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  • In view of effects of reported climate-change-driven global rice production deficit, said to be the biggest in 20 years, what can people eat instead of rice?
  • There are thousands of varieties of rice, know some of the most common ones.
  • There are a number of alternatives to rice you should know about.
  • Rice "genebank", based in the Philippines, holds more than 132,000 available “accessions” of rice varieties.

A famous Chinese proverb states: "Without rice, even the cleverest housewife cannot cook." For many cultures and populations around the world, rice is a staple food. From Asia to the Americas, rice is consumed in great quantities. Rice is considered a "flexible" food in the kitchen.

More than 100 nations throughout the world use rice as a primary source of calories, nourishing an estimated 3.5 billion people around the world. In certain households, rice is served with additional daily meals.

There are literally thousands of rice varieties, which may have different culinary uses, cooking methods, and flavours. Risotto in Italy, paella in Spain, jambalaya in the southern US, coconut rice in Colombia, steamed rice in China, appam in (Kerala) India, rice and beans in Mexico, sapin-sapin in the Philippines, and sweet rice in Portugal are just a few examples of the country-specific rice dishes.


This starchy, high-calorie, inexpensive grain is a key component of numerous diets. What you get from eating rice: essential nutrients such as carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins, and minerals which help the body function properly. It's estimated that more than half of the world's population takes rice as their primary source of calories.

510 M

global rice production (in metric tonnes, MT) in 2021. Source: Statista

Question: Can people live without rice?

Quick answer: Yes.

And consider the Eskimos — they live off seals, fishes, whales and land animals. Another key source of the Eskimo diet: protein-rich meat of caribou and reindeer.

If they eat predominantly meat, where do they get their carbohydrates supply from?

It turns out nature has pulled off a miracle for the flourishing of Eskimos: eating raw meat indirectly provided them with enough carbohydrates in the form of glycogen (found in the muscles and liver of animals) to meet their necessary nutrient requirements and keep them out of a starvation condition, called “ketosis".

216 M

Total world production of rice in 1961 (in metric tonnes), as per FAO.

Humans don't live on rice — or cereals — alone

Fact: the cultivation of rice/wheat is no more than 10,000 years old. Evidence of modern humans (Homo sapiens) goes as far as 300,000 years back. So it is evident that humanity does not live on rice (or cereals) alone.

In view of the global rice production deficit, said to be the biggest in 20 years, reportedly due to climate change, what can people eat instead of rice?

There area number of options (see below. People from different regions and cultures have diverse diets based on the availability of various crops, grains, vegetables, fruits, meats, and other foods.

510 million: Amount of milled rice in metric tons produced worldwide in 2022.

212 million: Amount of rice in metric tonnes (MT) produced in China in 2021.

92 cents: Retail price of white rice in the US in 2022 — nearly double the price in 2004.

Top producers: In 2021, China was the world’s leading paddy rice producer, followed by India and Bangladesh.

Top 3 major rice exporters: India, Vietnam, and Thailand. India exported 18.75 million MT as of 2021/2022. Vietnam exported about 6.5 million MT of rice worldwide in that period.

Top rice importers: Philippines and China.

Rice consumption: Total global consumption of milled rice amounted to 510.3 million metric tons in 2021/2022.

Top rice consumers: China consumed almost 155 million metric tons of milled rice per in 2021/22, making it the world’s leading rice consumer. India is ranked second with 103.5 million metric tons of rice consumption in the same period.

US rice production: The US is a leading global rice producer, with rice production value amounted to just over $ 3 billion in 2021 (leading in rice production were Arkansas, California, and Louisiana).

The US was also ranked among the leading five rice exporters worldwide, primarily shipping this commodity to Mexico, Haiti, and Japan.

Source: Statista

Benefits of rice

Billions of people consider rice as a staple food. Countries like China, India, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Vietnam, and several other Southeast Asian nations have a long history of rice cultivation and consumption. Here's a rice (and potato) consumption map of the world.

Rice map
In these regions, rice often forms the foundation of most meals and provides a substantial portion of daily calorie intake.

