There is no such thing as forever – even with rice
Rice is as much a grain of sentiment as it is of nourishment. Whole cultures, economies, and industries have been built around rice – from research, to planting, to consumption. Songs about planting rice as well as idyllic paintings of rice farms and farmers have defined a good part of our own art history. Those paintings symbolize our connection with the land – as if the land only had a singular role, and that was to feed humans.
If you are a prolific rice eater as most Asians are, then it's likely that when you go to other places in the world, you would take great pains to make sure rice is part of your diet. A few days without rice on a trip, and you start craving for it. When calamities or political economies cause a rice shortage, populations make their malaise known and palpable to elected officials. It is not an exaggeration to say that when the grain is threatened, we, too, feel threatened in the most basic sense.
Rice has been in the headlines these days – about it costing too much, and government scrambling to find an explanation as to who is to blame. But there is another threat that has not been in the news: rice is being stripped of its nutritional value, no thanks to the air.
A study that came out last May 2018 studied, for the first time, the effect of increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere on the nutrients that rice contains. In other words, climate change is not only causing seasonal disruptions and catastrophes in rice farming, but it is also robbing rice of the nutrients it once had the power to give to those who relied on it for their diets.
Depending on the variety, the study found that too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has significantly reduced protein, vitamins and minerals such as zinc, iron, and also Vitamin B complex in rice. This is because rice, as any plant, always negotiates a balance between what it gets from the air and what it gets from the soil. With too much carbon dioxide in the air, rice has "given in," and the effect is the loss of the nutrients it once flaunted, and which has been the caloric bedrock of many rice-eating populations.
This definitely is affecting the 2 billion people who eat rice as their primary food. But the study also showed that the lower income populations – about 600 million people, including a big portion of our own rice-eating populations – who are not able to shift their diets to make up for the loss in nutrients are at the highest risk of being undernourished or malnourished. Childhood hunger and malnutrition cause stunting, which could spell serious developmental problems. These children would make for adults whose brains would be hard-pressed to cope with the demands of the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution – an era where the physical and the technological merge to create cultures and economies.
The study said that the most obvious solution is to find ways to cultivate varieties that could resist the nutrient-stripping effects of increasing carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere. But this also includes genetic modification, to which the public, in general, are emotionally repulsive. What the public generally do not realize is that the rice they eat has already undergone and continue to undergo genetic modifications in order to offset decreasing yields due to reduction in fertile lands, climate disasters, and infestation.
Agriculture has made us humans so dependent on only a few plants for the bulk of our sustenance. These are mainly 10 crops that feed the world, namely, cassava, maize, plantains, potatoes, rice, sorghum, soybeans, sweet potatoes, wheat, and yams. With the whole of the Kingdom Plantae numbering a recorded 400,000 species, we, the self-proclaimed genius over all other species, just decided that we shall focus on planting and eating only about 200 plant species, with the 10 listed above accounting for most of our caloric intake.
In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Hariri reminded us that we were once a lot more versatile and flexible with our food sourcing and diets as foragers (hunter gatherers), until about 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, when we started to plant. Agriculture most likely started when bands of foragers started bringing fruits to where they would temporarily settle. The seeds would take root in favorite human trails, and eventually, humans noticed that they could grow this intentionally. The downside, Hariri pointed out, is that growing crops in place would be so seductive to species like us who are crazy about new ideas but quite poor, up to now, at foreseeing the consequences down the line.
Agriculture has made us settle, and with that, we invented arrangements that suited it. We gave licensed roles to landlords, tenants, and large agricultural companies. We've grown only a few domesticated animal species, which now outnumber many wild animals. In terms of biomass, farmed poultry, for example, make up 70% of the world's birds, while only 30% are wild birds. It is worse for mammals, where 60% are livestock, 36% are humans, and only 4% are the other wild mammals.
For eons, our textbook history of civilizations taught us that agriculture was our major foil against food scarcity. Now it is our major source of food insecurity. We know and have come to love only a few things to eat from the plant kingdom. Now that they are not delivering on the roles we gave them because of the things we have mixed in the equation, we are blaming only modern-day politics.
We probably should blame modern-day politics, but only after we also blame ourselves for our own miseducation and miscalculation on what role agriculture should play in our nutrition and our economies. Rice has domesticated us, just as the other crops we have depended on have. They have trapped us in our own, well-entrenched political economies, and homey cultural notions of what we need to eat in order to live. This has no basis in biology. We can diversify a lot more when it comes to what we should eat. Now that our lives depend on it, will we learn how to leave home? – Rappler.com
Maria Isabel Garcia is a science writer. She has written two books, "Science Solitaire" and "Twenty One Grams of Spirit and Seven Ounces of Desire." You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.