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Food Culture: Reflections on Rice

By: Dr Stan Florek, Category: Science, Date: 22 Jan 2015

One of the major staples of humanity.

Rice Harvest - Sayan near Bali

Rice Harvest - Sayan near Bali
Photographer: Liem Men Sang © Assumed public domain

Food Culture is a blog series with stories that sketch a broader context for various cultural practices and artefacts in our collection.

My Balinese friend and a fan of the Australian Museum, sent me a card with New Year greetings - thank you Ita! She beautifully expressed good wishes for 2015, for me and my Museum colleagues.

The card shows a photograph of the rice harvest at Sayan, a village just west of Ubud in Bali. It looks as if Ita knows me better than I thought! I am interested in the connection between growing food and culture. In fact all technical and social practices around food production and preparation are the essential elements of culture.

I was lucky to personally observe rice growing near Ubud in Bali a few years ago. In the small village farms, the methods, in essence, had not changed for millennia. Until recent rapid urban expansion, most people on our planet were growing their own food to various degrees of variety and quantity.

It has been only since the middle of the 20th century that industrial food production began replacing numerous small farms. It probably increased efficiency and (sometimes) yield, but it added a heavy burden of chemical fertilisers, land degradation and water use. And, importantly, it also has a dramatic impact on rural and traditional culture.

Rice is essential for nearly half of the world’s seven billion people. Over 90% of rice is consumed in Asia, where it is a staple for a majority of the population, including about 560 million of the region’s people who suffer poverty and hunger.

The major rice consumers are China, India and Indonesia, but the popularity of rice increases in other parts of Asia, both Americas and Africa. We globally consume about 57 kilograms of rice per person annually and rice accounts for about 29% of all grains we grow and use.

I wonder how long the harvest scene depicted on Ita’s card will be part of our reality and not a distant memory?