Where rice is not the staple food

Many traditional diets in different parts of the world do not heavily rely on rice. People in Western countries, for example, often consume wheat-based products like bread and pasta as their main sources of carbohydrates.

In African countries, maize (corn) is a staple food, while in South America, people rely on potatoes and quinoa.

However, a number of South American nations also have high per-capita rice consumption. Interestingly, in South America, rice consumption increases as one goes further north.

Even more remarkable — it doesn’t necessarily mean that the countries that consume less rice, consume more potatoes. Data from FAO/Landgeist show that potato consumption in South America is quite high in most countries.

The southern part of South America is where the lowest numbers of rice consumption can be found: Paraguay has the lowest consumption (4.5 kg), followed by Argentina (11.8 kg) and Chile (13.3 kg). While these numbers are the lowest in South America, they are still higher than most of Europe, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) data.

[The data includes any product made of rice, including rice noodles, sake, rice starch, rice flour, and other products made of rice. The amount of rice in the dataset concerns the raw (uncooked) weight.]

DID YOU KNOW? Number of rice varieties
• There are thousands of known varieties of rice cultivated and consumed worldwide, each with its own unique characteristics, flavours, and uses.

• In the Philippines alone, there are about 300 rice varieties, according to the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), based in Laguna, about an hour by car south of the capital Manila.

• The exact number of rice varieties is challenging to determine precisely, as it continues to change due to ongoing agricultural practices and the discovery of new rice strains.

To categorise them broadly, rice can be classified into three main types based on grain length:

* Long-Grain Rice: This variety of rice features long, slender grains. Jasmine and Basmati rice are two examples. After cooking, long-grain rice frequently stays fluffy and separate.

• Medium-Grain Rice: Compared to long-grain rice, medium-grain rice has grains that are shorter and wider. When cooked, it usually becomes more soft and sticky. This group includes varieties including Calrose and Arborio.

• Short-Grain Rice: Short-grain rice has round and plump grains. It is the stickiest type of rice after cooking. Japonica (“sushi” or shari rice) is a well-known example of short-grain rice.

Apart from these basic classifications, there are countless regional and traditional rice varieties that are cultivated in specific parts of the world.

Some of these regional varieties have unique characteristics, flavours, and cultural significance. Some well-known regional rice varieties include:

  • Thai Jasmine rice
  • Indian Basmati rice
  • Italian Arborio rice
  • Spanish Valencia rice
  • Japanese Koshihikari rice
  • Chinese Black rice
  • Bhutanese Red rice
  • American Carolina Gold rice
The International Rice Genebank, maintained by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines, holds more than 132,000 available “accessions” (as of December 2019).

The genebank is the biggest collection of rice genetic diversity in the world.

These include cultivated species of rice, wild relatives and species from related genera.

Countries from all over the world send their rice to IRRI for safe keeping, and for sharing for the common public good.

It’s one reality that traditional varieties and the wild species of rice are being lost through what scientists call “genetic erosion”. Farmers adopt new varieties, and cease growing the varieties that they have nurtured for generations and eventually lose these varieties.

Moreover, wild species are threatened with extinction as their habitats are destroyed by human disturbance.

Future crop improvement needs the genetic variation from traditional varieties and related wild species to cope with the many biotic and abiotic stresses that challenge rice production around the world.

IRRI works to ensure the long-term preservation of rice biodiversity as part of the global strategy for the conservation of rice genetic resources. This is in partnership with national programs and regional and international organizations worldwide, including the CGIAR Research Program for Managing and Sustaining Crop Collections.

What are the key benefits of eating rice?

Eating rice can offer several key benefits, depending on the type of rice and how it is prepared. Here are some of the main advantages of including rice in your diet:

Source of energy: Rice is a significant source of carbohydrates, which provide energy to the body. It is especially important for those who lead an active lifestyle or engage in physical activities regularly.

Nutrient dense: Depending on the type of rice, it can contain essential nutrients such as vitamins (B vitamins), minerals (magnesium, phosphorus), and dietary fiber.

