(First of Three Parts)

Despite rising per capita income that had led to a more diversified diet in neighboring Asian countries, rice remains the staple food of Filipinos.  Studies have shown that for every peso spent on food, 20 centavos go to rice.

“If we did not have rice, our deepest comfort food, we would probably feel less Filipino,” the late food columnist Doreen Fernandez once said.

“One more rice, please!” This call, which rings at dinner time in all restaurants and small eateries, best sums up the eating habits of the typical Filipino to whom eating is a matter of filling up.  Studies show one-half cup of rice can furnish 82 calories of energy, enough to give someone energy to walk 26 minutes.

“Although rice is basically a complex carbohydrate,” Reader’s Digest said, “its protein contains all eight of essential amino acids and complements the amino acids found in many other foods.  Low in sodium and fat, with no cholesterol or gluten, it is a boon to weight conscious and those allergic to other grains.  It is also low in fiber and easily digested.”

Rice (known in the science world as Oryza sativa) is consumed not only in the Philippines but in other parts of the world as well. “Rice is the principal food for over 60% of mankind,” points out the Laguna-based International Rice Research Institute (IRRI).  It is particularly important to Asia where over half of the world’s population lives.

Not all rice, however, are eaten.  This is particularly true in the Philippines.  Dr. Flordeliza Bordey, the program leader for Impact Assessment Policy Research and Advocacy of Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice), said that every Filipino is wasting 14 grams of milled rice per day, which is equivalent to about 3 tablespoons per person per day.

Filipinos eating rice is as old as rice cultivation. “The history of rice cultivation in the country dates back at least 3,000 years,” wrote Dr. Gelia T. Castillo, an academician and national scientist.  “The building of rice terraces came a bit later.”

However, it was in 1576 that an account of rice cultivation was recorded.  By 1668, someone wrote that “rice usually does not last longer than the time it takes to harvest, since the rest they pay in tribute or sell to get the cash to pay the tribute.”

Rice has devotees all over the world.  Reader’s Digest reports: “The Italians have made their risoffos minor masterpieces.  Spain’s paella, often with seafood, sausage and chicken, is a traditional dish. Latin America’s arroz con polo, chicken with rice, is one of the best rice dishes anywhere.  The French fez pilafs, the Middle East’s pilaus, and India’s pulaus are classics served with all kinds of meat, poultry and seafood.

“A popular Japanese rice dish is sushi, rice flavored with sweet rice vinegar and wrapped with fish, vegetables or omelets in seaweed.  Indonesians set a whole table with rice and assorted goodies that go with the grain; the feast is called rijsttafel.  The Chinese make cakes, noodles, paste and potent wine from rice.”

Rice is not originally from the Philippines.  Until now, it is being debated where rice originally comes from. D.H. Grist, in his book Rice, pointed this out: “We do not know the country of origin of rice, but the weight of evidence points out to the conclusion that the center of origin of rice is southeast Asia, particularly India and Indo-China, where the richest diversity of cultivated forms has been recorded.”

Cultivation of rice dates to the earliest age of man.  Carbonized paddy grains and husks, estimated to date 1000 to 800 B.C. have been found in excavations at Hastinapur in Uttar Pradesh, India.  Specimens of rice have been discovered in China dating from the third millennium B.C. and the Chinese term for rice appears in inscriptions during from the second millennium B.C.

Paddy cultivation is of great antiquity in the Philippines.  It is thought that immigrant people from south China in the second millennium B.C. constructed the wonderful system of terraces on the mountainsides of Banaue and its neighboring areas.  These people were reportedly driven into the hills by subsequent invasions of Malays.

“The history of rice cultivation in the country dates back at least 3,000 years,” wrote Dr. Gelia T. Castillo, author of Rice is Life: A Review of Philippine Studies.  “The building of rice terraces came a bit later.  As early as 1521, the Tagalog vocabulary for the cultivation of rice was already rich, indicating the technology already available in the Tagalog region.”

These days, much of the country’s irrigated rice is grown on the central plain of Luzon, the country’s rice bowl.  According to Rice Almanac: Source Book for the Most Important Economic Activity on Earth, other major rice-producing regions are located in Mindanao (23%), Central Luzon (16%), Western Visayas (13%), Southern Tagalog (10%) and Ilocos (9%).

The rest of rice comes mainly from various coastal lowland areas and gently rolling erosional plains, such as in Mindanao and Iloilo.

Rainfed rice is found in the Cagayan Valley, in Iloilo province, and on the coastal plains of Visayas and Ilocos region.  Upland rice is grown in both permanent and shifting cultivation systems scattered throughout the archipelago on rolling to steep lands.

Although the Philippines is basically an agricultural country, it has not been self-sufficient in rice.  In fact, the country is currently the world’s major importer of rice.  There are several reasons for this.  Yield growth and production for the last two decades have been minimal, and at times even stagnated or declined resulting in increased importation.

Unknowingly, studies have shown that there is a 75% return on investment in rice production in the country.  But the fact is, there is very little room for expansion in new areas for rice.

“Most of the increase in production will have to come from increased yields/productivity,” said Simeon A. Cuyson, the executive director of CropLife Philippines, Inc.  “The average rice landholding of slightly more than one hectare is uneconomic, so obviously some interventions are needed to improve efficiency, provide access to credit and marketing, and provide opportunities and the means to diversify the small farmers’ source of livelihood.”

No one knows whether the world will one day be inhabited by 10, 15, or 20 billion people.  What is clear, however, is that new technologies will be needed to produce much more rice on less land, with less labor, less water, and less pesticides.  Rice production must be made sustainable as well as profitable for farmers so that they do not leave the land and join rapidly expanding, highly explosive communities of the urban poor.

As former IRRI director general Klaus Lampe puts it: “We cannot protect the environment, we cannot promote biodiversity, and we cannot provide sustainability without ensuring sufficient income earning opportunities and an adequate food supply.” (To be continued)