RICE: ITS HISTORY, AGRICULTURE, PRODUCTION AND RESEARCH

RICE

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rice diversity
Rice is a member of a family of plants that also includes marijuana, grass and bamboo. There are over 120,000 different varieties of rice including black and red strains as well as white ones. Rice plants can grow to a height of ten feet and shoot up as much as eight inches in a single day. [Sources: John Reader, Man on Earth (Perennial Libraries, Harper and Row, [⊕]; Peter White, National Geographic, May 1994]

Rice is the world’s No.1 the world's most important food crop and dietary staple, ahead of wheat, corn and bananas. It is the chief source of food for about 3 billion people, half of the world’s population, and accounts for 20 percent of all the calories that mankind consumes. In Asia, more than 2 billion people rely on rice for 60 to 70 percent of their calories. If consumption trends continue 4.6 billion people will consume rice in 2025 and production must increase 20 percent to keep up with demand.

Rice grows almost anywhere: the flooded plains of Bangladesh, the terraced countryside of northern Japan, the Himalayan foothills of Nepal and even the deserts of Egypt and Australia. Rice straw was traditionally used make sandals, hats, ropes and patches for thatch roofs.

Rice comes from the Oryza sativa plant. The two main strains are the japonica and indica subspecies. There are dry land varieties of rice and wet land varieties. Dry land varieties thrive on hillsides and in fields. Most of the world's rice is a wetland variety, which grows in irrigated paddies (55 percent of the world's rice supply) and rainfed paddies (25 percent). Paddy (a Malay word that means "unmilled rice") is a small plot of land with a dike and a few inches of water in it.

Top rice-producing countries: (Production, $1000; Production, metric tons in 2008, FAO): 1) China, 36561286 , 193354175; 2) India, 30246312 , 148260000; 3) Indonesia, 12440012 , 60251072; 4) Bangladesh, 9868753 , 46905000; 5) Viet Nam, 7918880 , 38725100; 6) Thailand, 6059404 , 31650632; 7) Myanmar, 5612813 , 30500000; 8) Philippines, 3382928 , 16815548; 9) Brazil, 2522762 , 12061465; 10) Japan, 2337305 , 11028750; 11) Pakistan, 2162313 , 10428000; 12) United States of America, 1930780 , 9241173; 13) Egypt, 1476323 , 7253373; 14) Republic of Korea, 1464007 , 6919250; 15) Cambodia, 1463123 , 7175473; 16) Nigeria, 864799 , 4179000; 17) Nepal, 850799 , 4299264; 18) Sri Lanka, 802185 , 3875000; 19) Madagascar, 592679 , 3000000; 20) Peru, 584882 , 2775800;

Websites and Resources: USA Rice Federation usarice.com ; Rice Online riceonline.com ; International Rice research Institute irri.org ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Types of Rice foodsubs.com/Rice ; Rice Authority riceauthority.com ;Cambridge World History of Food cambridge.org/us/books ;

History of Rice

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rice farming in Cambodia
Rice is believed to have been first cultivated in China or possibly somewhere else in eastern Asia around 10,000 years ago. The earliest concrete evidence of rice farming comes from a 7000-year-old archeological site near the lower Yangtze River village of Hemudu in Zheijiang province in China. When the rice grains unearthed there were found they were white but exposure to air turned them black in a matter minutes. These grains can now be seen at a museum in Hemudu.

According to a Chinese legend rice came to China tied to a dogs tail, rescuing people from a famine that occurred after a severe flood. Evidence of rice dated to 7000 B.C. has been found near the village of Jiahu in Henan Province northern China near the Yellow River. It is not clear whether the rice was cultivated or simply collected. Rice gains dated to 6000 B.C. have been discovered Changsa in the Hunan Province. In the early 2000s, a team form South Korea’s Chungbuk National University announced that it had found the remains of rice grains in the Paleolithic site of Sorori dated to around 12,000 B.C.

For a long time the earliest evidence of rice farming in Japan was dated to around 300 B.C. which worked nicely into models that it was introduced when the Koreans, forced to migrate by upheaval in China n the Warring States Period (403-221 B.C.), arrived around the same time. Later a number of Korean objects, dated between 800 and 600 B.C., were found. These discoveries upset the neatness of the model.

