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Rice gets a distinct flavor
By Raja Murthy
MUMBAI - Rice, a staple food for more than half the world's population of 6.5 billion, is heading for a record 476 million tonnes production in 2011, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has declared.
Rice production will increase by 2.5% to an additional 713 million tones of paddy production this year, the FAO said on June 24, even as the 2010 Global Hunger Index categorized as "serious" the extent of misery of the world's hungry and malnourished, particularly in South Asia and Africa.
While the FAO forecast a similar 2.5% increase in rice production for Asia, mostly in China and India, the Philippines-based International Rice Research Institute estimates that the world needs another nine million tonnes annually to make rice more
easily affordable to millions of people.
The hard realities of staple supplies and affordability aside, in Asia rice often goes beyond being a basic food and root of economies. It forms an historical part of culture, religious festivals, diplomacy and politics. The grain is also frequent subject of scientific discussion on the genetic and Asian origin of one of the world's most important food crops.
A research paper published in the journal of the US National Academy of Sciences on May 17 adds to the debate, with claims to have conclusively demonstrated rice's origins as a crop, declaring that domesticated rice first appeared about 9,000 years ago in the Yangtze River Valley of China. In doing so, it has overturned widely accepted knowledge that rice was originally cultivated both in China and India.
Two leading American scientists, Barbara Schaal of the Washington University in St Louis and Michael Purugganan of New York University, led the study titled "Molecular evidence for a single evolutionary origin of domesticated rice". Their date of origin of rice in China tallies with archaeological studies a decade old. Archaeologists discovered that the domestication of rice in the Yangtze Valley began about 8,000 to 9,000 years ago, while rice was cultivated in India's Ganges River delta around 4,000 years ago.
The rice origin study was from a diverse team of 12 scientists  , including from New York University's Center for Genomics and Systems Biology and Stanford University's Department of Genetics.
"One of the reasons we had such a large team is that modern genomic work requires several different types of expertise, such as genomic sequencing, bioinformatics, knowledge of rice," explained Professor Schaal, a member of US President Barack Obama's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. "Different members of the team brought in different backgrounds."
Schaal said in an e-mail interview with Asia Times Online that their rice origin study has significance for basic science - anthropology, genetics, crop science - since it deals with understanding the history of one of the four most important crops for feeding humans.
Over a billion people, more than one-fifth of humanity, cultivate rice as their livelihood. Asia, where about 90% of rice is grown, has over 200 million rice farms, most of which are smaller than one hectare and subject to annual uncertainties of rainfall and periodic controversies over fertilizer and insecticide use.
"The rice origin study also pinpoints areas where genetic diversity, or possible traits for rice crop improvement, have already be collected and studied, and where there are areas that might contain new traits ," Professor Schaal said.
Professor Schaal, presently a Mary-Dell Chilton Distinguished Professor at the Washington University, says the research unraveled what she termed a "complicated evolutionary history of rice" with human migration throughout Asia. "This work begins to reveal the genetic consequences of that movement."
Asian rice, Oryza sativa, is one of world's oldest crop species. There are thousands of varieties. The International Rice Genebank, the world's largest collection of rice diversity, contains more than 112,000 types of rice. Two species of rice are important food species: Oryza sativa, that is grown worldwide, and Oryza glaberrima, grown in West Africa.
"Humans groups have migrated throughout Asia during the last 10,000 years, moving their rice varieties with them," says Professor Schaal. "These varieties then probably crossed with local varieties and with the wild rice growing in the area. Also, seeds were probably moved by traders as well. All of this makes unraveling the history of rice challenging."
The rice origin study gives a new twist to ancestry of Asian cuisine, with now hundreds of popular rice dishes like pulao (gently fried rice with spiced vegetables), khichdi (rice stew with lentils, vegetables and spices) and Professor Schaal's favorite rice dish, lemang (sticky rice cooked with coconut milk) all owing their root origins to the Yangtze River Valley in China.
News of rice having Chinese origins will devastate some narrow-minded sectarian groups in India who ardently abstain from products or food they deem as videshi, or of foreign origin. They avoid coffee and tea like poison, for instance, because of the "foreign" origins, as well as perceived caffeine capacity of coffee and tea to stimulate certain troublesome carnal desires.
Now, having to give up their daily rice would be a bit of a distressing and entirely different cup of tea - and a lesson in being more careful deciding what to keep in or out of one's life.
On the other hand, discovery of Yangtze origins of rice would thrill some innovative vendors of bhel puri, the signature snack of Mumbai that is hugely popular across India. This street side dish for the gods has bhel, or puffed white rice, in a heady mix with fried lentils, nuts, diced potato, tomato, green chilli, green mango and coconut, splashed with spicy chutneys and served in a paper cone or plate. A "Chinese" bhel puri has been recently appeared with fiery noodles added to the exhilarating mix. Its innovators can now smugly say amid laughing their way to the bank: "We told you so."
Rice is often part of politics and diplomacy in India, with free or highly subsidized rice being almost standard pre-election sops in southern India. The Indian government pays due respect to value of rice in nice neighborly relations. On June 21, External Affairs Minister S M Krishna inaugurated 10 modern cyclone-proof rice silos in Yangon, Myanmar, the 5,000 tonne rice storage built with a $2 million gift from India. The need for a large rice stock buffer was felt in Myanmar after the devastating Cyclone Nargis in May 2008.
On June 25, China celebrated its new-found status as the world's rice origin by establishing a national laboratory for a super rice grain. The new research facility in Changsha, capital of the central Hunan province, aims to cultivate a hybrid rice species to yield an astounding 15 tonnes per hectare, well over double the yield of traditional rice varieties.
China, the world's largest rice producer, has over 1.3 billion hectares in rice cultivation. The Hunan Hybrid Rice Research Center and Wuhan University are supporting the project.
Led by top hybrid grain scientists Yuan Longping, Zhu Yingguo and Xie Hua'an, the research effort will also try to use innovative molecular biology to have the super rice grown in other parts of the world. If they are successful, the United Nations Millennium Goal of ending extreme hunger by 2015 would be closer to reality, with much thanks to China.
 The "Molecular evidence for a single evolutionary origin of domesticated rice" study was conducted by researchers from New York University's Center for Genomics and Systems Biology and its Department of Biology, Washington University in St Louis' Department of Biology, Stanford University's Department of Genetics, and Purdue University's Department of Agronomy. Study co-authors are Jeanmaire Molina, Martin Sikora, Nandita Garud, Jonathan M Flowers, Samara Rubinstein, Andy Reynolds, Pu Huang, Scott Jackson, Barbara A Schaal, Carlos D Bustamante, Adam R Boyko and Michael D Purugganan.