rice paddy worker

The Riches Of Rice From Around The World

An edible that's one of water's finest gifts to humanity.

August 19, 2015

It’s no exaggeration to say that the world runs on rice: Grown on every continent except Antarctica, the grain is a primary food source for about half of the world’s population; it provides 20 percent of all the calories consumed across the globe. In Asia, where about 90 percent of the world’s supply is farmed, rice is literally synonymous with eating. In China, home to the first domesticated rice some 9,000 years ago, the word for the grain is the same as the word for food. Gohan means both “cooked rice” and “meal” in Japan; and Thais say, “I want to eat rice,” to indicate that they’re hungry. In these cultures, curries and stir-fries and braises are not entrées; they are the flavorings, applied sparingly, to a generous portion of the center of the meal: the rice.

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It’s a way of eating that highlights rice’s remarkable versatility and its ability to absorb flavors. From Spanish paella to Iranian shirin polow, or rice pilaf, almost every culture has adapted rice to its cuisine; there are upwards of 40,000 varieties grown. These include round-grain japonica, found in sushi and risotto; long-grain, fluffy indica types, sown in the tropics; aromatic types like basmati (great in a spinach rice flavored with garam masala) and jasmine (the star of Malaysian nasi lemak, rice sweetened with coconut milk); and glutinous rice, which loses shape when cooked and is used for desserts and ceremonial dishes. 

It’s a good thing rice is ubiquitous because it’s nutritious. With its bran and germ intact, unmilled brown rice—a favorite in a ’70s-style, veggie-filled hippie bowl—provides loads of minerals, fiber, and vitamins. White rice, the staple for much of the world, is an easily digested, inexpensive form of energy and calories. It also, generally, contains less arsenic than brown. The heavy metal occurs naturally, but industrial pollutants have added more of it to water supplies, and rice—even when organically grown—soaks up the carcinogen. Geography helps mitigate its presence: Southeast Asia and California rices contain less arsenic. And rinsing rice well before eating it helps, too.

Almost every culture has adapted rice to its cuisine; there are upwards of 40,000 varieties grown.

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For all of the grain’s importance, rice farming has environmental baggage. On the one hand, it supports aquatic ecosystems. And it doesn’t deplete soils the way other crops do, says Robert Lawrence, M.D., director of the Center for a Livable Future at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “That accounts in part for why you have rice paddies in Asia that have been under cultivation for centuries,” says Lawrence. 

But it has to be grown in sunken fields that are generally flooded to 4 to 6 inches for three to five months at a time, requiring an enormous amount of water—up to a third of the planet’s annual freshwater use. It is also often farmed with herbicides and pesticides, which interfere with the rhythms of nature that have come into sync with the regular flooding and draining of the rice paddies. 

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Luckily, it’s getting easier to find ecologically sensitive brands of rice. In California, for instance, Lundberg Family Farms uses natural pest management and returns unused water from its fields to local creeks and river systems, while Koda Farms flattens the typically pointed tops of its rice levees so that birds that flock there have safe nesting areas. Other producers have adopted a water-efficient method called System of Rice Intensification (SRI). With SRI, farmers don’t constantly flood their fields; they alternate between wet and dry plots, and use a rotary weeder instead of chemicals to kill weeds. Given SRI’s increasing popularity—it’s now used in 54 countries—and a new wave of organic brands, rice is shedding its water-hogging, water-polluting past.

The Life Of The Paddy

Rice paddies do a lot more than grow food for humans: They provide habitats for all kinds of animals. At Koda Farms in California’s San Joaquin Valley, grass carp, coyotes, bullfrogs, mosquito fish, weasels, king snakes, snow geese, and great horned owls all call these artificial wetlands home. The ecological richness is hinted at by the life of a single paddy fish: As it swims, it dislodges soil particles, releasing fixed nutrients from soil to water and in turn, as one study found, improving the paddy’s nitrogen cycle, which aids rice production. That’s one reason for farmers to eschew chemicals and encourage wildlife. Then, when the fish dies, its body adds more nutrients to the field, which in turn feeds the paddy’s vast array of animal life—and us humans.