Life of Rice

Life of Rice

Rice, it’s the staple diet of half the world’s population and accounts for 20 per cent of global calorific intake. Consumed for thousands of years, it even played a significant role in the domestication of nomadic man, its tiny grains serving as the building blocks of early civilisation.

“Fifteen thousand years ago, we were hunter-gathers,” says Dr. Graeme MacRae, anthropologist and lecturer at Massey University. “By around 10,000 years ago we had figured out that there were grasses and seeds that could be ground-up and also nutritious. Those wild grasses, including rice, became our main grains. We became agriculturalists – villages, towns and eventually cities blossomed.”

Dr. MacRae has worked in Bali for twenty years as an anthropologist, during which time he noted that everyone had prospered except those in agriculture, namely rice-growing farmers. He embarked on a campaign to encourage growers to adopt organic methods that not only reduce production costs and environmental impacts, but increase potential sale value. Over the past two years, he’s been studying the basmati rice industry of northern India.

“There are places in the Himalayan foothills where farmers are growing basmati as cash crops and their neighbour’s are growing tens of different crops for subsistence,” says Dr. MacRae. “Only around five per cent of rice is an export crop, the vast majority remains subsistence. It’s a huge part of world production, but not a big part of world trade.”

Of that, nearly all the world’s basmati is grown on the plains of northern India and Pakistan, which, surprisingly, were not traditional rice-eating regions. Fragrant, delectable basmati is now seen as a status symbol among India’s burgeoning middle-class.

“Stories of basmati go back hundreds of years, it was the rice of choice for kings,” Dr. Dr. MacRae tells me. “The price for good packaged, branded basmati in Delhi is now the same, if not higher, as the export price.”

The handful of major global basmati companies, such as those that import here, started life as local market traders only 30 or 40 years ago. With the liberalisation of the Indian economy during the 1990s, they took full advantage of export opportunities and within the space of just a few years became multi-national giants. The Green Revolution too, through the use of petro-chemical fertilisers facilitated an abundance of high-yield crops, practices that are still widely used today by those major firms. China is now even developing GM strains of the grain.

A new low-tech approach, known as System of Rice Intensification (SRI), is based on simple methods such as careful seed selection and planting techniques, using less water and more organic fertiliser, which has been shown to increase productivity enormously.

“This obviously scares the hell out of the research institutes and big rice companies,” says Dr. MacRae. “It’s very difficult to get the traders to speak, they’re notoriously secretive like many business people. I thought they’d at least try to give me some public relations spin. There’s a vicious campaign that’s trying to discredit the SRI. Until the Green Revolution, rice was organic. Since then, all large-scale agriculture used petro-chemical fertilisers so there’s a whole generation of farmers who grew up not knowing any other way.”

Global warming too, is taking its toll, particularly on northern India’s water supplies, further emphasising the need to adapt a more eco-friendly approach.

“It’s becoming a critical issue as basmati is a very water-hungry crop,” Dr. MacRae says. “There is a growing awareness of the environmental effects of petro-chemicals on the land, animals and water supplies, but getting them to do something about it is another matter. It all boils down to economics. If you can guarantee organic products will sell for a higher price, then that’s when they’ll be interested.”

Two thousand feet up on the carved terraces of the Himalayas, there are countless farmers still growing the old varieties the old way. Every village has its own variety with differing names for their basmati-type rice. It’s lovely, says Dr. MacRae, though not as spectacular as the commercial stuff, for obvious reasons.

It must have been strange seeing a Westerner traipsing across their land to examine the humble rice grain?

“It’s a bit of a surprise for them,” says Dr. MacRae. “But on the whole, mountain and farming people, like village people everywhere are very friendly and quite delighted that someone else is taking an interest.”


(For those looking to find high quality rice in central Auckland, Dr. MacRae recommends heading to Sandringham).