Why is rice important?

Food Security

Food security, which is the condition of having enough food to provide adequate nutrition for a healthy life, is a critical issue in the developing world. About 3 billion people, nearly half the world’s population, depend on rice for survival. In Asia as a whole, much of the population consumes rice in every meal. In many countries, rice accounts for more than 70% of human caloric intake. As seen in Figure 1, the total consumption of rice (expressed as % of total calorie intake) varies widely between different regions. In Asia in total, just over 30% of all calories come from rice.

But within a region, rice intake varies even more widely. Figure 2 shows fifteen of the countries most reliant on rice for energy. The graphs show that although total Asian rice intake is around 30%, people in countries such as Cambodia, Bangladesh and Myanmar rely on rice for over 70% of their calories. Africans as a whole gain less than 10% of their calories from rice, but in countries such as Madagascar and Sierra Leone, people use rice for nearly 50% of their energy needs.

Figure 1: Rice as a percentage of total caloric intake by region (2000).*

Figure 2: Rice as a percentage of total caloric intake (top 15 countries)*

* Data in Figures 1 and 2 was extracted from Table 16 of the IRRI World Rice Statistics.

Rice yields have been increasing since the 1960s, but since the 1990s, growth in rice production has been slower than population growth. Indeed, it is anticipated that rice production will need to increase by 30% by 2025 in order to sustain those who need it for sustenance. However, climate change, especially access to water, soil erosion and other problems threaten rice yields. A study by the International Water Management Institute suggested that by 2020, one third of Asia could face water shortages.

The Economic Importance of Rice

Because of high domestic consumption of rice in rice-producing countries, the economic importance of rice differs from that of traditional exports. Worldwide, only 5-6% of rice is exported. Japan, for example, consumes their entire domestic production and has to import around 8% of their rice each year. However, this imported rice is not released to the domestic market, ensuring a high local price. Thus the pressures of world trade on these countries are not as great as for exported crops. It also makes these countries vulnerable to local catastrophes, such as crop failure due to inclement weather (eg too much or too little rain), pests (such as insect swarms) or diseases (such as rice fungal diseases).

Furthermore, because both rice growers and people who rely on rice for sustenance tend to be poor, there is a constant pressure from rice growers to keep prices as high as possible, and from consumers to keep the price low. This strain is in constant force in all rice-growing countries, but is particularly important in the poorest countries.

For a good overview of this subject, please refer to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development website.

The Cultural Importance of Rice

Beyond providing sustenance, rice plays an important cultural role in many countries. Products of the rice plant are used for a number of different purposes, such as fuel, thatching, industrial starch, and artwork.

Growing, selling and eating rice is integral to the culture of many countries. In Japan, rice was historically a product for the wealthy and is now a highly-prized crop. Many rituals surround the preparation of the rice beds, the sowing of the crop, and the harvest. In China, it has been suggested that rice has been cultivated for 3000 – 4000 years, where it gradually rose to become an important part of aristocratic life. China’s rural culture has developed around the growing of rice, and foods made from rice are the basis of festivals such as the Land Opening Festival, which marks the start of the rice cultivation season, and the Spring Festival. Even in Western countries, rice is an important part of culture. Imagine Italy without risotto or Spain without paella!