Then in the early 2000s, grains of wetland rice were found in pottery from northern Kyushu dated to 1000 B.C. This called into question the dating of the entire Yayoi period and caused some archeologist to speculate that maybe wet-land rice farming was introduced directly from China. This assertion is backed up somewhat by similarity in skeletal remains of 3000-year-old skeletons found in Quinghai province in China and Yayoi bodies unearthed in northern Kyushu and Yamaguchi prefecture.

Wild rice grows in forest clearings but was adapted to grow in shallow flooded fields. The introduction of paddy agriculture dramatically changed the landscape and ecology of entire regions.

DNA analysis shows that these early forms of rice were different from varieties eaten today. Africans cultivated another species of rice around 1500 B.C. The Moors introduced rice to Europe via Spain.

Early Rice Farming in Japan

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Yayoi period storehouse in Japan
Many archeologist looked upon the introduction of wet land rice farming techniques as the technological advancement that marked the beginning of the Yayoi period (400 B.C.-A.D. 300) and the end of the Jomon period. In Kyushu people at red-kerneled rice.

For a long time the earliest evidence of rice farming was dated to around 300 B.C. which worked nicely into models that it was introduced when the Koreans, forced to migrate by upheaval in China n the Warring States Period (403-221 B.C.), arrived around the same time. Later a number of Korean objects, dated between 800 and 600 B.C., were found. These discoveries upset the neatness of the model.

Then in the early 2000s, grains of wetland rice were found in pottery from northern Kyushu dated to 1000 B.C. This called into question the dating of the entire Yayoi period and caused some archeologist to speculate that maybe wet-land rice farming was introduced directly from China. This assertion is backed up somewhat by similarity in skeletal remains of 3000-year-old skeletons found in Quinghai province in China and Yayoi bodies unearthed in northern Kyushu and Yamaguchi prefecture.

Japanese immigrants introduced superior rice varieties to the United States. By the early 1920s, 85 percent of the rice in California was of Japanese origin.

Rice as Food

The seeds in rice are contained in branching heads called panicles. Rice seeds, or grains, are 80 percent starch. The remainder is mostly water and small amounts of phosphorus, potassium, calcium and B vitamins.

Freshly harvested rice grains include a kernel made of an embryo (the heart of the seed), the endosperm that nourishes the embryo, a hull and several layers of bran which surround kernel. White rice consumed by most people is made up exclusively of kernels. Brown rice is rice that retains a few nutritious layers of bran.

The bran and hull are removed in the milling process. In most places this residue is fed to livestock, but in Japan the bran is made into salad and cooking oil believed to prolong life. In Egypt and India it is made into soap. Eating unpolished rice prevents beriberi.

The texture of rice is determined by a component in the starch called amylose. If the amylose content is low (10 to 18 percent) the rice is soft and slightly sticky. If it is high (25 to 30 percent) the rice is harder and fluffy. Chinese, Koreans and Japanese prefer their rice on the sticky side. People in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan like theirs fluffy, while people in Southeast Asia, Indonesia, Europe and the United States like theirs in between. Laotians like their rice gluey (2 percent amylose).

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planting rice in 19th century Japan

Rice as a Food Crop

About 97 percent of the world's rice is eaten within the country in which it is grown and most of this is cultivated with three miles of the people that eat it. About 92 percent of the world crop is raised and consumed in Asia---a third in China and a fifth in India. Where irrigated paddy rice is grown one can find the densest populations. Rice supports 770 people per square kilometer in Yangtze and Yellow river basins in China and 310 per square kilometer in Java and Bangladesh.

Over 520 million tons of rice is harvested every year and about one tenth of all cultivated acreage in the world is devoted to rice. More corn and wheat is produced than rice but over 20 percent of all wheat and 65 percent of all corn is used for feeding livestock. Almost all rice is eaten by people not animals.

The Balinese eat about a pound of rice a day. The Burmese consume a little more than a pound; Thais and Vietnamese about three quarters of a pound; and the Japanese about a third of a pound. In contrast, the average America eats about 22 pounds a year. A tenth of rice grown in the United States is used in making beer. It provides a "lighter color and more refreshing taste," an Anheuser-Busch brewmaster told National Geographic.

