Rice is a food staple for more than 3.5 billion people around the world. A lot comes from China – and indeed they grow most of it – 90% of it is grown in Asia, and China continues to be the world’s biggest producer, growing one-third of Asia’s total.
India is next, followed by Indonesia, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Thailand, Burma, the Philippines, Japan, Pakistan – even Brazil – 84% of all rice is harvested in just 10 main countries.
According to some schools of thought, it probably descended from a wild grass that was cultivated in the foothills of the Eastern Himalayas. Others believe it may have originated in southern India and then spread to China, then on to the Philippines, Japan and Indonesia. Arab travellers took it to Egypt, Morocco and Spain and from there it travelled all across Europe. The Portuguese and Dutch took rice to their colonies in West Africa, and from Africa, it travelled to America.
Rice crops need a hot and humid climate, with prolonged sunshine and an assured supply of water. Traditionally rice is grown in ‘paddy fields’ – a flooded area of arable land used for growing semiaquatic crops, most notably rice and taro – a root vegetable with a taste like sweet potato. The word ‘paddy’ is derived from the Malay word padi, meaning ‘rice plant’, which is itself derived from Proto-Austronesian pajay (‘rice in the field’, ‘rice plant’).
Methane side effect
Rice farmers traditionally flood their rice paddy fields throughout the growing season – a practice known as continuous flooding, which unfortunately provides ideal conditions for the growth of microbes that produce large amounts of methane. As we know, methane has a more powerful near-term warming effect than CO2, and cutting methane emissions would have an immediate impact on the climate.
Rice makes up 12% of global methane emissions – and 1.5% of total greenhouse gas emissions. When rice is harvested, a ton of rice stubble and straw is left behind for every ton of harvested rice, and to clear fields, the rice straw is either burned, which produced significant carbon dioxide emissions, or they flood the field to encourage swift decay – which also leads to the production of methane. One recommendation instead should be to follow the lead of Bangladesh, where farmers are encouraged to drain rice paddies 2-3 times during the growing season. This limits the amount of methane that is produced, doesn’t compromise the yield, and saves money for farmers, as it requires a third less water.
Rice Growth in Europe
Some rice is grown in the Mediterranean, and has a grain that can be short, medium or long. Italy, France, Spain, Greece and Portugal are among the major European rice-producing countries, and thanks to its adaptability to the soil and its yield, ‘Japonica’ rice is the variety that grows mostly in Europe.
Rice Growth in Portugal
For this, we have to thank the traveller – whether explorer, soldier, merchant or pilgrim – who brought with them the seeds from their home or foreign lands. Called ‘arroz’ here, most is grown around five major river estuaries in the centre or in the south of the country, where temperatures would be more conducive. A good amount is the rounded grain type, called ‘Carolino’, and its main varieties of ‘Aríete’ and ‘Euro’, but ‘Agulha’ (needle) rice – a characteristically long grain – is also produced. In a Mediterranean climate with Atlantic influences, rice is mainly grown under irrigation.
Portugal apparently is the largest rice consumer in Europe, over 16 kg/capita/annum. That’s a lot of rice, and unsurprising, when you consider how many delicious dishes feature rice here, whether sweet or savoury.
Rice has been thrown over newlyweds for centuries in Asia, and in most parts of the world, is a symbol of fertility, prosperity and fortune. But before you join in showering the happy couple, consider instead dried lavender, rose or wildflower petals, potpourri or dried olive leaves as more eco-friendly options (and they don’t sting like rice!). Coconut shavings are another option as they smell good and looks like snowflakes – and a fun idea for a tropical destination wedding.
Marilyn writes regularly for The Portugal News, and has lived in the Algarve for some years. A dog-lover, she has lived in Ireland, UK, Bermuda and the Isle of Man.