Rice Part I – Botanics, Varieties and Cultivation

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For many months I did not eat my daily bread, but my daily rice: Every day I either had white rice, black rice, rice noodles, rice cakes or the rice protein powder in various dishes. But even before and after my semester abroad in Thailand, rice was an integral part of cooking in our family. At least once a week I served some rice dish. Obviously, because rice can be used in different ways, goes well with many dishes and is also extremely healthy and rich in fibre when wholemeal or black rice is used.

Therefore, my interest in this important staple food has increased and I thought: This would be the perfect opportunity to write a new edition of the banana series! So in Part 1 of this series, I’d like to tell you what rice is, how it’s grown, and where it comes from.

Further exciting, well-researched texts on the differences between organic and conventional cultivation as well as on the subject of food waste & what you can do to enjoy rice as consciously and sustainably as possible await you in further episodes of this article series.

What is rice? Structure and properties

Rice is a kind of grain. The grains grow like wheat on stalks belonging to the genus Oryza. Wild rice, increasingly sold in Europe, belongs to the genus Zizania[1], originally However, botanically this is not rice!

The most widely used type of rice, Oryza sativa, developed through breeding efforts from Oryza nivara or rufigopon. The one-year-old plant originally grew on dry soil. Wet rice cultivation, which is more widespread today, developed later[3] (see below).

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Culture rice looks like a kind of grass and is about 50-160 cm high. On each stalk there are panicles with the coveted rice grains. Since each plant consists of up to 30 stalks, one plant can produce around 3000 grains of rice! A grain of rice has a similar structure to a grain of wheat and consists of a seedling, flour body, aleurone layer, seed coat and pericarp. The aleurone layer contains many vitamins and enzymes and envelops the flour body. However, white rice consists only of the endosperm, seedling and the silverskin (aleurone layer/seed husk/fruit body) are not consumed[4].

What species are there?

Roughly speaking, a distinction can be made between county grain rice, round grain rice and risotto rice. There are also various geographical cultivation areas, wet rice and dry rice. Within these genera we find an infinite number of varieties: Jasmine rice, red rice, basmati rice, … According to estimates, there are over 100,000 varieties worldwide[5]! However, only a very small part of the variety is used commercially. Genetic engineering is widespread (more on this in Part 2).

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This is a phenomenon that I also mentioned in my banana article. We only eat a tiny fraction of an inexhaustible variety of rice varieties. However, a lot of potential is wasted as a result. By wisely using the diversity of plants and animals, we can find suitable varieties for every location and better counteract storms and climate-change-related risks. In addition, different varieties taste well and it is more exciting than eating the same kind of food over and over again..

If you are travelling yourself, you can discover and try regional rice varieties. I myself have tried a brown sticky rice in a remote corner of Thailand, which is only sold at local markets and is suitable for a particular dessert.

Where and in what quantities is rice grown?

Around 755.1 million uncut or 500.9 million tonnes of milled rice were harvested worldwide in 2016[6]. The quantities continue to increase every year. The majority of this quantity (approx. 90%) comes from Asia. The remaining 10% are distributed over Africa and South America, in Central America, Europe and Oceania we observe only small harvest quantities in the range of 0.5 to 3 tons. In Asia, most rice is produced in China, 208.6 million tons in 2016. Nevertheless, the country is also one of the largest rice importers, while India and Thailand are among the largest exporters with about 10 tons each (ground base). Import and export figures in FAO statistics are unfortunately only available for milled rice and amount to 48.1 million tonnes in 2017 each – lower than I had expected!

The prices of rice have risen steadily worldwide since 2016, as the FAO report reveals[7]. Among others, Indian rice and scented rice from Thailand are responsible for this price increase, the latter especially due to the appreciation of the Bath and lower harvest quantities of Thai Hom Mali rice.

How is the cultivation carried out?

Rice is a basic food for many people especially in Asia. Furthermore, it’s offering a livelihood and work to them due to the predominantly mechanical cultivation (90%).

Approximately 80% of the rice grown worldwide is produced by wet cultivation[8]. For this kind of cultivation, we need a lot of water: between 3000 and 5000 litres of running water for one kilogram of rice[9].

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Picture: Terrace cultivation is a special form of wet rice cultivation practiced in many Asian countries – this is advantageous in hilly terrain.

The reason for this is the use of running water for the cultivation of rice. Up to three harvests per year are possible here. First the rice is sown on a dry field. Now the field is ploughed, often with the help of a water buffalo. The seedlings must then be planted individually from the planting field onto the prepared rice field. You can also use setting machines for this purpose. The field is continuously watered during the growth and ripening period. After about four to six months the rice is ripe, the fields are drained and the farmers harvest the plants with the aid of sickles[10].

The advantage of wet rice cultivation is that rice can also be cultivated in water in hilly terrain. When it rains, the water lands on the terraces and is not immediately washed onto the ground. So the nutrients remain on the terraces. Terrace cultivation is particularly labour-intensive, as the terraces require good maintenance in order to work properly.

In dry cultivation, rice, like other cereals, is cultivated on dry soil and only watered when necessary. Fr example in Eastern Austria, people started to cultivate rice this way – by the way, this is the northernmost rice growing region in the world[11]!

After harvesting, the rice is threshed and dried to obtain „paddy rice“. This rice is not yet suitable for consumption. The above mentioned numbers, which refer to the unpolished condition, are calculated with the weight of paddy rice. Thus it can be stated that by processing the harvested rice in 2016 a whole 254.2 tons were lost, which corresponds to a loss of 1/3 of the total harvest quantity! The first processing step to remove the husk from paddy rice by rolling is, however, necessary to make the rice fit for human consumption[12]. Nevertheless, more people could be provided with more vitamin-rich and healthier rice through the use of brown rice: Usually, the rice is milled after further cleaning of foreign bodies and selection and thus the silver skin in which most of the nutrients are found is removed. The resulting white rice contains less vitamins, minerals and fibre than the unprocessed brown rice.