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threshing rice in 19th century Japan

Rice Agriculture

Rice is one of the world's most labor intensive foods. In Japan the planting and harvesting is done mostly with machines, but in much of the world these chores---along with weeding, and maintaining the paddies and irrigation canals---are still largely done by hand, with water buffalo helping with the plowing and preparing of the fields. Traditionally rice has been harvested with a scythe, left to dry on the ground for a couple of days, and bundled into sheaves. Between 1000 to 2000 man or women hours are required to raise a crop on 2.5 acres of land. The fact that rice is so labor intensive tends to keep a lot of the population on the land.

Rice is also a water thirsty crop, requiring lots of rain or irrigation water The wet rice grown in most Asia, needs hot weather after a period of rain, conditions provided by the monsoons that affected many of the places where rice is grown.

Rice farmers can often produce multiple crops a year often by adding no or little fertilizer. Water provides a home for the nutrients and bacteria that enrich the soil. Often the remains or previous crops or the burned the remains or previous crops are added to the soil to increase its fertility.

Rice Paddies

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rice planting in Japan
Wet rice is grown in paddies in lowlands and terraces on the slopes of hills and mountains. Most rice paddies and terraces are irrigated with water that originates above where the rice is grown. In most cases water from one paddy drains into another paddy. Rice has to be harvested when the soil is dry and consequently the water must be emptied from the paddy before the harvest and filled up again when the new crop is ready to plant.⊕

A typical paddy system consists of a holding pond and a network of canals, ditches and wooden or bamboo conduits to transport water to and from the paddies. The holding pond is usually at the head of a valley and collects water that seeps naturally from the surrounding hillsides. From the holding pond the water is carried down slopes in narrow ditches to run alongside the paddies. These ditches are always kept at a level slightly higher than the paddies.

Dikes are built around the fields to keep water in the paddy. Simple sluice gates, often comprised of a thick board and a few sandbags are set up at intervals along the ditchs. The amount of water entering a paddy can be regulated by opening and closing these gates. A drainage canal usually runs down the center of the valley. New innovations include concrete-sided canals, water pumped from underground sources and abandonment of holding ponds.

Maintaining a rice paddy is also very labor intensive. Shoring up the dikes and cleaning out the irrigation systems has traditionally been men’s work while planting and weeding has traditionally a job for women. Some knowledge of hydrodynamics is necessary to make sure the water is directed where it needs to go.

Rice Planting

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a tray of rice seedlings
Fields are prepared before the rainy season with some plowing, often using water buffalo, and flooding. About a week or before planting so the paddy is partially drained, leaving behind a thick, muddy soup. Rice seedlings are grown in nursery plots, transplanted by hand or with a machine. Seedling are planted instead of seeds because the young plants are less vulnerable to disease and weeds than the seeds. Farmers that can afford pesticides and fertilizers sometimes plant seeds.

Rice planting in much of the world is still done by hand, using methods that for the most part have remained unchanged for the last three of four thousand years. The foot-long seedlings are planted a couple at a time by bent-over planters who use their thumb and middle fingers to push the seedlings in the mud.

Good planters average about one insertion a second in a process that the travel writer Paul Theroux once said was more like needlepoint than farming. The sticky, black mud in the paddy is usually ankle deep, but sometime knee deep, and rice planter generally go barefoot instead of wearing boots because the mud sucks the boots off.

Mechanized Rice Planting

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mechanized planter in Japan
In Japan, Korea and other countries, farmers now use small diesel-powered rototiller-tractors to plow the rice paddies and refrigerator-size mechanical rice transplanters to plant the rice seedlings. In the old days it took 25 to 30 people to transplant the seedlings of one rice paddy. Now a single mechanical rice transplanter can do the job in a couple dozen paddies in one day.

The seedling come on perforated plastic trays, which are placed directly on the transplanter. which uses a hook-like device to pluck the seedlings from the trays and plant them in the ground. The trays cost anywhere from $1 to $10. About ten pallets contain enough seedlings for a small paddy.

Growing and Harvesting Rice

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harvesting rice in Japan
The water depth in the paddy is increased as the rice seedlings grow and then gradually lowered in increments until the field is dry when the rice is ready to be harvested. Sometimes the water is drained during the growing season so the field can be weeded and the soil aerated and then water is put back in.

Rice is harvested when it is a golden-yellow color several weeks after water has been completely drained from the paddy and the soil around the rice is dry. In many places rice is still harvested with a sickle and bundled into sheaves and then threshed by cutting the top inch or so of the stalks with a knife and removing the grains by slapping the stalks over propped up boards. The rice is placed on large sheets and left to dry on the ground for a couple of days before being taken to the mill to be processed. In many villages around the world, farmers usually help each other to harvest their crops.

