Rice Production and Human History
This Staple Food Source Spurred Population Growth and Changed an Entire Planet
by Dianna Soma, age 18 and Claire Miller, age 18
It is the staple food for half the world’s population, going almost unnoticed as a side to countless dishes. It’s a food that is incorporated into thousands of recipes, from simple dishes to culinary masterpieces. It is also the second most cultivated grain in the world, harvested on every continent, save for Antarctica.
We’re not talking about maize; we’re talking about rice.
Rice isn’t just the fluffy white stuff you find alongside your Chinese takeout; it is so much more. It has a unique history in every region where it is cultivated.
The origins of rice date back to at least 4,000 B.C. in Asia. Though no one knows exactly where cultivation of rice began, archaeologists recently found 7,700-year old evidence of rice growing in China.
Over the next thousands of years, rice cultivation sprang up in many other parts of Asia, especially in the Southeast. It wasn’t long before the crop spread throughout the rest of the continent, moving west to India and Sri Lanka. It is then believed to have moved into the Middle East and the Mediterranean around 300 B.C. This new agricultural knowledge was carried back to Greece by the soldiers of Alexander the Great.
While all rice is derived from the same grain, African rice is a different variety. In fact, African rice has been cultivated there since 3,000 B.C.
Today, Asian rice is more popular than African rice, but scientists aim to revive this long-neglected variety. African Oryza glaberrima is much heartier and more resilient in times of climate change. This variety of rice might also help lower Africa’s dependence on Asian rice.
In 1492, Columbus brought with him from Europe all manner of interesting things, including rice. The crop quickly gained popularity throughout the Caribbean and became a staple food in the region. It became an important cash crop. Rice remains an important ingredient in Central and South American cuisine today.
Rice was first cultivated in the United States by enterprising colonists from South Carolina and Georgia in 1685. Using the knowledge of West African slaves who had been harvesting rice in Africa for generations, the colonists amassed huge profits at the expense of these slaves. In fact, rice production declined sharply after the civil war as a result of the abolition of slavery. It was no longer profitable without slave labor working on large plantations.
During the 1800’s, Cajun farmers on the gulf coast began farming rice in that region’s wetlands and marshes. They soon discovered they could also use the marshes to farm crawfish. Rice became a popular addition to dishes such as gumbo and jambalaya.
Rice cultivation expanded into California as a result of the Gold Rush and America’s westward expansion. When thousands of Chinese immigrants arrived to work on the railroads, they began to grow small quantities of rice for their own consumption. Today, California is the largest rice-producing state in this country.
Rice is a forgotten symbol of the Silk Roads. It’s the food of conquerors, explorers, railroad workers, and many others in between.Rice is an important part of world history. And it will continue to be part of our planet’s future.
[Sources: www.news.nationalgeographic.com; www.guidetothailand.com; www.amazon.com; www.crawfish.com; www.sciencedaily.com; www.foodreference.com]