The world’s sticky love affair with rice may have begun in China. Or India.
Like most love affairs, the details differ depending on who you ask, and memory is swayed by emotion when contemplating matters close to the (cultural) heart.
Rice today claims a special place in the cuisines of nations from Japan to Nigeria. Once the grain left its agricultural cradle spanning a wide arc from the tribal areas of Pakistan to where modern Hong Kong stands it quickly became the staple food of millions.
India’s claim to be the originator of rice as a foodstuff is based on grains found embedded in old earthen pots and husks excavated from ancient cow dung. While dates based on rice found at these sites could possibly go back more than 7000 years, experts believe rice cultivation in India probably began in the upper and middle Ganges between 2000 and 1500BC.
China stakes its claim on mythical writings in which the Emperor Shen Nung supposedly taught his people to plant rice. Diggings in the Yangtze basin suggest that rice may have been eaten by people in the region over 8000 ago, although some sites revealed items such as utensils and pottery but limited samples of actual rice husks.
The Cambridge World History of Food diplomatically states that the very beginnings of rice cultivation can plausibly be placed “in India, China and other tropical Asian countries at nearly 10,000 years ago.” Rice cultivation may also have independently arisen in West Africa from around 1500BC, according to one hypothesis from a rice expert writing in the 1950s.
Regardless of where the story of rice begins, there is no doubt that after cultivation techniques were established it was soon being eaten throughout Indochina, Malaysia and the Indonesian islands. Rivers such as the Mekong and Indus helped to wash rice culture along their tributaries, while sea travel carried rice to the Philippines, Taiwan, Korea and Japan by about 1000BC.
The Romans learned about rice for the first time when Alexander the Great went to India, but felt that rice wine was a more valuable commodity than the grain itself. The Spanish were cooking rice by the eighth century, and they in turn sent it to Central and South America from the 16th century onwards. Its spread in modern times is linked to colonialism and its value as a commodity in the world economy.
Today, more than 40,000 varieties of rice exist and it is a staple for about half of all people on the planet. It is the preferred food of millions in Africa, Latin America and north China and is of major economic and cultural importance worldwide.
But some say the steam is going out of the world’s love affair with rice, that the “sustainer of the human race” as it is traditionally known in India may be starting to wither. While rice is unlikely to be abandoned wholesale in favor of alternatives, per capita rice consumption in the affluent societies of Taiwan and Japan has dropped markedly in line with post-World War 2 economic growth, and similar trends can now be observed in contemporary China.
Japanese palates are at the leading edge of this downward trend. A UN study in 2003 went so far as to say that “rice is no longer a staple food” in Japan despite the fact it has its own god and was commonly used as currency for paying taxes and wages as late as the mid-19th century. While around 40 percent of the people on earth depend on rice as their major source of energy, the calorie intake derived from rice in the average Japanese diet has drained to about 20 percent – less than half what it was 70 years ago.
Asai Rice Vendors in central Tokyo is a typical third generation rice business closing shop for good next year. The shop was built with timber donated from the US after the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923, but is likely to soon become a parking lot – as have many other small businesses on the same street. “My son isn’t interested in taking over, and frankly, it’s not possible to run it as profitable venture anymore,” the aging owner says.
The decline of rice in Japan may be a taste of the future as households in Southeast Asia and China become similarly wealthy and diversify their diet with less traditional fare. More families in Asia are adopting a diet based on bread, noodles, fresh meat, eggs, and vegetables. Shipments of pasta, for example, are on the rise in Asia, thanks in part to demand at lunchtime by families eating at home more on the weekends.
Cultivation of rice also faces serious ecological and economic constraints. Technological benefits that resulted in much higher crop yields last century are now widely adopted and further large gains in productivity are seen as unlikely. In fact, studies show that farmers in Southeast Asia and South Asia are rapidly depleting their natural resources and may face sustainability problems.
Another factor in against rice is that skilled rice workers are evaporating from the countryside due to urbanization and industrialization. In China, many people who worked farms in the past have purchased a one-way ticket to factory floors in major coastal cities.
Changing lifestyles and values, economic modernization and environmental issues all pose problems for the future of rice as a staple food. Whether rice can meet such challenges in the second 10,000 years of its history remains to be seen.