There are also harvesting machines. Some diesel-powered rototiller-tractors and mechanical rice transplanters are available with harvesting attachments. Large machines are not used to harvest rice because they can not maneuver around the paddy without messing them up. Plus, most rice paddies are small and divided by dikes. Large machines need long tracts of uniform land to do their job efficiently.

After the rice harvest the stubble is often burned aling with waste products from the harvest and the ashes are plowed back into the field to fertilize it.

Ecological Advantages of Rice Cultivation

Unlike slash and burn agriculture, which can sustainably support only 130 people per square mile, often seriously damaging the soil and filling the air with smoke, rice cultivation can support 1,000 people and not deplete the soil.⊕

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nets protect fields from birds
in Japan
Rice is unique as a crop in that it can grow in flooded conditions that would drown other plants (some rice species grow in water 16 feet deep). What makes this possible is an efficient air-gathering system consisting of passages in the upper leaves of rice plants that draw in enough oxygen and carbon dioxide to nourish the entire plant. ⊕

Nitrogen is the most important plant nutrient and fortunately for rice growers blue-green algae, one of two organism on earth that can transform oxygen from the air into nitrogen, thrives in the stagnant rice paddy water. The decayed algae as well as old rice stalks and other decomposed plants and animals provide nearly all the nutrients for growing rice plants, plus they leave behind enough nutrients for future crops.⊕

The constant supply of nutrients means that the paddy soils are resilient and don't become worn out like other soils. In flooded rice paddies few nutrients are leached (carried away by rain water deep into the soil where plants can't get them) and the nutrients dissolved in the murky water are easy for the plant to absorb. In tropical climates two, sometimes three, rice crops can be raised every year.⊕

Rice paddies create a lovely landscape and have their own rich ecosystem. Fish such as minnows, loaches and bitterling can survive in the paddies and the canals as can aquatic snails, worms, frogs, crawfish beetles, fireflies and other insects and even some crabs. Egrets, kingfishers, snakes and other birds and predators feed on feed on these creatures. Ducks have been brought into rice paddies to eat weeds and insects and eliminate the need for herbicides and pesticides. Innovations such as concrete-sided canals have damaged the rice paddy ecosystem by depriving plants and animals of places they can live.

Problems with Rice Cultivation

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Rice grains
Bacterial leaf blight, plant hoppers, rodents and stem borders are the major rice destroying pests. These days the biggest threat to the world rice crops is the leaf blight, a disease which wipes out as much as half the rice crop in some parts of Africa and Asia, and annually destroys between 5 and 10 percent of the world's total rice harvest. In 1995, scientist cloned a gene that protects rice plants from leaf blight and developed a genetically-engineered and cloned rice plant that resists the disease.

The trend towards reliance on only a few strains of highly-productive rice plants worldwide has the potential of causing a disaster. If these strains suddenly become vulnerable to a disease or pests, huge amounts of crops could be destroyed, causing severe food shortages or even a famine. If many strains are used and some of them are destroyed by disease or pests, there are still many remaining stains producing rice and overall food supply is not jeopardized.

While demands for food increase, land used to grow rice is being lost to urbanization and industry and the demands of a growing population. Demographers estimate that production of rice must increase by 70 percent over the next 30 years to keep up with a population that is supposed to grow by 58 percent before the year 2025.

Much of the rice grown in coastal plains and river deltas is vulnerable to sea-level rises caused by global warming. Sometimes fertilizers and pesticides leak out of the paddies and damage the environment.

Rice Processing

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Cambodia
After rice is harvested it is usually taken to a local rice processing plant where huge two-story machines with conveyor belts and vibrators removes the husks and other impurities, polish the rice and deposit in a bag ready to eat. The best machines come from Japan. The husks and other left over materials are fed to pigs or other animals. Milling 10 kilograms of rice with a machine takes about 5 minutes. By hand it takes it two to three hours.

