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As a main source of nourishment for over half the world's population, rice is
by far one of the most important commercial food crops. Its annual yield
worldwide is approximately 535 million tons. Fifty countries produce rice,
with China and India supporting 50% of total production. Southeast Asian
countries separately support an annual production rate of 9-23 million metric
tons of which they export very little. Collectively, they are termed the Rice
Bowl. Over 300 million acres of Asian land is used for growing rice. Rice
production is so important to Asian cultures that oftentimes the word for rice
in a particular Asian language also means food itself.
Rice is a member of the grass family (Gramineae). There are more than
10,000 species of grasses distributed among 600 genera. Grasses occur
worldwide in a variety of habitats. They are dominant species in such
ecosystems as prairies and steppes, and they are an important source of
forage for herbivorous animals. Many grass species are also primary
agricultural crops for humans. As well as rice, they include maize, wheat,
sorghum, barley, oats, and sugar cane.
There are three different types of rice: japonica, javanica, and indica.
Japonica rice varieties are high yielding and tend to be resistant to disease.
Javanica types of rice fall between japonica and indica varieties in terms of
yield, use, and hardiness. Although quite hardy, indica yield less than
japonica types and are most often grown in the tropics.
Because cultivation is so widespread, development of four distinct types of
ecosystems has occurred. They are commonly referred to as irrigated,
rainfed lowland, upland, and flood-prone agroecological zones. Irrigated
ecosystems are the primary type found in East Asia. Irrigated ecosystems
provide 75% of global rice production. Irrigated rice is grown in bunded
(embanked), paddy fields. Rainfed lowland ecosystems only sustain one crop
per growing season and fields are flooded as much as 19.7 in (50 cm) during
part of the season. Rainfed low-land rice is grown in such areas as East
India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Philippines, and Thailand, and is 25% of total
rice area used worldwide. Production is variable because of the lack of
technology used in rice production. Rainfed lowland farmers are typically
challenged by poor soil quality, drought/flood conditions, and erratic yields.
Upland zones are found in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. It is the primary
type of rice ecosystem in Latin America and West Africa. Upland rice fields
are generally dry, unbunded, and directly seeded. Land utilized in upland
rice production runs the gamut of descriptions. It can be low lying, drought-
prone, rolling, or steep sloping. Usually, crops are either sown interspersed
with another crop, intermittently with another crop, or the crop is shifted
every few years to a new location. Lastly, flood-prone ecosystems are
prevalent in South and Southeast Asia, and are characterized by periods of
extreme flooding and drought. Yields are low and variable. Flooding occurs
during the wet season from June to November, and rice varieties are chosen
for their level of tolerance to submersion.
Rice is mostly eaten steamed or boiled, but it can also be dried and ground
into a flour. Like most grains, rice can be used to make beer and liquors.
Rice straw is used to make paper and can also be woven into mats, hats,
and other products.
Since it has been such an important grain worldwide, the domestication and
cultivation of rice is one of the most important events in history that has had
the greatest impact on the most people. When and where the domestication
of rice took place is not specifically known, but new archaeological evidence
points to an area along the Yangtze River in central China and dates back as
far as 11,000 years. Researched by a team of Japanese and Chinese
archaeologists and presented at the 1996 International Symposium on
Agriculture and Civilizations in Nara, Japan, radiocarbon testing of 125
samples of rice grains and husks, as well as of rice impressions in pottery,
from sites located along a specific portion of the Yangtze unanimously
indicate a median age of over 11,000 years. Another discovery of possibly
the oldest settlement found in China, which is located closely upstream from
the other sites, gives credence to the new findings.
In any event, it wasn't until the development of puddling and transplanting
of the rice plant that the spread of rice as an agricultural crop really began.
Practiced in the wetlands of China, the concept of the rice paddy was
adopted by Southeast Asia in roughly 2000 B.C.Wetland cultivation
techniques migrated to Indonesia around 1500 B.C.and then to Japan by
100 B.C. To the West, rice was also an early important crop in India and Sri
Lanka, dating as far back as 2500 B.C.and 1000 B.C. respectively.
The spread to Europe, Africa, and America occurred more slowly, first with
the Moor's invasion of Spain in 700 A.D. and then later to the New World
during the age of exploration and colonialism. Rice has been grown in the
United States since the seventeenth century in such areas as the
southeastern and southern states, as well as California.
Raw Materials
The only raw material needed for commercial production of rice is the rice
seed or seedlings. Additional use of herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizer can
increase the likelihood of a larger yield.
Varieties of rice are selected and grown specifically for their end use. In the
United States, long-grain rice is typically used for boiling, quick-cook
products, and soup. Whereas, shorter-grain rice is used in cereal, baby food,
and beer/liquors.
The Manufacturing Process
Prior to planting, minimal soil manipulation is needed to prepare for
cultivation. If the rice will be grown on a hilly terrain, the area must be
leveled into terraces. Paddies are leveled and surrounded by dikes or
levees with the aide of earth-moving equipment.

The cultivation of rice begins by planting water-soaked seeds in a
properly prepared bed. Oftentimes, the seedlings are transplanted to
the paddy when they reach a certain size. When the grains begin to
ripen, the water is drained from the fields. Harvesting begins when the
grain yellow and the plants start to droop. Depending on the size of
the operation and the amount of mechanization, rice is either
harvested by hand or machine. Once harvested, the rice is usually
dried in the fields with the help of sunshine.
Then, the fields are plowed before planting. In the United States, rice
is most often planted on river deltas and plowing is accomplished with
a disk plow, an off-set disk plow, or a chisel. Adequate irrigation of the
terrace or river delta bed is required and accomplished by leveling and
by controlling water with pumps, reservoirs, ditches, and streams.
