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Introduction to rice farming

The cereal grain we call “rice” is the seed of two different plant species: Oryza sativa, commonly known as Asian rice, and Oryza glaberrima, commonly known as African rice. Of the two species, O. sativa is the most widespread and well-known to people outside of Africa.

Even within Africa nowadays, the Asian variety has largely taken the place of the native O. glaberrima, which doesn’t have such a high yield. It does, however, have the advantage of being more resistant to pests and more tolerant of drought and infertile soil, as these are common conditions in Africa. In recent years, an Asian-African crossbreed (the “New Rice for Africa”) has been developed, with a view to capitalising on the advantages of both varieties for cultivation in African conditions.

China is the world’s top rice producer, followed by India and other Southern, Southeastern and Eastern Asian countries. Rice growing is labour-intensive and requires a lot of water, so it tends to flourish in countries with a combination of low labour costs and high rainfall. At the same time as providing a staple food for many of these countries, the crop is also a source of both national and international trade, and so is intimately bound up with a nation’s financial and political stability.

While Asia is far and away the foremost grower of rice (Asian farmers account for 92% of global rice production), international export and popularity of the crop has seen it spread all over the world, such that in the 21st century it is cultivated in every continent apart from Antarctica.

As The Rice Harvest is concerned with rice-growing in Edo-period Japan, when we speak about rice and rice-growing in these pages we will usually be dealing with the O. sativa species, and with the cultivation of this in Asia.