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Rice


Photograph of rice seed head
U.S. Department of Agriculture

Rice is the most important crop in the world, measured in terms of the number of persons for whom it is the staple.  A subtropical cereal grass, it probably originated in the deltas of either the Tigris and Euphrates, Ganges, or Yangtze river deltas.  It has been cultivated for at least six thousand years, and there are many Asian languages in which the word for rice is synonymous with the word for food.

Rice is traditionally cultivated by plowing, dunging, and smoothing the paddy, which is then flooded.  Rice seedlings raised in special beds are then transplanted into the paddy.  When the harvest is mature, the paddy is drained to make harvesting easier. Rice can also be grown on dry land, but paddy cultivation reduces competition from weeds, creates a suitable environment for growth of nitrogen-fixing blue-green algae, and promotes availability of soil phosphorus.

In spite of its widespread consumption in Asia, rice is not a particular nutritious grain.  It is low in fat and protein compared with other grains, and it contains little gluten, so that rice flour cannot be made into bread unless it is blended with wheat flour.  Polished rice is low in vitamins, but brown rice retains its vitamins and minerals.  In many parts of Asia, rice is traditionally eaten with soybeans, which makes up for many of its nutritional deficiencies. Oddly, Japanese consumption of soybeans was just 8 grams per day (mostly as condiments) and most of the protein in the Japanese diet came from an average consumption of three ounces of fish per capita per day.

The rations consumed by the Japanese Army were based on polished rice and were so poor in thiamine (vitamin B1) that Japanese troops sometimes showed signs of beriberi even in garrison. The Army was aware that this could be prevented by mixing rice with barley, but the mixture was considered too difficult to transport and it was disliked by the troops.

Japan had ceased to be self-sufficient in rice by the time of the Pacific War, in spite of the development of highly productive rice varieties, improved and intensive cultivation, and heavy use of fertilizers. Nitrogen was particularly important, and was provided by ammonium sulfate added to the paddy with limestone to neutralize acidity. Japan had ample ammonia production facilities and ammonium shortages were not significant before 1944. Phosphate was relatively unimportant for rice cultivation, nor was potash very critical. As a result, rice production remained high through most of the war while dry grain production plummeted for lack of phosphate and potash fertilizer.

Much rice was imported from the river deltas of Southeast Asia, particularly the Mekong in French Indochina and the Irrawady in Burma.  Production had dropped from 10,027,474 tonnes in 1942 to 8,783,827 tonnes in 1944. Production shortfalls threatened catastrophe in 1945, an unusually cold and wet growing season that ended with a series of tropical storms in September-October 1945. The government estimated in November that the yield would be only 6,355,000 tonnes.

The Allied blockade of Japan produced severe rice shortages, with a corresponding rise in civilian mortality rates. At one point there were estimates that ten million persons would starve. MacArthur and Truman arranged for some 800,000 tons of food to be shipped to Japan in 1946, which helped prevent widespread famine.

Average annual rice production by area, 1931-1940

Country
 Production
(thousand metric tons)

Net exports
(thousand metric tons
)
China
60,000

Japan
11,415
-1178
Korea
2,283
1178
Formosa
1659
546
Burma
7114
2687
Indochina
3721
1325
Java and Madura
4072
-281a
Malaya
327
-390
Phillipines
2216
-35
Thailand
4546
1551
India
24,160
-2615
Ceylon
306
-518
aTotal figure for Netherlands East Indies


References

Cohen (1949)
Drea (2009)
Frank (1999)

InfoPlease.com (accessed 29 December 2006)

Miller (2007)

The Rice Economy of Asia, Volume I (accessed 2010-9-11)


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