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Asia: Rice is life

Thai children in a rice field, waist deep in water, grin holding handfulls of green rice shoots above their heads
Children in Thailand are encouraged to plant rice so they can appreciate the work that goes into this staple crop

Rice is life


When conducting an investigation into all aspects of rice production and consumption it's to Asia one automatically turns. About 90% of the world's rice is eaten in Asia alone. But why rice? Why the intense interest in such a commonplace commodity?

Well, it's cultivated on six of our seven continents and three billion people, that's almost half the world, depend on rice to survive. Its impact is economic, environmental, political and cultural.

A spiritual connection

All the countries I visited have a deep, almost spiritual connection with rice, played out in ancient rituals and customs. In Thailand - the world's number one exporter of rice - there's an annual Royal Ploughing Ceremony, which has deep religious roots. It's designed to boost the morale of rice farmers and to give an auspicious beginning to the new planting season. It involves traditional music, beautiful Thai women, and the scattering of royal rice seeds grown especially for the occasion at King Bhumibol's palace. A prediction is made about the success of the next harvest, and it's usually a positive one.
The relationship some countries have with their staple food is understandably precious; rice may well be the only source of food for many.

The rice story is underpinned by environmental challenges, particularly the looming water shortage. It can take as much as 5,000 litres of water to produce 1kg of rice
This can be a problem in itself and in Bangladesh people are far too dependent on rice. The World Food Programme is desperate for a more diverse diet for Bangladesh, where malnutrition levels are higher than in sub-Saharan Africa.

Contrast this to prosperous Japan, traditionally very snobby about its rice, where only sticky, short-grained rice will do. Shoppers like to be reassured about its quality and there's often a picture of the farmer on rice packets.
And these farmers hold great political sway. According to Professor Masayoshi Honma at the University of Tokyo, rice is so important to the Japanese identity that it's a political product. "The government wants to protect rice producers. It's a tradition. It's very important to get the farmers' vote."

Work in progress

Everywhere, the rice story is underpinned by environmental challenges, particularly the looming water shortage. It can take as much as 5,000 litres of water to produce 1kg of rice. China, the biggest rice producer in the world, also has some of the lowest water resources on the planet and using less is the only way forward. Irrigation techniques that reduce water consumption have already been developed, and the scientists at the China National Rice Research Institute in Hangzhou are concentrating on breeding a rice variety that will grow in drought-affected areas. It's work in progress. So too is creating hybrids that will increase yield, improve quality and be disease-resistant.

"You'll never eat another grain of rice again by the time you return from this trip," I was warned. Not quite, but I'm certainly more conscious of how, as the Earth's population increases and global warming takes hold, the sustainability of rice production needs to be a priority.

Siobhann Tighe
Siobhann Tighe is a producer for BBC World Service. As well as making documentaries she's also responsible for the weekly current affairs programme Reporting Religion.

Presented by Tony Barrell, Rice Bowl Tales is a co-production between BBC World Service and ABC in Australia. This four-part documentary series will be broadcast in March.

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