For parboiled rice, air is first extracted from the paddy rice. Then lukewarm water is added to dissolve vitamins and minerals from the seedling and the silverskin. These are then pressed into the rice grain and the surface is treated with steam. Wiuth this method, we obtain white rice, which contains almost as many vitamins and minerals as whole grain rice[13].

What are the ingredients of rice?

Rice consists mainly of carbohydrates, water and some easily digestible protein. The fat content is quite low at 1g per 100g for white rice and about 2g per 100g for natural rice. Brown rice provides more potassium (150 instead of 103 mg per 100 g), fibre, calcium, magnesium and iron[14]. It is therefore more valuable for the human body, furthermore, one stays replete longer after eating brown rice.

In recent years the problem of a too high arsenic content in rice has been increasingly discussed. This results from phosphate fertilizers or sewage sludge. Especially rice from wet rice cultivation absorbs arsenic. However, consumers cannot taste whether rice contains much or little arsenic. Therefore, the European Union sets limit values for inorganic arsenic in rice. In general, as with almost all foods, you can assume that normal consumption of rice does not pose a risk to your health[15]. However, from my experience in Thailand I can imagine that it is not too easy for people in developing countries to make sure that their rice is free from arsen. I myself did not know anything about the arsenic content of the rice I bought on the farmers market!

In addition, in Europe, the media drew attention to the problem of an increased mineral oil content in rice. This is due to the use of packaging made of waste paper, which releases printing inks, plasticizers and/or solvents to the food it contains[16]. Another problem, in my opinion, is that many people also dispose of bisphenol A-containing cassabons in waste paper, which means that these chemicals are always passed on. In the long term in my opinion it is important to move towards a closed-loop economy and to use materials again and again, so that the concept of waste becomes obsolete. To do this, however, we must find alternatives to the toxic substances mentioned above, such as non-toxic, biodegradable printing inks and solvents. We need everyone – politics, industry and consumers – to accomplish this! The currently best solution in my opinion is Zero Waste Purchasing! To avoid harmful substances, it is important, as mentioned above, that even the bulk packs from the unpackaged shop are free of harmful substances (and if possible reusable) in order to avoid waste and contamination of food. Also ask your Zero Waste Shop to raise awareness of the problem and contribute to a sustainable transformation.

How most European people use rice

Rice often has a somewhat boring existence on the plates of Central Europe as a „side dish“ alongside meat or vegetables. The European diet is slowly extended to include products such as rice milk, sushi, risotto and pancakes or pasta made from rice flour too. This shows that the potential of rice is much greater than expected! In Japan, for example, there are rice sommeliers which, similar to wine, taste different flavours in rice and can combine the different rice varieties with vegetable, meat or fish dishes[17]. I really like it when people have a lot of knowledge about a certain kind of food like those rice sommeliers as it is valuable to show people that we need different kinds of rice or other foods for a more pleasant experience when eating.

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Photo: Lemang. Hot tip for all who travel to Malaysia during Hari Raya celebration!

During my stay abroad in Southeast Asia I got to know and love many delicious rice dishes. My favourite dish with rice comes from Malaysia and is called „Lemang“. Rice is boiled in a bamboo cane together with coconut milk and cooked over an open fire. At home I like to cook risotto or use rice as a side dish for various vegetable dishes. I prefer to use black or brown rice. Sushi filled with avocado, mushrooms or cucumber is also one of my favourite dishes, which I often enjoy in the restaurant or on special occasions – unfortunately I still haven’t found any Zero-Waste Nori algae. This will hopefully change with the increasing popularity of this dish!

The next part of this article series deals with the environmental impact of rice cultivation. I will compare conventional with organic farming in terms of water consumption, CO2 production and land use, as well as the social and environmental impacts of rice farming.

See you then!


[1] https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reis

[2] https://www.mandalingua.com/de/china-guide/chinesische-kultur/highlights/reis/

[3] https://www.reishunger.de/wissen/article/506/reispflanze

[4] https://www.mandalingua.com/de/china-guide/chinesische-kultur/highlights/reis/

[5] https://www.reishunger.de/wissen/article/32/alle-reissorten-auf-einen-blick

[6] http://www.fao.org/3/I9243EN/i9243en.pdf

[7] http://www.fao.org/3/I9243EN/i9243en.pdf

[8] https://www.reishunger.de/wissen/article/506/reispflanze

[9] https://www.reishunger.de/wissen/article/506/reispflanze

[10] https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reis#Streusaatverfahren

[11] https://www.falstaff.at/nd/reis-vielfalt-in-form-und-farbe-1/

[12] http://www.riseria.ch/de/reis/verarbeitung/?oid=1589&lang=de

[13] http://www.riseria.ch/de/reis/verarbeitung/?oid=1589&lang=de

[14] https://eatsmarter.de/ernaehrung/gesund-ernaehren/brauner-reis-oder-weisser-reis-was-ist-gesuender

[15] https://www.foodwatch.org/de/informieren/arsen-in-reis/arsen-in-reis-was-sie-wissen-muessen/

[16] https://www.foodwatch.org/de/aktuelle-nachrichten/2015/verpackungen-im-test-mineraloel-in-reis-nudeln-co/

[17] https://www.falstaff.at/nd/reis-vielfalt-in-form-und-farbe-1/

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