All about rice

“Rice is the one thing that truly defines Asia,” said Dr. Ronald Cantrell when he was still the Director-General of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI).

Cantrell said that rice is the one thing shared by all from Pakistan to North Korea to Papua New Guinea and Indonesia. “Asia has no common political systems, no common religions, no common philosophies and no shared social values—however, each and every day most Asians join in together to eat rice.”

Despite rising per capita income that had led to a more diversified diet in neighboring Asian countries, rice remains the staple food of Filipinos. Studies have shown that for every peso spent on food by a Filipino family, 20 centavos go to rice.

“If we did not have rice, our deepest comfort food, we would probably feel less Filipino,” the late food columnist Doreen Fernandez once said.

From 1980s to 1990s, a Filipino consumed an average of 92 kilograms of rice. The consumption went up to 111 kilograms from 2008 to 2009. From 2009 to 2010, it even increased to 119 kilograms.

“One more rice, please.” That call, which rings at dining time in almost all restaurants and kitchenettes all over the country, sums up the eating habits of the typical Filipino to whom eating is a matter of filling up. Since most people can’t fill up with “ulam” (viand), they fill up with rice.

A study conducted by the World Bank showed that 83% of the respondents consumed rice three or more times a day; 16%, twice; and only 1% said once.

The “thrice plus” frequency of rice consumption was highest among the poor although it is also common among the middle income (81%) and among the rich (79%).  The rest ate twice a day and nobody, even among the once-a-day rice consumers said, “seldom or never.”


Indeed, Philippine history is lacking if rice is not included in its annals.

“The history of rice cultivation in the country dates back at least 3,000 years,” wrote the late Dr. Gelia T. Castillo, an academician and National Scientist of the Philippines.

It was in 1576 that an account of rice cultivation was recorded.

The Ifugao Rice Terraces, described as “the stairway to heaven,” is a living monument to the ingenuity of tribal Filipino farmers who have tilled the steep slopes for over 2,000 years.

Although terraced agricultural fields are common in Asia, the one in the Philippines is the most extensive.  If stretched end to end in a line, it is reported to measure 48,280.4 kilometers–that’s about 10 times longer than the Great Wall of China or about half the earth’s circumference.

Recently, rice hogged the headlines because the National Food Authority (NFA) reportedly was running out of buffer stock.  “The poorest of the poor depend on NFA rice,” said Jaime O. Magbanua, the president of the Grain Retailers’ Confederation of the Philippines, Inc. (Grecon).

Because of this, the Grecon urged the government to approve the proposal of the NFA Council to import 250,000 metric tons of rice to boost its buffer stock.  At that time, the NFA had only a total inventory of 1.2 million 50-kilogram bags, equivalent to two days of the country’s total rice consumption.

But Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel F. Piñol debunked the claim. “Sobra-sobra ang ating bigas ngayon [We currently have an oversupply of rice],” he said in a radio interview.  In fact, by the end of the first quarter of the year, there will be an additional surplus of 3 million metric tons of rice after the current harvest season.


A rural sociologist, known and respected locally and abroad, the late Gelia T. Castillo had devoted years of her life to the study of rice.

She said that the story of rice in the Philippines is one of recurring shortages.

“To illustrate this dramatically, a news item dated March 10, 1872 had the caption ‘Rice Shortage Feared.’  At about the same date, but a century later, March 11, 1972, the headline of a news item was ‘Government Certified Rice Shortage’ and a total importation of 500,000 metric tons from Thailand was contracted,” Castillo wrote.

Rice self-sufficiency is regarded as a matter of national security.  Once it is achieved, it is a matter of celebration, but when it is on the contrary, it is a matter of shame and blame.

“Rice self-sufficiency has positive political value, just as a rice shortage, with delayed importation and an increase in rice prices, can bring political misfortune,” Castillo noted.

There are several reasons why the Philippines can never be rice sufficient.  Among those cited in the past were the following: reindeer pest infestation (which killed carabaos needed to cultivate rice fields); pests (including locusts) and diseases of rice plants; political instability; peace and order problems in rice growing areas; poor support for agricultural research and extension; frequent changes in rice production programs; weak governance; inappropriate institutional structures; intensified politicization of the bureaucracy; discontinuities in program leadership; underfunded rice programs; and yield gaps between experimental farms and farmers’ field.

In recent years, the reasons cited for the country’s inability to be rice self-sufficient are as follows: dry spell caused by El Niño phenomenon; poorly organized farmers; unfavorable rice price policy; degradation of irrigation infrastructure; prime land conversion from rice to urban uses; limited access to credit; inadequate farmer training; low adopt of technologies; underdeveloped farm-to-market roads and transport systems; devolution of function from the Department of Agriculture to local government units; increased rice consumption; rampant smuggling of cheap rice into the country; and lack of political will.

“Rice has become more expensive in the Philippines than in other East Asian countries, owing principally to the government’s ill-advised self-sufficiency objective,” noted a position paper, entitled “The rice problem in the Philippines: Trends, constraints and policy imperatives.”


Rice is originally not from the Philippines, although it is the staple food of Filipinos. Until now, it is being debated where rice originally comes from.

D.H. Grist, in his book, Rice, pointed this out: “We do not know the country of origin of rice, but the weight of evidence points out to the conclusion that the center of origin of rice is southeast Asia, particularly India and Indo-China, where the richest diversity of cultivated forms has been recorded.”

Cultivation of rice, however, dates to the earliest age of man. “Carbonized paddy grains and husks, estimated to date 1000 to 800 B.C. have been found in excavations at Hastinapur in Uttar Pradesh, India.

Specimens of rice have been discovered in China dating from the third millennium B.C. and the Chinese term for rice appears in inscription dating from the second millennium B.C.”

Perhaps not too many know that there are four major kinds of rice culture: rainfed paddy, upland rice, deep-water rice and irrigated lowland rice.

In the Philippines, much of the country’s irrigated rice is grown on the central plain of Luzon, the country’s rice bowl.  Other major rice-producing regions are located in Mindanao (23%), Central Luzon (16%), Western Visayas (13%), Southern Tagalog (10%) and Ilocos (9%).

The rest of rice comes mainly from various coastal lowland areas and gently rolling erosional plains, such as in Mindanao and Iloilo.

Rainfed rice is found in the Cagayan Valley, in Iloilo province, and on the coastal plains of Visayas and Ilocos region.  Upland rice is grown in both permanent and shifting cultivation systems scattered throughout the archipelago on rolling to steep lands.

“Rice is the staple food of Filipinos in most parts of the country, although corn also contributes 20% or more of caloric intake from cereals in parts of Visayas and Mindanao,” said “Rice Almanac: Source Book for the Most Important Economic Activity on Earth.” “For the country as a whole, rice accounts for 41% of total caloric intake and 31% of total protein intake.”

Nutritionists claim rice contains carbohydrates, protein, minerals, vitamins, and fiber. Most of the white rice available in the supermarket is enriched, which means it is supplemented with iron, niacin, and thiamine. But most of these added nutrients are lost if rice is washed before cooking or drained afterward.

Brown rice, with its healthful bran layers, contains all these nutrients naturally, plus fiber, oil and vitamin E. It is also low in sodium and fat, with no cholesterol.

Among Filipinos, a meal is not a meal without rice.  And it’s not only a pro-poor phenomenon.  A report from the advertising agency entitled, “Please, Pass the Rice,” has found that, despite the “burger culture” of the non-poor and the proliferation of fast-food outlets, “most Filipinos still consider a meal incomplete without rice.” G



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