Rice seeds are soaked prior to planting.
Depending on the level of mechanization and the size of the planting,
seeding occurs in three ways. In many Asian countries that haven't
mechanized their farming practices, seeds are sown by hand. After 30-
50 days of growth, the seedlings are transplanted in bunches from
nursery beds to flooded paddies. Seeds can also be sown using a
machine called a drill that places the seed in the ground. Larger
enterprises often found in the United States sow rice seed by airplane.
Low-flying planes distribute seed onto already flooded fields. An
average distribution is 90-100 lb per acre (101-111 kg per hectare),
creating roughly 15-30 seedlings per square foot.
Once the plants have reached full growth (approximately three months
after planting) and the grains begin to ripenthe tops begin to droop
and the stem yellowsthe water is drained from the fields. As the
fields dry, the grains ripen further and harvesting is commenced.
Depending on the size of the operation and the amount of
mechanization, rice is either harvested by hand or machine. By hand,
rice stalks are cut by sharp knives or

At the processing plant, the rice is cleaned and hulled. At this point,
brown rice needs no further processing. If white rice is desired, the
brown rice is milled to remove the outer bran layers.
sickles. This practice still occurs in many Asian countries. Rice can also
be harvested by a mechanized hand harvester or by a tractor/horse-
drawn machine that cuts and stacks the rice stalks. In the United
States, most operations use large combines to harvest and thresh
separate the grain from the stalkthe rice stalks.
If the rice has been harvested by hand or by a semi-automated
process, threshing is completed by flailing the stalks by hand or by
using a mechanized thresher.
Before milling, rice grains must be dried in order to decrease the
moisture content to between 18-22%. This is done with artificially
heated air or, more often, with the help of naturally occurring
sunshine. Rice grains are left on racks in fields to dry out naturally.
Once dried, the rice grain, now called rough rice, is ready for
Hulling can be done by hand by rolling or grinding the rough rice
between stones. However, more often it is processed at a mill with the
help of automated processes. The rough rice is first cleaned by passing
through a number of sieves that sift out the debris. Blown air removes
top matter.
Once clean, the rice is hulled by a machine that mimics the action of
the handheld stones. The shelling machine loosens the hulls from the
rice by rolling them between two sheets of metal coated with
abrasives. 80-90% of the kernel hulls are removed during this process.
From the shelling machine, the grains and hulls are conveyed to a
stone reel that aspirates the waste hulls and moves the kernels to a
machine that separates the hulled from the unhulled grains. By
shaking the kernels, the paddy machine forces the heavier unhulled
grains to one side of the machine, while the lighter weight rice falls to
the other end. The unhulled grains are then siphoned to another batch
of shelling machines to complete the hulling process. Hulled rice grains
are known as brown rice.
Since it retains the outer bran layers of the rice grain, brown rice needs no
other processing. However along with added vitamins and minerals, the bran
layers also contain oil that makes brown rice spoil faster than milled white
rice. That is one of the reasons why brown rice is milled further to create a
more visually appealing white rice.
The brown rice runs through two huller machines that remove the
outer bran layers from the grain. With the grains pressed against the
inner wall of the huller and a spinning core, the bran layers are rubbed
off. The core and inner wall move closer for the second hulling,
ensuring removal of all bran layers.
The now light-colored grain is cooled and polished by a brush machine.
The smooth white rice is conveyed to a brewer's reel, where over a
wire mesh screen broken kernels are sifted out. Oftentimes, the
polished white rice is then coated with glucose to increase luster.
The milling process that produces white rice also removes much of the
vitamins and minerals found primarily in the outer bran layers. Further
processing is often done in order to restore the nutrients to the grain. Once
complete, the rice is called converted rice.
White rice is converted in one of two ways. Prior to milling, the rice is
steeped under pressure in order to transfer all the vitamins and
minerals from the bran layers to the kernel itself. Once done, the rice
is steamed, dried, and then milled. Rice that has already been milled
can be submersed in a vitamin and mineral bath that coats the grains.
Once soaked, they are dried and mixed with unconverted rice.
Quality Control
Quality control practices vary with the size and location of each farm. Large
commercial rice farms in the United States more often than not apply the
most effective combination of herbicides, fertilization, crop rotation, and
newest farming equipment to optimize their yields. Smaller, less mechanized
operations are more likely to be influenced by traditional cultural methods of
farming rather than high technology. Certainly, there are benefits to both
approaches and a union of the two is ideal. Rotating crops during
consecutive years is a traditional practice that encourages large yield as is
the planting of hardier seed varieties developed with the help of modern
hybridization practices.
Straw from the harvested rice plants is used as bedding for livestock. Oil
extracted from discarded rice bran is used in livestock feed. Hulls are used
to produce mulch that will eventually be used to recondition the farm soil.
The essential use of irrigation, flooding, and draining techniques in rice
farming also produces runoff of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers into
natural water systems. The extensive use of water in rice farming also
increases its level of methane emissions. Rice farming is responsible for 14%
of total global methane emissions.
The Future
With one out of every three people on earth dependent on rice as a staple
food in their diet and with 80-100 million new people to be fed annually, the
importance of rice production to the worldwide human population is crucial.
Scientists and farmers face the daunting task of increasing yield while
minimizing rice farming's negative environmental effects. Organizations such
as the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and the West African Rice
Development Association (WARDA), and Centro Internacional de Agricultura
Tropical (CIAT [International Center for Tropical Agriculture]) are conducting
research that will eventually lead to more productive varieties of rice and
rice hybrids, use of less water during the growing season, decrease in the
use of fresh organic fertilizer that contributes to greenhouse effect, and
crops more resistant to disease and pests.