All About Rice: Delicious, Versatile and World Heritage

All About Rice: Delicious, Versatile and World Heritage

Delicious, versatile and world heritage

Did you know the rice plantations called the Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras has been crowned a UNESCO World Heritage?

The earliest archaeological discoveries around the cultivation of rice date back to 7000–5000 BCE in China. Like other major crops today, such as wheat, rice started as a simple wild grass favoured by early farmers. Through the millennia and selective breeding, we have more than 40,000 different types of rice to choose between.

Today ca. 496 million metric tons of rice are produced each year globally. Though rice paddies can be found in most corners of the world, including Europe, most rice (90%) is still grown in Asia. China is in the lead among all rice-producing countries, producing ca 209 million metric tons in 2019, ca 41% of the global production. In Africa, rice is the fastest-growing source of food. This global rice production is essential. Ca. 50% of the world’s population is dependent on rice for their daily food leading to 95% of all rice produced being consumed by humans.

Cultivation 

Though their use cases and flavour profiles vary, each of the thousands of rice kinds can be divided into two categories: the Japonica and Indica varieties. Japonica rice grains are much shorter, rounder and stickier. These are ideal for foods where such textures are preferable and important to the dish, such as sushi. The Indica varieties are long-grain rice, and an example of this is the Basmati rice. 

All rice (except for upland rice) is grown using water, lots of it. Two examples of common locations suitable for rice plantations are tidal deltas and rivers. From seed to a delicious side to a homemade curry, its lifecycle starts in a rice bed. Here the little seedlings are left to grow for 25 to 50 days. After that, they are moved to large rice paddies where the water is between 5 to 10 cm deep. Early farmers transplanted the tiny plants manually, which remains a viable option for farmers today that don’t have access to modern machinery. For farmers who do, the so-called Rice Transplanter is a helpful hand. The rice transplanter can plant multiple rows simultaneously by taking the seedling and pushing them into the soft waterlogged ground. For the remainder of the growing season, the plants are partially submerged under the water. Keeping the correct water levels is critical, and farmers often manually adjust this irrigation system using dams. Another factor of a successful rice harvest is sunshine, long continuous periods of it. Though sun and water may seem like basic requirements for any crop to grow, it has a much more considerable impact on yields. Rice yields are known to have a substantial variation from 700 to 4,000 kg/hectare.

Harvest

For the growth of the rice plants, water is essential, but during harvest, it is detrimental. Before the harvest can occur, the rice fields must be completely drained of all water that the farmer took such care to keep at exact levels. If the farmer wants to use a harvester or a thresher, the grains cannot contain more than 14% moisture to prevent them from degrading when stored. After the grains have been harvested from the field, further processing steps have to be taken. Each grain of rice has a husk that needs to be removed. Removing the husk is commonly done using a mortar and pestle manually or in a more automated fashion. Under the husk is the so-called bran layer. This layer is darker in colour. Rice that still has this layer when sold is commonly referred to as brown rice. The bran is made up of ca. 8% protein and contains other trace elements such as iron and calcium. When the bran has been removed, we are left with the white rice most of us are familiar with. However, the stems, husks, and bran left after the rice has been processed are not wasted. These stems, for example, can become animal feed, and the bran can be used to create an oil that can be used in anything from cosmetics to frying food.

Disease Management

Like other crops, rice is vulnerable to disease. Bacterial Leaf Blight and Brown Leaf Spot are two examples of these. Bacterial Leaf Bight as given by its name, is a bacterial infection that is believed to prefer conditions of heavy rainfall and wind. This disease has been found to have an enormous impact on yield loss, especially in Asian countries. Brown Leaf Spot is a fungal disease spread from one seed to another and can affect the rice plant as early as its seedling stage. It has been found that damage from Brown Leaf Spot is especially prevalent in nutrient-deficient soil and can be an indicator of soil fertility. 

How can rice cultivations be easier to manage? 

Precision farming can offer practical solutions that give rice farmers greater economic profitability. Seeding and applying fertilizer more precisely has an impact on the quality and size of the yield but are not the only advantages that precision farming has to offer. Correct irrigation is a cornerstone of yield success. To save water waste during irrigation and prevent excessive nutrition loss from too high irrigation levels, fields must be properly levelled. This entails moving soil from one area of the field to another until it is even. Besides optimising irrigation, precision farming can also accurately measure soil fertility. This not only benefits yield outcomes by ensuring the plant’s growth but, as mentioned earlier, has direct ties with the spread of diseases such as Brown Leaf Spot.

From an everyday meal to a prized cultural heritage, rice is a versatile crop that nourishes and sustains billions of people across the globe. 

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All About Wheat: From a Simple Grass to a Staple Product

All About Wheat: From a Simple Grass to a Staple Product

From Wild Grass to a Staple Product 

As we have discussed in our History of Farming series, humans began cultivating crops thousands of years ago. Wheat was among the first of these crops to be strategically grown. However, in the same way, that we have influenced the genetic expression of these plants (e.g. giving us bigger yields), their cultivation has left an everlasting mark on our society. 

Wheat is a rather picky crop, demanding specific conditions in order to grow and prosper. Even though wheat came about naturally, the proper soil and environmental conditions required are not reliably found everywhere. This required the early farmers to adopt cultivating strategies that we still use today, such as removing weeds, improve irrigation, and even fertilization. With limited equipment, this physically demanding work to ensure the wheat wellbeing left a toll on the farmers. Fossil records of the early farmers show that such work leads to a broad range of health problems such as arthritis and slipped disks. For the emerging societies, this too brought about great change. Tending to the wheat plans was all-encompassing, and hence regularly moving and leaving behind their cultivations was not an option. Humans decided to create lasting settlements next to their fields. 

