By Thin Lei Win
The other week an e-mail landed in my inbox, telling me that eating a lot of white rice could give me type 2 diabetes, citing an analysis in the British Medical Journal.
Not long before that, another e-mail tried to persuade me to change my eating habits, saying rice is not nutritious and our bodies were never meant to consume it.
Coming from a culture where one of the main greetings is “Have you eaten rice?” not to mention having PBR (powered by rice) as a nickname, I can’t imagine my life without this polished grain. In fact, my sole request to my mother before going to England to study was to have a rice cooker.
Yet the more I cover climate and sustainability issues, the more I start to wonder whether there should be an alternative staple food to rice.
There are compelling arguments towards such a move, even setting aside the health considerations.
Rice is the single largest user of fresh water. A scientist I recently spoke to put it vividly – producing a tonne of rice requires two to three Olympic-sized swimming pools of water.
And in many places, access to freshwater is getting scarcer.
There’s less arable land too, as it gets used up for biofuel production and urbanisation.
Rice fields also emit methane, a powerful greenhouse gas which contributes to global warming. The most recent figures show rice cultivation accounts for 1.5 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions. Agriculture as a whole is almost 14 percent.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, in 2004 rice was the staple food of about 3.23 billion people (roughly half of the world’s population), wheat of about 1.55 billion and maize of about 288 million.
With 7 billion of us now on the planet, the world needs to feed its growing population. But when it comes to staples, what is a better alternative than rice?
IF NOT RICE, THEN WHAT?
What I’ve observed from talking to food experts, friends and rice-eating Southeast Asians I met during my travels, is that there are two major – and related – challenges to finding an alternative staple food.
One is a lack of viable alternatives. The other is the intangible, psychological attachment we have with rice – especially in Asia, where it is more than just something to fill our stomachs with.
But rice habits are hard to kick.
For example, a lacklustre response to Indonesia’s “One Day, No Rice” campaign forced a change in tactics in 2010 to “One Meal, No Rice.”
And a farmer in the Philippines once told me rice is a poor man’s food and crop. No rice means no food, no job and no income for the poor.
In January, agricultural economist and the Indonesian president’s special envoy for poverty alleviation, HS Dillon, told Channel News Asia alternatives to rice “should be as cheap – if not cheaper; should be as easy to procure; should be as easy to prepare; should be as nutritious; should be as nice.”
Perhaps the first steps should not be about finding an alternative as much as reducing wasteful consumption.
Every Filipino wastes about 3.3 kilos of rice each year, the country’s Inquirer news site quoted Eufemio Rasco Jr, executive director of the Philippine Rice Research Institute, as saying. The interview points out that this, when multiplied by the country’s population, equates the amount of rice the country will import this year.
And on average, someone in Vietnam will reportedly consume more than double the amount of rice than that consumed by a South Korean – (166 kg a year compared to 76kg).
“With something as ingrained in people’s culture and diet as rice is in Asian countries, it’s difficult to see most consumers shifting significantly away from rice to other staples such as potatoes, maize, or others,” a food expert told me.
But the expert also said some substitution and diversification is possible, giving the example of Japan after World War Two when it started consuming wheat and bread significantly.
With all the climate and development threats linked to rice production, diversification is certainly warranted.
Thin Lei Win is the Thomson Reuters Foundation's South Asia correspondent based in Bangkok. This blog is part of AlertNet’s"Solutions for a Hungry World" story package.