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SE01EP07 — Rice: The Food That Inspired Cultures

SE01EP07 — Rice: The Food That Inspired Cultures

Q: What’s the historic secret of China’s success?

A: Rice.

The world’s second-most-important cereal crop and the focal point of culinary culture in both Asia and India, the cultivation of rice is a tricky business—it can only be grown in regions with high rainfall.

Unlike wheat and barley, the cultivation of rice requires comparatively little agricultural land—meaning that a large population of non-rural workers can be fed. This led to urbanisation on a massive scale and diversification of the labour market, transforming ancient China’s political system and bureaucracy into a slick, well-oiled machine.

It’s no surprise that rice grew alongside such socially-complex cultures, the likes of which gave Europe inventions as wide-ranging as the printing press, the compass, and gunpowder. These sophisticated governments could afford to heavily invest in all facets of rice’s labour-intensive cultivation—from canal building to the deployment of sprawling armies of agricultural labourers.

In this 7th episode of the Trading Places podcast, we’re talking about the past, present and future of rice—the food that inspired cultures.

Tune in and you’ll learn:

05:10 — How did early rice trade proliferate

"We think that that agent hybridization takes place around 4,000 years ago. And so it, it may be that that hybridization event, which is the result of trade between different Asian cultures…"

07:01 — Early trade routes leading up to today

"So our earliest probably imported rices are found in Northern Pakistan and the Indus valley in the region called SWAT. And then we get this hybridization either in that region or an adjacent parts of Northwestern…"

09:43 — Cultures growing around their diet

"Rice spreads out of China into Southeast Asia and some thousands of years later, we see a similar process there. So the early urban centers in Thailand and Vietnam and Cambodia, which emerge around 2000 years ago are also supported by wet rice and wet rice productivity…"

14:42 — India — The largest exporter

"In 2020 India exported a massive 14.7 million tons and data from the rice trader suggests that total is on track to hit 20 million tons in 2021 in value terms. And these rice exports rose 38% to 8.8 billion us dollars in fiscal 2021 from 6.4 billion reported in 2019 to 22…"

15:22 — The green revolution of the 1960'a

"Well, you know, in the 1950s and early sixties, there was a lot of shortage of food. In India, for example, there was so much shortage of rice and wheat that India had to import 10 million tons of food grade from United States…"

20:10 — The logistics of getting rice from A-B

"That question of container availability is less of a problem for India relative to its competitors. And this is actually seeing container rates in India. Come down enough to make containerized. A viable alternative to break up. This is actually supported smaller businesses who can move smaller consignments to various markets. And also the type of reach that you have is not just very dependent on BrainPOP…"

31:47 — Climate impact of rice

"The intergovernmental panel on climate change says rice cultivation is an important source of man-made greenhouse gas emissions accounting for 12% of global annual agricultural methane emissions alone…"

32:20 — Climate change

"The issue of how much water to use in rice production may be moot. Thanks to our changing climate causing droughts and water shortages. If there isn’t the same ready availability of water in future farmers will have to think differently about their crops…"

32:40 — Future systems — Verticle faring and food alternarives

"And though fashionable ideas such as vertical farming and alternate sources of food have been touted to make up for the potential deficit. These ideas have yet to be tested and wide practice and come with severe ecological bottlenecks in their own."

Where to find this episode:

Anchor | Spotify | Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts


Rachel Williamson


1. Dorian Fuller — professor of archaeobotany at the UCL. He studies the plant remains preserved on archeological sites discovered during excavations of past human settlements.

2. Dr Gurdev Singh Khush — an agronomist and geneticist who received the 1996 World Food Prize for his achievements in enlarging and improving the global supply of rice.

3. V Subramanian — Vice President, Asia at The Rice Trader, an analyst is the global rice trade.

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