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Rice: Asia's Staple Food

It's hard to think of a food that matters more — to more people — than rice.

Although it is grown in more than 100 countries, roughly 90 percent of all the rice in the world is consumed in Asia -– much of it in China, India and Vietnam.

The countries that consume the most rice generally produce it themselves. According to the Cambridge World History of Food, less than 5 percent of the world's rice enters the world market.

The crop also plays an important role in many poor countries' economies, employing several hundred million people in rural areas throughout the world.

It's far from a complete source of nutrition. Rod Wing, a professor of agricultural and plant science at the University of Arizona, notes that it lacks many important vitamins and minerals. But as a simple and copious crop, it still shows up in billions of Asians' bowls for every meal of the day.

By some estimates, rice cultivation dates as far back as 10,000 years, when growing techniques are believed to have spread throughout tropical regions of south and southeast Asia.

That history has allowed a special consciousness about this food staple to sink into many Asian societies — and languages. In Japanese, the word for "steamed rice," gohan, is the same as the word "meal."

And in China and Korea, where elders recall times when food was hard to come by, some still greet each other with the question, "Have you had your rice today?"

It was on a country road in the Philippines 10 years ago, that Rod Wing learned just how much rice matters to the people of Asia.

It was not long after harvest time and the fresh grains had been laid out to dry on burlap sacks along the roadside. Wing and his colleagues spied a huge family — 30 relatives strong — tending to the crammed plot of land that held their crops and their small home.

As an agriculture professor, Wing knew that rice was — and had been, for centuries — the main source of nutrition for Asia's rural poor. But as he walked into the family's field, watching them harvest each stalk by hand, he caught a glimpse of rice as culture.

"Basically, they spend their entire life growing rice to eat," he said. "In these really poor countries, that's their job, that's their life's work."

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Saqib Rahim