The challenge to preserve rice culture: Rice productivity for the 21st century

We sing about it, pray over it, gift each other with it, and hold festivities to celebrate it. Over centuries it has identified who we are as individuals, as communities, and as a region. Even our oral lore and written stories across Asia contain beautiful descriptions of its cultivation, harvest, and preparation. The recent societal invention of nation-states in our region takes policies surrounding its cultivation, export, and national consumption ever so seriously. Our consumption of rice has created a rice culture that continues to bind us just like the cooked sticky grains that, for all of us across Asia, have become the most effective vehicle of friendship and diplomacy in our ever-growing politicized region. Rice speaks to us Asians and, more and more, it is becoming a universal gastronomical language for peoples across continents. For as we continue to open our markets and sensibilities to the emerging global cultures, rice and its accompanying rice culture become appropriated and re-imagined in the kitchen by an increasing number of peoples across the world.

Rice though, as a gift of the earth, is such a fragile produce. More and more of us who consume it often forget rice’s fragility. Few of us ever pay close attention to each grain on our plate. The wondrous grain that we often ignore has become, in the modern age, the product of combined efforts of farmers and scientists. The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) is the world’s leading organization in making sure that technology effectively partners with agricultural practices so that farmers may continue to feed the demand for the nourishing grain. Earth, the mother of rice, though, is devastated by the ill effects of irresponsible habitation of humanity. Because of this, coupled with the planet’s aging, rice production is going through an uphill battle.

With the devastating effects of climate change, one wonders whether technology will be able to quickly offer solutions to make rice plants continue to be adaptable to our quickly changing terrain. In the 1960s, IR8, the high-yielding rice variety was developed and spearheaded by researchers Peter Jennings and Henry M. Beachell at IRRI. Some 50 years later, we look back to that time with gratitude to the efforts of researchers and the agricultural sector that worked hand in hand in combating famine across Asia. India is one of the countries that greatly benefited from such a breakthrough. Indeed, the earth can be prodded to generously give nourishment via rice through scientific intervention.

Now, almost two decades since the beginning of the 21st century, rice researchers face bigger challenges in making sure that humanity will continue to enjoy and be nourished by rice in all its forms—red, brown, black, and the hardy cross-bred ones like IR8. The earth, too sick from man’s abuses, may not be easily prodded to yield our beloved golden grains. With the shortage of water and land for farming, researchers are pressured to come up with varieties of rice that can withstand climate change and its multiple consequences such as those mentioned.

Moreover, our researchers together with our farmers need to produce healthier varieties of rice that can help heal our bodies that feed off less nutritious foodstuff. We humans of the 21st century after all are prone to overeat. Not only that, we tend to feast on processed food—what we refer to as empty calories. On the topic of farmers, it must be mentioned that we badly need more of them stewards of the earth. It is about time we pay more attention to the needs of farming folk, along with the increase in research on rice production. Farmers, both women and men, who have, over centuries, been active in rice farming, should be provided more education in farming and their governments should begin to treat them better with the respect due to national assets by investing on them through loans and the sharing of ecologically sound techniques.

Rice production in the 21st century is a challenge for all stakeholders. In such a situation, we count on our rice researchers in an organization like IRRI, to continue to guide us who are all part of the rice culture.

Note: The views and opinions on this essay are those of the author's and do not reflect those of the institute and its partners.

Alona GuevarraAlona Guevarra

Alona U. Guevarra is a faculty member of the Department of English, Ateneo de Manila University. She teaches literature. She is a firm advocate of eco living and is passionate about rice.