Pinoy Rice grains

Why Rice Became the Staple Crop of Monsoon Asia

It’s a huge understatement to say that rice is life in the Philippines. After all, no meal is ever considered a meal unless it has at least one serving of rice. The grain and the culture that surrounds its cultivation have even influenced Filipino ideas of communitarianism or the Bayanihan spirit as it is often known.

However, the culture surrounding eating and planting rice is hardly unique to the Philippines. Rice is eaten as a staple throughout the world, from East Asia and West Africa and even in Southern Europe and throughout Latin America. 

Of course, even if many other cultures consume rice as a staple, Asia is the part of the world best known for the crop, particularly South, East, and Southeast Asia. The parts of Asia that experience yearly monsoons, an area that roughly stretches from India to Japan, is still where a bulk of the world’s rice is grown and consumed today. 

But why is this the case? We’ll briefly explore rice’s history in this part of the world and some reasons why it features prominently in many cultures around the continent.

When Was Rice First Cultivated?

While ancient humans almost certainly have been eating wild rice since before the emergence of Homo sapiens, it may be impossible to say for sure just how long humans have been cultivating domestic rice. There is conflicting archeological evidence about the earliest known domestication of Oryza sativa, the dominant domestic rice species consumed today.

In 2003, a team of Korean archaeologists claimed to have found evidence of domesticated rice going back about 15,000 years. Another more widely accepted claim is that rice was first domesticated in the Yangtze River valley in China 12,000 years ago, with strong evidence showing communities transitioning from wild rice to domestic strains. In 2011, researchers from Stanford University, New York University, Washington University in St. Louis, and Purdue University made findings that make the Chinese claim even more credible.  

Further genetic analysis found that both the japonica and indica strains of Oryza sativa are most likely to have originated from the Yangtze River valley 8,000 years ago, further cementing the idea that modern rice cultivation may have originated here.

agricultural terrain

In the Philippines, the earliest archaeological evidence suggests that humans cultivated rice in the Cagayan Valley approximately 3,240 years ago. This is in line with what we know of human migrations from mainland Asia, suggesting that all local heritage rice varieties can trace their lineage to the Yangtze River valley. Continued trade with people from China and other Asian peoples also ensured that many Philippine rice strains continuously received new genes from mainland varieties.

Why Did Rice Dominate Most of Asia?

Rice is just one of many grains that could grow in Asia’s monsoon zones. Even in the Philippines, rice was not the only staple food. “Kabog” or millet was notably the staple grain among Cebuanos upon contact with Europeans. But why is rice the dominant staple now? Here are some of the reasons it’s become ubiquitous in Asia.

Oryza sativa Is Native to East Asia

Being native to this part of the world, rice has developed environmental advantages over alien grains such as oats or barley. This means less labor needed for cultivation as well as a higher crop survival rate.

While wheat and millet are also native to Asia, many varieties do not thrive as easily in wetter, warmer climates. Meanwhile, hardy alien crops like corn and potatoes arrived in Asia much later and were not able to unseat rice as a dominant crop for various reasons.

Rice Plants Resist Flooding

Access to rivers is a major predictor when it comes to the suitability of human settlements. Virtually all major human settlements in Asia and the rest of the world were built around rivers. Rivers allow for easy transportation and provide water for crops. However, rivers are also prone to flooding in areas with a rainy season, as is the case with most of East, South, and Southeast Asia. 

Pinoy Rice grains

Though rice plants are not, strictly speaking, water plants, they can tolerate and even thrive with moderate levels of flooding. This characteristic has been exploited for millennia as a means for pest control, and most of the world’s rice continues to be grown in flooded rice paddies for at least part of their planting cycle.

Rice Is Incredibly Calorie-Dense

When compared to wheat, rice produces more than twice the calories per hectare. While potatoes and corn can match or exceed rice in this metric, these New World plants were not widely available in Asia up until just a few hundred years ago. Today, modern rice strains can even go toe-to-toe with these alternatives.

And though our ancestors may not have understood what calories were, they could certainly understand how energizing a bowl of rice could be. More calories per hectare in limited areas means more people can live off a piece of land. Even in recent times, poorer families will resort to eating more rice during times of economic hardship, underlying its importance as both a calorie source and a part of local culture.

Rice Is a  Very Forgiving Crop

Compared to other crops, rice is extremely forgiving of growing conditions. Even in a bad year, rice crops have high or “good-enough” survival rates. Provided conditions are broadly suitable, rice plants can be grown in an extremely diverse set of conditions. What’s more, they are less picky compared to other crops that would have been available before widespread contact with New World crops.

What Is The Future of Rice?

Rice cultivation has been done in more or less the same way for millennia. But since the Green Revolution in the 1960s, rice cultivation has become ever-more sophisticated, often to the point that a farmer from the early 20th century may not even recognize some of the experimental rice farms being run today. Not only are cutting-edge rice varieties noticeably different because of selective breeding and genetic engineering, but many fields also employ techniques that are a far cry from the methods used only a few decades ago.

However, if this time-traveling farmer were to go to just any average Filipino rice field, they may still feel right at home, given that relatively little has changed for the bulk of the country’s rice farms. But given another generation, this may no longer be the case, with the steady adoption of new tech and the intense pressure to readapt to issues like climate change. In any case, rice will still be life, probably for several millennia more.

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