Describing the "modern way" of husking rice used in some parts of Asia, Patrick Tyler wrote in the New York Times, "First a tractor was driven, in reverse, in fast and furious circles over the dried rice stalks. The process resembled a dangerous rodeo stunt as the tractor bounded over 5- and 6-foot piles of rice stalks, narrowly missing farm hands, women and children who pushed and pulled at the straw to insure that all of it got run over several times." [Source: Patrick Tyler, New York Times, November 2, 1995]

"The crazy dance of the tractor caused most of the rice grains still inside the husks to separate from the stalks," Tyler wrote. "The peasants then bundled and beat the stalks against the side of a wooden box, collecting as many grains as they could. The stalks were then built into stacks, which would be burned to fertilize the fields...The rice grains were left on the concrete slab mixed with the debris of the stalks. After a few more hours of raking and hurling the debris into the air, the rice was finally separated from the chaff and the harvest was bagged for storage."

Improved Rice Yields

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rice plants
Rice plants have been greatly improved over the last three decades. Plant breeders have created plants that mature in 110 days instead 160 which means that regions with warm climates can grow three crops instead of two. The height of the average plant has been reduced from five feet to a stocky three feet, which means that the plant nutrient go into producing grains of rice and are not "wasted" on the stalks that lean over when there is too much weight. In addition, rice plants have been bred and bio-engineered to be resistant to bacterial blight, plant hoppers and stem borders.

Tall conventional rice plant used before 1968 grew in 140-180 days and yielded between 0.6 and 1.4 tons per acre. Modern rice grows in 110-140 days, produces 100 seeds per panicle, and yields between 2.4 and 4.0 tons per acre.

The introduction of new more productive strains of rice (and corn and wheat) to developing countries like India and Indonesia in the 1960s was called the "Green Revolution." Before the Green revolution India had problems feeding itself, now it exports rice. Between 1967 and 1992 the world's rice harvest has doubled. in Indonesia it tripled from 15 million tons to 48 million tons.

By the year 2020 it is believed the world's rice crop will increase by an additional 60 percent. Current dwarf varieties have 15 productive panicles, or seed clusters per stalk (out 25 or so total stalks) that produce about 100 grains (seeds) each. New strains will have fewer, but stronger and thicker, stalks that will yield 200 or more grains each. These new plants are expected to account for most of the increased productivity.

Rice Research

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Central Rice Research Institute
in Bidyadharpur, India
Most new strains of rice have been developed at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Los Banos, the Philippines. Founded in 1967, the IRRI has produced 300 different varsities of rice. One strain, called IR36, is resistant to 15 insect, disease and environmental stresses and is currently planted on about 27 million acres worldwide.

The IRRI Genetics Research Center houses samples from over 80,000 varieties of rice, which are cross bred to produce new strains. Strains with desirable characteristics are saved and breed again. Usually, it takes at least six generations for these characteristics to actually become a reproducible trait of the plant.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation gave the HarvestPlus project $25 million to develop rice, wheat, beans and cassava with increased amounts of iron and zinc, micronutrients often lacking in the diet of people in the developing world. Iron deficiency is blamed for 100,000 maternal deaths in childbirth every year. Zinc deficiency give people less immunity to infectious diseases. The program relies more on traditional breeding methods rather than on genetic engineering.

New varieties that are resistant to disease and pests, and have high yields and short growing times still have one final test to pass---the taste test. Many promising strains have gotten this far only to fail. At the Chinese National Rice Research Institute near Hangzhou in the Zhejiang Province taste testers sample over 150 varieties of rice from 15 provinces in three days. The rice is graded by a dozen evaluators and judged in terms of smell, appearance and taste on a one to five scale. Lumpy, yellowish varieties that stick to the roof of the mouth usually receives poor marks while springy, gleaming white rice that goes down smooth receives high marks.

Biotechnology and Rice

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rice in the lab
Genetic engineering is enabling scientist to transfer desirable qualities from one plant to another by transplanting the genes of cells in a plant with a desired trait to the cell in a different plant. These methods help researchers to isolate the characteristic they are after and speed up the breeding process. Using these methods the Japanese have developed a strain with a gene that kills insects but does not harm people.

The mapping out of the entire genetic code (genome) for rice was announced by an international team of scientists in 2005. The achievement is expected to result in improvements that will help billions of people. Rice, wheat and corn and other cereal crops such as barely, rye, sorghum and millet are all similar genetically and thus beneficial properties of one may be passed on to the another.

