Rice plants
China is the world’s top producer and consumer of rice. It produces and consumes a third of the world’s rice, about 200 million tons a year. In 2004, China was forced to import rice when it produced 124 million tons but consumed 150 million tons. In 1989 the output was 179 million metric tons.

Rice yields in China increased dramatically with the introduction of high-yield dwarf rices. These scientifically-bred strains---crosses between Mexican- and Philippine-bred wheat and cold weather rice from China---have been so successful that farmers have been able to raise more rice on less land. The surplus land has been used to raise more profitable crops like cotton, fruit and vegetables. Some land has been used to raise fodder for cattle and cows to meet the new demand for dairy products and meat.

Rice blast is harmful disease that affects China’s rice crop. Interspersing two varieties of rice have doubled yields in Yunnan and occurrence of rice blast decreased by 93 percent.

Rice fields have shrunk by 19 million hectares in the past decade as farmers have switched to other crops and abandoned marginal land.

Good Websites and Sources: Traditional Rice Farming in China, Greenpeace photo and sound essay greenpeace.org/international ; Rice Culture of China china.org.cn ; Rice Farming and Greenhouse Gases gsfc.nasa.gov ; Mapping Paddy Rice Agriculture neyshtadt.ru

On Agriculture: Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Wconomy Watch.com economywatch.com ; Products List and Links made-in-china.com ; China’s Ministry of Agriculture Data english.agri.gov.cn ; End of Agriculture in China, NPR Report npr.org ; Library of Congress Report from the 1980s lcweb2.loc.gov ; Can China Feed Itself? iiasa.ac.at/collections ; Essay on Agriculture and WTO Membership mtholyoke.edu ; Changing Agriculture and Farmers sociology.cass.cn

Links in this Website: RICE, TOFU, DUMPLINGS AND NOODLES Factsanddetails.com/China ; AGRICULTURE IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; AGRICULTURE IN CHINA UNDER MAO AND DENG XIAOPING Factsanddetails.com/China ; PROBLEMS FACED BY FARMERS IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; LAND SEIZURES AND FARMERS IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; CROPS IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; RICE AGRICULTURE IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; TEA AGRICULTURE IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; LIVESTOCK IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; SILK IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; POOR PEOPLE IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; RURAL LIFE IN CHINA 14 ; VILLAGES IN CHINAFactsanddetails.com/China

Rice as a Crop

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Rice terraces in Yunnan
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.

Websites: RiceWeb: www.riceweb.org ; Riceonline: www.riceonline.com

History of Rice

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Jiahu culture
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.

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.

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.

Irrigation, agriculture (primarily rice farming), weaving and iron and bronze casting techniques were introduced to Japan from Korea and China between 300 and 100 B.C.

Rice as Food

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Planting rice by hand
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).

Rice Agriculture

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Plowing the fields
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¡ªalong with weeding, and maintaining the paddies and irrigation canals¡ªare still largely done by hand, with water buffalo helping with the plowing and preparing of the fields. Between 1000 to 2000 man or women hours are required to raise a crop on 2.5 acres of land. Ths 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 stubble left to decay in the fields, manure and fish raised in the paddy’s water all add nutrients to the soil. 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 are burned and added to the soil to increase its fertility.

Rice Paddies

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Growing the seedlings
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 form 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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Bundling the 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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Planting seedlings with a machine
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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Drying rice
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

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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.

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

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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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.

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

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.

Plants from southern China, particularly in the mountainous areas of Yunnan are being studied for the potential of being used in bioegineered crops. Among these are varieties of rice that thrive in unusually cool temperatures, high altitudes or dry soil and rice that is rich in calcium, vitamins and iron. These varieties are being cross bred with popular food varieties to produce edible vitamin- and mineral-rich crops that grow in harsh conditions. Scientist have also figured out how to extract a cold-tolerant gene from mountain varieties and place then other varieties to improve their cold tolerance.

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 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. Image Sources: University of Washington, Nolls China website http://www.paulnoll.com/China/index.html , Beifan.com http://www.beifan.com/ ; Weird Meat; All Posters com http://www.allposters.com/?lang=1 Search Chinese Art

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

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated April 2010

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