Wheat Today

What once was a simple grass has now become a mightly crop. Today, wheat plants can be found across the globe and are the second most popular crop after maize and rice. Annually covering ca 250 million hectares of land, wheat is eaten by 2.5 billion people across 89 countries with many different varieties available. 

The Worlds Favorite Wheat

Due to the varying climate conditions, different countries or regions prefer to grow different kinds of wheat. This is is important, as the climate dictates when a regional growing and harvesting season is. 

France is the biggest wheat producer in Europe, with an annual output of ca 47 million tonnes. Here winter wheat is the main kind of wheat cultivated. Winter wheat is generally in October and is ready for harvest in August the year after. With about 126 million metric tons produced per year, China is the biggest wheat producer in the world. Through China also grows spring wheat (planted in early spring and harvested in late summer) winter wheat is produced in much larger quantities. Similar trends are found in India and Russia who are the second and third-biggest wheat producers. They too prefer to cultivate winter wheat. Why? Let’s take China as an example. For Chinese farmers, one great advantage of growing winter wheat is that it matures earlier. This gives them time to also cultivate other crops such as vegetables. Unlike spring wheat, it has also been found that winter wheat is less likely to undergo so-called preharvest sprouting. Pre-harvest sprouting is when the grains of e.g. wheat plant start to sprout on the mother plant before the farmer has had the chance to harvest. It is a serious issue as it makes the grains unusable. 

Harvesting

How wheat is harvested can have some slight variations depending on where in the world you find yourself. In most European countries, farmers use modern machinery that has been created specifically for the harvest of grains (such as wheat). Here, the so-called Combine-Harvester steals the show, and rightfully so. It is a versatile machine that automates the majority of the harvesting process. As the farmer drives the Combine-Harvester across the field the machine cuts the straws and separates the grains from it. The grains are then saved in a specialized tank in the harvester while the straws are chopped and pushed back out into the field. 

In other parts of the world where access to modern agricultural machinery is limited, the harvesting process is still mostly manual. Here farmers often use a sickle to cut the straws. Separating the berries from the straws is also done manually. Here the berries are knocked off the straw, raked, and sieved to ensure no small leaves or straw pieces are left. 

Yields

The global average production of wheat today lies at ca 3546.8 kg/ha and is 118,33 % greater than it was 50 years ago in 1970 (ca 1624 kg/ha). One factor that we can attribute the general increase of wheat production to (which dates back much longer than the 1970s) is the makeup of the grain itself. Much like the first farmers noticed, targeted selection allows us to produce grains with beneficial traits, with yield size being a focal point. Compared to the modern strains we use today, the ancient or historical grains result in lower yields and are much more vulnerable to pests and diseases. However, from a cultural perspective, limited cultivation for the purposes of producing traditional dishes may still have a valuable contribution to society. 

When comparing ancient and modern wheat, gluten is an unavoidable topic and has in recent years received a very negative image. As summarized in a review by Harvard University, there is no empirical research that has found support for gluten being a harmful component in our diet, unless one suffers from an underlying condition such as Non-celiac Gluten Sensitivity, Wheat Allergy or Dermatitis herpetiformis (DH). In fact, Harvard University also mentions that gluten may have an important function in our guts as it has been found to stimulate the activity of so-called bifidobacteria in the colon which is present in healthy guts. Without these, individuals may come to suffer from gastrointestinal diseases such as bowel disease and colorectal cancer. 

So even though our daily food may not comprise of the traditional cuisine of our ancestors, we can sit back and relax as we enjoy some of our most favourite foods. Whether it is a flaky croissant, chewy sourdough bread, or crunchy homemade pizza, these would not be the same without wheat and gluten. 

Diseases

Pre-harvest sprouting is not the only problem that a wheat farmer may come across. There are many diseases that wheat plants can suffer from (e.g. brown rust, fusarium ear blight, mildew, yellow rust) and have a big impact on harvest loss. 

When it comes to disease management and its prevention, time is the farmer’s best friend. Being able to quickly detect the onset of diseases is key to save the harvest, however, detecting them on time is difficult to do manually. Precision agriculture has a lot to offers in this regard. Making use of Vegetation Indices (IVs), diseases can be detected early. This gives the farmer the time needed to take the required action to prevent the spread of the disease and saves the crops. However, there is more to yield size than disease management or whether a modern kind of wheat is grown. 

As we mentioned, wheat is a little pickier than a lot of other crops. Farmers have to keep tabs on numerous factors throughout the growing season, to ensure the plants grow properly. Soil health, sufficient and timely plant grow and irrigation is key and needs to continuously be monitored. However, one of the most impactful yet is fertilization. This is traditionally utterly labour-intensive and time-consuming. Yet, precision agriculture can improve even this aspect of cultivation. Using similar techniques and various Vegetation Indices alike what is used for disease detection, farmers can get detailed information about their fields directly to their phones and tablets. Taking fertilization as an example, farmers can receive precise recommendations on how much fertilizer each area of the field requires. Better yet, the fertilizer output is automatically varied by the machinery itself. This does not only make it easier and saves the farmer valuable time, but costs as well. 

Found in pantries across the world wheat has had an astounding impact on how we humans live our lives. Though its cultivation may be demanding, the products we are able to make and the millions of lives it nourishes surely make it work the effort!

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