Rice contains 37,544 genes, compared to only 25,000 found in human beings. The mapping project was carried about by scientists from 32 institutions in 10 countries and expanded on work initially done by the companies Syngenta and Monsanto. Genes linked to processes such as flowering have already been discovered. Genetic similarities between rice and barely is helping scientists protect barely from two major diseases: barely powdery mildew and stem rust.

In the Yunnan Province of China, researchers are experimenting with genetically-modifying rice with wild strains of rice that thrive in cool temperatures, high altitudes and dry soils and contain significant amounts of calcium, vitamins and iron. Zeng Yawmen, a scientist working outside Kunming told AP, “We can extract the cold-tolerant gene from this plant and use it in a genetically-manipulated variety to increase its cold tolerance.”

Super Rice and Golden Rice

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Golden rice
In 1995, scientists at the IRRI announced that they had developed a "super rice" that grows in 100-130 days, yields up to 5.3 tons per acre, and produces 200 to 250 seeds per panicle, compared to 100 in most modern rice varieties. The goal of the super rice program was to produce a plant that devotes its energy to produce grain in panicles rather leaves and stems.

When it is available the new rice is expected to increase yields in irrigated fields by 25 percent (from 10 tons per hectare to 12 tons per hectare) with less fertilizer than modern varieties. It is hoped that the "super rice" will hope to keep up with demands made by a growing population and offset the loss of agricultural to industry.

Super rice will not be introduced until it has been crossbreed to produce disease-resistant strain that can grown in a variety of climates and conditions. In the late 1990s, super rice strains were given to rice breeders in different parts of the world to be crossbred with varieties suited to local soils, temperatures and rainfall and could deal with a pests and diseases it is expected to encounter.

Golden rice is a kind of rice that has been genetically engineered to contain beta-carotene, a substance gives carrots their orange color and helps the human body can convert to Vitamin A Golden rice has been modified with a daffodil gene to produce beta-carotene, which the normally white grains a pale yellow color.

Golden rice has been marketed as a way to reduce blindness caused by Vitamin A deficiency among children in the Third World, where an estimated 500,000 people go blind from Vitamin A deficiency every year. A closer look at golden rice however shows that it is not all that it is cranked up to. A child would have to to eat 15 pounds of golden rice a day to get the daily minimum requirement of Vitamin A and the $150 million spent to develop and market it to people who like their rice white could have been put to much better use on something else. Some people argue the rice was pushed to help the biotech companies that produce it not Third World children.

Nerica

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new deep water varieties of rice
Nerica is a “miracle rice” developed for Africa by combining hardy African strains with productive Asian strains. Created in 1994 at the West Africa Rice Development Association (WARDA), also known as the Africa Rice Center, it produces 50 percent larger crops that are rich in protein; doesn’t require much fertilizer or pesticides; grows well in acidic soils; resists disease, pests, weeds, and drought; and matures in 30 to 50 days. Nerica stands for “new rice for Africa.” It has been touted as a solution for Africa’s food problems.

Nerica was developed by merging two different species, which usually creates hybrids that, like mules made form a horse and a donkey, can not produce fertilized offspring or reproduce. This problem was overcome by using parts of the seeds taken from both the Asian and African rices and fertilizing them with Asian-African hybrids cross fertilized two times with Asian rice. About 3,000 varieties of Nerica were developed, of which 18 proved to be good at producing large yields in dry weather.

Nerica was is developed from Glaberrima, a strain used in Africa for 3,500 years. It ears are smaller than Asian varieties and prone to collapse. Bred with Asian sativa varieties that have large ears that produce more grain. The short growing time is one reason is can survive through droughts.

A Ugandan farmer who grows Nerica told the Yomiuri Shimbun, “Nerica grows more easily than I first thought, and my children like it. I can harvest two times a years, and it can be sold for higher prices than other crops. And so I recommend it to my neighbors.”

High Prices Despite Bumper Crop of Rice in Asia in 2013

Simon Hall wrote in the Wall Street Journal: “Asia is awash in rice, as favorable weather and government support for farmers combine to produce a bumper crop. The glut is driving down prices for big rice importers in Africa and China. But consumers in some of the biggest rice-producing nations, including Thailand and India, are paying higher prices as surplus supplies sit in government warehouses. Asia's surplus will have little impact in the U.S., which produces different varieties of rice. [Source: Simon Hall, Wall Street Journal, July 30, 2013]

When traveling by train from New Delhi to neighboring states, a common sight in the countryside is rice piled high on wooden plinths, protected only by plastic tarps. In Thailand, the government has considered using a warehouse at the city's old airport to store rice because other storage facilities are full. The surplus is the result of good weather and government programs that encourage rice growing. World rice stockpiles are expected to rise 2 percent this year, the ninth consecutive annual increase, according to the London-based International Grains Council.

