For thousands of years, rice has been one of the most important agricultural crops in the world.
It has fed billions of people, has been crossbred into tens of thousands of variants, and is now grown in every continent except Antarctica.
The importance of rice has not diminished over time and in fact, might grow in the future.
Learn more about rice, and how it was domesticated and spread around the world on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
When I previously did an episode on the history of bread, the origin of wheat has a pretty defined area that we think it came from. It was somewhere around the fertile crescent, or maybe eastern Turkey.
The origin of rice isn’t quite so simple.
The strain of rice in question is known as Oryza sativa, which is more commonly known as Asian rice. Most of the thousands of varietals that exist today all came from the wild strain of this species.
To complicate things, there are two subspecies: Oryza sativa Japonica, which is found in China, and Oryza sativa Indica, which is found in India.
For decades there were competing theories as to the origin of rice. One theory holds that it originated in China somewhere near the Yangtze River, and the other holds that it came from India, somewhere probably in the north.
There is archeological evidence for rice in both India and China dating back thousands of years. The oldest evidence for India goes back about 4,500 years. However, four grains of rice were found at the Yuchanyan Cave in Hunan Province of China, which dates back 12,000 to 16,000 years ago.
This debate was settled once and for all using gene dating. A 2011 paper found that all of the Oryza sativa rice that we know came from a single domestication event that occurred between 13,500 to 8,200 years ago in China.
This date fits the archeological evidence quite well, and the Chinese origin theory is now generally accepted as the consensus position.
From this starting point, somewhere probably along the Yangtze River, rice spread over the next several thousand years. This, too, has been very controversial.
There have been at least 11 different proposed routes that rice might have taken to get to Southeast Asia, Oceania, and Africa.
Around 4,000 years ago, the Japonica strain made it to the Indus Valley in India, and there something happened that probably caused the original confusion about the origin of rice.
It was there that the Japonica strain was probably crossbred with a wild strain rice to create the Indica strain. The Indica strain has a longer grain. If you have ever been to an Indian restaurant, you probably had either Basmati or Jasmine rice, both of which come from the Indica strain.
The shorter grained rice, which is more popular in East Asia, comes from the Japonica strain.
Japonica tends to be white and sticky, whereas Indica is more fluffy.
Rice, not surprisingly, is a wetlands plant. It thrives best in places like marshes and riparian zones alongside rivers and lakes.
When rice was first cultivated, it was actually cultivated on dry land.
Another big innovation was to grow rice in a way that was closer to its native habitat: the rice paddy. The first evidence of this dates back about 6,000 years ago in China.
Growing rice in a paddy is much more labor-intensive than growing it on dry land. You have to build the walls of a paddy, create water control systems to flood and drain it, and of course, you have to work in water.
However, the extra work was worth it because rice paddies were much more productive.
The process of building rice paddies was something that took centuries in some places. Terraced rice paddies allowed for agriculture to take place on the sides of hills and mountains, where you otherwise could grow nothing.
Probably the best example of this the has to be rice terraces around Banaue in the Philippines. These have been created over the course of 2,000 years, and they literally line the mountainsides of the region. It has been called the 8th wonder of the world, and if you ever find yourself in the Philippines, I highly recommend you visit as it might be the greatest attraction in the country.
This rice terracing technology was also used in places such as Bali, which also has extensive terraces.
Rice didn’t spread throughout China. Northern China was never as big of a rice production area, and they developed a wheat culture. Noodles, dumplings, and buns are all products of Chinese wheat regions in the North.
While Asia was, and still is, the major rice-producing region in the world, rice kept migrating west.
Once rice made it to Central Asia, it was cultivated, but it never became the quite staple food that it was in East Asia and Eastern and northern India.
Ancient cultures in Mesopotamia and the around the Mediterranean were aware of rice. Egypt did grow rice, but it took a back seat to wheat.
Likewise, there is evidence of rice being grown in Greece and Macedonia after Alexander the Great’s troops brought it back with them after their conquests in Asia.
