I once watched a video for a class back in undergrad (that I have not been able to find, unfortunately) which claimed, should an extra-terrestrial visit the earth and want to meet the world’s average individual, that he or she would be a rice farmer. One out of every six humans on the planet is a rice farmer. Kind of a staggering statistic, huh? Here in the U.S., most eat rice fairly regularly, but for much of the world, it is a staple of every meal.
Rice was first domesticated in China and today is the third-largest cereal crop produced worldwide — closely following wheat and maize. Considering that a significant proportion of maize and wheat are used in livestock feed or for other non-consumptive purposes, rice is the most important grain in terms of human nutrition, accounting for over a fifth of the calories consumed globally.
Rice paddy in Vietnam
To grow rice requires a particularly delicate relationship with the land. Intensive irrigation systems and specific freshwater flood regimes are needed to maintain rice paddies, a system which is threatened by climate change and sea level rise. As floods become more frequent and severe, and salinity levels rise, the ability to grow rice will be compromised. It is also worthwhile to note that rice paddies themselves are a significant source of methane gas.
Furthermore, growing international demand and the mainstreaming of industrial and genetically modified rice varieties threatens to diminish the genetic diversity of rice cultivars worldwide. Though the green revolution was successful in suppressing food insecurity worldwide, much has been lost in the widespread adoption of modern agricultural techniques. Thousands of varieties have been developed throughout history, adapted specifically to particular climates and holding cultural significance. In India, more than thirty thousand varieties were cultivated prior to the green revolution. Today, it is fewer than fifty.
Today, most Americans are probably familiar with two varieties: “white” and “brown.” Of course, this is a simplification; rice is also characterized by its size, shape and texture. Indian cultivars, for example, are typically long, thin and aromatic, whereas Chinese or Japanese cuisine is known for the short-grained “sticky” rice (think sushi). White rice is more processed than brown rice, having had the outer layers removed. These layers, called the germ and the bran, have significant nutrient and fiber content, and thus brown rice is preferred from a nutritional standpoint. Personally, I choose brown rice unless I am cooking a dish for which white rice is more authentic, such as the Indian dish I wrote about last week.
In the United States, rice is cultivated to a small extent. Additionally, if you live near marsh or wetlands, as I do, it is likely that a wild cousin of rice, Zizania palustris, may be growing. It goes to seed right about this time of year, and last week while hiking through a wetlands sanctuary, I saw dozens of red-winged blackbirds thoroughly enjoying its harvest. Wild rice was certainly part of the diet of Native Americans, and in some parts of the country — Minnesota, for example — it is actually still harvested and considered a delicacy. Unlike commercial varieties, it is not high-yielding, and therefore a very labor intensive meal.
Minnesota wild rice
Nearly everyone I meet swears by their own particular method of cooking rice. I am personally a fan of my programmable zojirushi rice cooker. Yes, I too used to agree that a rice cooker is a unitasker and a waste of counter space — but I have been converted by the convenience of having my steel-cut oatmeal ready for me the moment I wake up. It is also nice to be able to program your rice to finish the moment you get home, or just to let the cooker take care of things while you prepare the rest of your meal. It is easy to clean and my rice comes out perfectly every time.
Tomorrow, I’ll post a recipe using the wild rice pictured above — I am excited to finally try it! Please feel free to suggest a recipe in the comments section. I hope next time you have rice on your dinner plate, you’ll take a moment to consider where it came from.