Analysts see the glut getting worse. Thailand, a top exporter, is trying to sell some of its own 17 million-ton surplus, the result of a subsidy program in which the government bought rice from farmers at above-market prices. India, the world's biggest exporter, is expecting near-record harvests in a couple of months, as is Pakistan. Meanwhile, demand from large importers, including the Philippines and Nigeria, is dropping. "If Thailand is successful in offloading its rice, it will certainly put downward pressure on prices," said Darren Cooper, a senior economist with the International Grains Council.

The council's index of global rice prices fell to 200 on Friday, its lowest since September 2010 and down almost 5 percent this year. However, prices vary widely from country to country, because rice is largely sold where it is produced. Just 8 percent is traded internationally, compared with about 20 percent for wheat and 36 percent for soybeans. In Vietnam's spot market, prices are down about 5 percent this year, with one of the most heavily traded varieties, 5 percent broken rice, trading at about $390 a ton. In Thailand, 5 percent broken rice for export trades at $475 a ton, down 16 percent this year. The only widely traded rice futures contract, offered by CME Group Inc. and reflecting U.S. prices, is up 7 percent this year, ending Tuesday at $15.895 for 100 pounds. The two markets tend to move independently.

The tightly regulated and fragmented rice market means consumers and the needy have seen little benefit from the oversupply. Some aid groups favor handouts before stocks deteriorate, while others said governments should encourage a move to other crops by cutting guaranteed prices to farmers. While farmers have benefited in Thailand, prices in supermarkets there are up 10 percent since 2011 due to tight supply. Even as government stockpiles ballooned, traders in Thailand imported rice from Cambodia and Vietnam. The government, which is subsidizing farmers' income by buying rice at higher prices, is reluctant to sell it cheaply in the domestic market. India's agricultural policies have had a similar impact on its domestic prices, economists said. "I have three school-going children to feed, and its tough on me," said Jaya, a housemaid, who lives in a single-room house in New Delhi's crowded Tughlakabad area and buys at least 22 pounds of rice each month.

So far, Thailand and other rice producers have stuck by their policies. The commerce ministry said Monday that the government's first sale from its stockpile this year is likely to move less than 100,000 tons, compared with a goal of 350,000 tons, as most offers to buy were too low. Traders said market prices are about $480 a ton, while bids for government sales are coming in at about $380 a ton because of concerns over quality. Thailand is also trying government-to-government deals. In July, it announced a sale to Iran of 250,000 tons, paid in euros, but didn't disclose the price. It was the first purchase of this type by Iran from Thailand since 2007. The price Thailand demands for its rice will determine how low prices go elsewhere, said Tejinder Narang, a New Delhi-based adviser to global commodities trader Emmsons International Ltd. Prices of one of the most traded Asian grades, Vietnam's 5 percent broken rice, have slipped to about $390 a ton from $560 a ton in late 2011. Vietnam last month launched a plan to give exporters interest-free loans to stockpile more rice to bolster prices.

Devinder Sharma, chairman of New Delhi-based nonprofit organization Forum for Biotechnology and Food Security, criticized the programs. "In countries such as Thailand and India hunger is still persistent, and it is a crime against humanity if rice gets rotten while poor people starve," Mr. Sharma said. "A better option would be to supply this grain for free to the poor." Some traders and consumer groups have raised concerns that some long-stored rice may not be safe because of high levels of methyl bromide, which is used on crops in storage to prevent infestation by rice weevils and other insects. Rice has a shelf life of at least three years, if kept away from moisture, though even when dry it can be eaten by rats and insects if not properly protected. Still, even if part of this year's crop is destroyed, it would quickly be replenished by the next harvest, analysts said.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons; 3, 10) Ray Kinnane 2) 6) 7) 8) 13) Jun from Goods in Japan 4) 5) 11) Visualizing Culture, MIT Education 9) 12) Japan Zone

Text Sources: National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Natural History magazine, Discover magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2009 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated March 2014

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