As I’m working my way west, I should mention the other place on Earth where rice was independently domesticated: Africa.
The species of African rice is known as Oryza glaberrima and it is a separate species from the Asian Oryza sativa.
The African species was domesticated about 3,000 to 3,500 years ago, and it grew in a belt stretching along the coast of the Gulf of Guinea into Central Africa. Some have theorized that as the Sahara Desert began to grow and it ceased being green, rice was domesticated as wild rice became unavailable.
The problem with African rice is that it wasn’t as productive as Asian rice. When Asian rice made its way to Africa, it mostly replaced the cultivation of the local domesticated rice.
Again, while rice was known in Europe, it wasn’t a major crop until it was brought over in the 8th century by the Moors.
The Moors brought rice with them when they invaded the Iberian Peninsula, and they found that it grew well in Mallorca and Valencia.
If you remember back to my episode on the world’s oldest democratic body, the Valencia Water Board, that body was established to allocate water for the growing of rice.
Today, rice is still grown around Valencia, and Spain’s signature dish, paella, is based on rice.
The Moors also brought rice to the island of Sicily. From there, rice eventually spread to Italy and France. The Po River valley in Italy became one of the biggest rice-growing regions in Europe.
Even though Europe was the last place in the old world to cultivate rice, it was the Europeans who brought rice to the Americas.
Here I note the food which many people in North America call wild rice, Canadian rice, or Indian rice. This is actually not a true rice. It sort of looks like rice, and you can serve it in some ways like rice, but it is actually an aquatic grass.
As with Europe, rice never became a staple crop in the Americas, but it did find a niche in some regions. Today, the only non-Asian country which is in the top 10 in global rice production is Brazil.
The British also brought rice to Australia. While not the best place to grow rice, even in Northern Australia, which is quite wet, they export the vast majority of what is produced because domestic consumption is so low.
Today, rice is the third-largest crop in the world by weight behind sugar cane and corn. However, it provides more calories than any other foodstuff, with 20% of all global calories consumed coming from rice.
The largest rice-producing countries by a wide margin are China and India, which produced 212 and 178 million metric tons, respectively, in 2020. They are followed by Indonesia, Bangladesh, Vietnam, and Thailand.
The country with the highest production per capita is Cambodia.
92% of all rice produced globally is for domestic consumption. The United States is actually the third largest exporter of rice, even though it doesn’t rank in the top 10 for production.
Given the importance of rice globally for food, it has received a lot of attention during the green revolution.
In a previous episode, I talked about Norman Borlaug and what he did for developing new strains of wheat to help combat hunger.
Similar efforts were made to develop new and improved strains of rice. In addition to improved yields, some strains were developed with added nutrients.
Golden rice was a strain that was developed with genetic engineering that had dramatically increased levels of beta-carotene. Beta-carotene is a pro-vitamin that the human body can synthesize into Vitamin A.
It has been quite controversial, but golden rice has 23 times the beta-carotene as normal rice. The first country to approve it was the Philippines in 2021.
Vitamin A deficiency is a very serious problem in the developing world, especially among children. If it is severe enough, it can cause blindness.
There are currently over 40,000 variants of rice that exist today, all of which came from the wild strains of Asian or African rice.
As important as rice is today, it is going to become even more important in the future. The world’s population is expected to keep growing for at least the next few decades, mostly in regions that are large consumers of rice.
Rice demand is expected to continue to increase until the year 2050 at least.
One of the newest ideas which is being developed is perennial rice, which wouldn’t have to be planted every year. If this could be successfully developed, it would dramatically reduce the amount of time and energy put into growing rice, and it would also dramatically reduce soil erosion.
Rice is one of the most important crops grown in the world today. This has remained unchanged for about 5,000 years, and it might very well be the case for the next 5,000.
Everything Everywhere Daily is an Airwave Media Podcast.
The executive producer is Darcy Adams.
The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.
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