the cultures of many countries. But it goes even further. To understand rice is probably to understand the creation of the modern world. So what exactly is this grain, and how did it change the world?
It is an annual grass plant, of which there are about 22 species. Two of them, Oryza sativa and Oryza glaberrima, to use their Latin names, have been bred by humans. Oryza sativa has the longest history; it comes from somewhere in southern China and was first cultivated about 12,000 years ago.
Oryza glaberrima originates from West Africa, where it was first cultivated around 1000 BC. Today, Oryza sativa is by far the most widespread, and there are about 40,000 cultivars (variations) of this crop.
Also read about : Indian States Foods
Wild rice grows in shallow water and produces naturally red-coloured grains. Today’s cultivated rice plants tend to be taller—over a metre in height—and have been selected for thousands of years to produce white grain. Of the cultivars most commonly consumed today, there are two main types. Long-grain indica rice, such as basmati and jasmine, is longer, thinner, and has an aromatic scent. These are most common in South Asian and Thai cuisine. Then there’s the more glutinous Japanese rice, which tends to become rounder and stickier when cooked, making it great for sushi as well as dishes like risotto.
Because of the need for shallow water and an open environment out of the shade, Fuller says, the first “farmers” would have expanded the open wetland area by clearing other vegetation to encourage more wild rice to grow. This early cultivation and discovery of rice would have been slow; this first step alone would probably have taken thousands of years.
From Plant to Plate: The Revolution of Rice
But before rice reaches the plate, it goes through an extremely complex production process covering the entire globe. Jason Bull is the director of Eurostar Commodities, a food importer in West Yorkshire, and explains the whole farm-to-fork process.
To begin with, growers buy seeds, irrigate their paddies, and let nature do its work. Depending on the type of grain and part of the world, rice can produce one crop per year or as many as three.
Once the plants are ripe, the farmer threshes them, and a local middleman buys the crop directly from them. The middleman might work for a local factory, or he might bring the crop to the market where larger sellers could buy it. In any case, the miller normally dries the grain; it has a moisture content of about 25 percent when fresh and must be less than about 16 percent before milling. Once dried, the grain can sit in the silo for months or even years. At this stage, you have brown rice, which is edible but takes longer to cook. It also has a higher vitamin content because the outer layer contains most of the nutrients.
Eaten all over the world, it has many varieties and is one of the most successful crops in human history. But it is not without controversy.
Perhaps its biggest challenge is climate change—both its susceptibility to and its contribution to changing weather patterns. Rice cultivation depends on fairly predictable weather in most places where it is grown; the monsoon season brings rain or river flooding. Then long, hot periods grow. But with climate change disrupting weather patterns, rice production may become more difficult, says Jason Bull of Eurostar Commodities.
However, it also contributes to global warming, accounting for about 12 percent of global methane emissions (by contrast, cattle produce about 40 percent of methane), largely related to anaerobic decomposition during the production process.
But, from Italian risotto to Nasi Goreng in Indonesia, rice is the staple food for billions of us. This seed is not just a plate filler; it’s also the livelihood for a fifth of the world’s population, who rely on rice cultivation as an income.