Gluten-Free Option: Rice is naturally gluten-free, making it a suitable choice for individuals with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity.

Digestive health: Dietary fiber, in especially the kind found in brown rice, can help with digestion and ward against constipation. It is also said to be a good choice for people with sensitive stomachs or digestive problems.

Weight Management: Rice, especially the low-glycaemic index rice variety, can be helpful for persons trying to maintain their weight because it is a low-fat and comparatively low-calorie diet.

Cultural significance: Rice is a staple food in many cultures, providing a sense of identity and tradition to the communities that consume it regularly.

Versatility: Rice is a versatile component in the kitchen because it can be prepared in a variety of ways and used to a wide variety of recipes. 

Affordability: Rice is often a cost-effective food option, accessible to a broad range of individuals.

Glucose regulation: Low glycemic index (GI) rice , due to its fiber content, may help regulate blood sugar levels and reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes.

First person: I eat rice with rice
To mark special occasions, the family I grew up in usually keeps what is called a "diabetes corner” — where sweets are kept. Most of them are rice-based. That is carb (rice) over carb (sugar, a sweet carbohydrate).

Examples: "suman lehiya” (a rice-based dish, usually taken with sweet coconut cream), “pansit" (noodles, made of what flour or rice flour), and "kakanin" (native delicacies | snacks) like "sapin-sapin" (layered glutinous rice and coconut dessert in Philippine cuisine).

We also invariably have “linukay", “puto" (rice cake), kutchinta (a sort of mochi) and “nilupak" (traditional delicacy made from mashed or pounded starchy foods mixed with coconut milk and sugar.)

Sapin-sapin, which literally means “layered", is interesting. The layers come in different colours, but it's made from same main ingredient, glutinous rice. After it's turned into flour, some coconut milk, sugar, water, flavouring are aded.

It is usually sprinkled with “latik" — toasted desiccated coconut flakes.

This is apart from the freshly-cooked regular rice sitting in the rice-cooker, which we eat with the viand on the main dinner table.

These are, to be sure, super-loaded ingredients for a perfect carb overload.

Can wheat be a substitute for rice?

Yes, wheat can be a good substitute for rice in many dishes, depending on the culinary context and personal preferences. Wheat offers different textures and flavours compared to rice, but it can be a versatile and nutritious alternative.

Besides wheat, there are many alternative grains and starchy foods that can provide the necessary carbohydrates — corn, oats, quinoa, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and more.  

History of rice cultivation
Rice comes from the seed of the grass “Oryza sativ`a”, sometimes known as O. glaberrima.

Although the phrase "wild rice" may sometimes be used to refer to wild or domesticated forms of Oryza, it is most frequently used to refer to species of the genera Zizania and Porteresia.

Early rice farming has been documented in a wide range of cultures, including Southeast Asian, Chinese, and Indian civilizations. The earliest archaeological evidence, which dates to about 7,000 and 5,000 bce, comes from central and eastern China.

Some rice substitutes include couscous, bulgur, quinoa, barley, cauliflower rice:, riced broccoli, potatos, wheat berries.

Rice alternatives
Image Credit: Gulf News | Jay Hilotin | Sources: USDA | Wikipedia

Moderation, balanced diet 

The World Health Organisation (WHO) states that whatever you consider as your stabple food, the trick is to eat a diet that is balanced.

Moreover, the WHO warned the intake of reducing sodium, sugar, saturated fats, and trans fats from industrial production are crucial components of a healthy diet.

A balanced diet is made up of a variety of foods, such as staples like grains (wheat, barley, rye, maize, or rice), starchy tubers or roots (potato, yam, taro, or cassava), legumes (lentils and beans), fruit and vegetables, and meals derived from animals (meat, fish, eggs, and milk).

Moreover, portion control is important. Excessive consumption of rice or any other food can lead to imbalances in the diet.

The key is moderation. A balanced diet, and a good amount of exercise, is necessary for optimum health and nutrition.