It’s hard to imagine but before the introduction of “modern” high-yielding rice varieties in the 1960s, Indian farmers were growing as many as 30,000 different rice varieties. According to Barbara Burlingame, an expert at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), in the past Thailand had about 16,000 distinct varieties. Yet today only 37 are grown on a large scale and 50% of rice lands are cultivated to just two varieties! I find this mindboggling. Where did all that diversity go?
The magic of rice biodiversity is what inspired us to form our company, Lotus Foods. During a market research trip through China in 1993, Ken and I were in Yunnan province, the home of 26 minority tribes and in a Dai minority village we sat down to steaming bowls of black rice. The flavor was so delicious – a roasted nutty taste with hints of fruit and the plate presentation so exotic. We fell in love with the rice and went to the market the next day to buy some and find out more about this amazing grain. Called ‘hei mei’ (black rice) in Chinese, we were told that it was called ‘longevity’ or ‘tribute rice’ reserved for the Emperors to ensure their good health and long life. A month later, while walking around the Forbidden City, Ken came up with the name Forbidden Rice, which we trademarked in 1995 at the launch of Lotus Foods.
As most people are now well aware, plant and animal biodiversity are critical to the planet’s well-being and thus our well-being. According to one source, plants are the original source materials for as many as 40% of the pharmaceuticals in use in the United States today. Either the drugs contain plant-derived materials, or synthesized materials from agents originally derived from plants. Black rice we eventually learned contains something called anthocyanins, which act as powerful antioxidants. Other plants rich in anthocyanins are blueberry, cranberry and bilberry, among others. Different rice cultivars also contain different levels of key nutrients. For example, the amount of protein in rice can range from 5.5 to 14.5 grams per 100 grams of rice. Depending on your gender, age and situation the recommended daily amount ranges from 40-70 grams each day.
Why then is rice biodiversity so badly eroded, if it contains so much great potential? Unfortunately, the technologies and policies pursued the last 30-40 years to increase rice production in Asia, where most rice is grown and eaten, have come at a major price. The new higher-yielding, short-statured rice varieties that scientists developed perform best when grown under irrigated conditions and accompanied by inputs like fertilizers and pesticides. Large-scale construction of dams and irrigation schemes, heavily subsidized chemical inputs, and at times draconian extension prescriptions resulted in the rapid adoption of the new seeds and displacement of local seeds. Perhaps more alarming though, decades of heavy and routine use of pesticides, high applications of nitrogen fertilizers, and extensive water withdrawals have created their own set of serious human and environmental health problems, including loss of aquatic and terrestrial biodiversity. NPR radio journalist Daniel Zwerdling illustrates the plight of many modern Asian farmers in his 2009 report on the “Green Revolution: Trapping India’s Farmers in Debt.”
The good news, however, is that there are an increasing number of grassroots initiatives to preserve rice biodiversity in most Asian countries, and better understand their possible contribution to human health and nutrition. It has been our experience the past 15 years that providing a market for heirloom varieties can contribute to their preservation as well as the rural communities in which they are still cultivated. Here is a favorite recipe for Forbidden Rice®. Now you can eat like an emperor every day.