This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode Rice, Rice Baby, first released on December 5, 2023. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.
RAPPER: Yo Maître d’—let’s cook it. Rice rice, baby. Rice rice, baby. Alright stop…
TWILLEY: Alright, stop, earbuds in and listen. Gastropod is back with a brand new edition!
GRABER: Nicky, I think that’s about as far as you can go with this one.
TWILLEY: We’re doing this whole episode in Vanilla Ice lyrics, right?
GRABER: I’m trying to figure out a nice way to say no. Or you know, NO. But rice? Sure.
TWILLEY: Rice, rice baby it is. This episode is all about it. You’re listening to Gastropod—I know, you thought this was Vanilla Ice, but no—I’m actually Nicola Twilley.
GRABER: And I’m Cynthia Graber. And we’re the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history—not a white guy rapper named Robert Matthew Van Winkle. Which is the real name of Vanilla Ice.
TWILLEY: I don’t know which is cooler. Actually, I do: it’s rice. Rice is boss—it’s the main food source for more than half of the world. And this episode, we’re telling its story.
GRABER: Rice has shaped communities and cultures throughout the world and led to the creation of empires.
TWILLEY: It’s tied to some of the lowest lows in history—slavery in the American south, for starters—but this episode, we’re talking to the pioneers who are using rice to build a better future in the South, and around the world.
GRABER: Speaking of building a better future, last episode, we talked to you about how much we rely on listener support to make the show. But what we didn’t say is that right now, your support is even more essential than usual.
TWILLEY: That’s because companies aren’t advertising as much these days. You might have noticed that some of your favorite podcasts have been canceled, even some from really big name places like NPR. And even ones that haven’t been canceled outright, a lot have had to lay off staff.
GRABER: We are a tiny team, it’s just me, Nicky, and our amazing part-time producer Claudia—so we don’t have any fat to trim. Which is why we’re asking for your help to fill this gap. Any amount you can give will help us keep making the show.
TWILLEY: If you can afford a dollar a month or a dollar an episode, that’s not a lot for something that you enjoy, something that might change how you think or live, something that you tell your friends about. Any amount will help.
GRABER: If you’ve supported us in the past and you haven’t given in a while, now is really the moment! It’s easy to do, just go to Gastropod dot com slash support with your credit card in hand or find us on Patreon, whichever is easier for you. And thank you—we love making this show for you and we want to keep doing it!
TWILLEY: This episode is supported in part by the Alfred P Sloan Foundation for the Public Understanding of Science, Technology, and Economics. Gastropod is part of the Vox Media Podcast Network, in partnership with Eater.
TWILLEY: So just in case we have any aliens listening to the show: first of all, hi, send us some photos that we can sell to the National Enquirer, and also, you might be wondering, what is rice?
LISA HAMILTON: You know, you can say that it is a cereal grain from the grass family that’s been grown by humans for 8,000 years or more. You could also say that it’s little white, pellet looking food that’s grown from plants. You could say it’s the world’s most important food.
SHARON ZHANG: It is the staple food for more than half of the global population. For many people it is hard to imagine, a life without rice. And a world without say, sushi, or risotto or, just a simply just a bowl of steamed rice. So it’s aN essential part of many people’s life.
GRABER: These are two of our rice experts this episode: Lisa Hamilton is a journalist and the author of a truly fantastic new book called The Hungry Season: A Journey of War, Love, and Survival, and though it doesn’t sound like it, the book is actually also about rice.
TWILLEY: And the second voice you heard, that’s Sharon Zhang. She’s a botanist at Savannah State University and the author of a memoir that is also about rice. It’s called The Story of Rice.
GRABER: In America, rice is not uncommon on the dinner table, but it’s not central to a meal. But Lisa says globally it’s not just a staple food—
HAMILTON: For farmers it is also the most important crop. It’s grown by more farmers than any other crop on earth. Rice covers 11% of the earth’s arable land, and for better and for worse, it consumes one third of the world’s irrigation water.
TWILLEY: Hold that thought, because water is going to be a central character in the stories we’re telling this episode. Rice can grow in water, which is kind of its super power.
HAMILTON: There are numerous pieces of its biology that made it incredibly adaptable but, maybe the most important one is that it began as an aquatic plant. And so it’s equipped in its roots with air passages that allow it to breathe in soil where a lot of other grains would suffocate. So rice can grow in standing water, heavy, muddy, waterlogged soil. Maize or wheat would suffocate because it wouldn’t be able to get air. Rice thrives.
GRABER: So that’s helpful, it can grow in a wet area where other grain crops would die. But there are other benefits to being ankle-deep in water. The main reason to grow rice in water is that a bunch of the weeds that would compete with rice can’t grow in water.
TWILLEY: Weeds are a bigger problem for rice than any other pest or disease. Even today, small holder farmers expect to lose between a quarter to half of their potential harvest to weeds—they take sunlight, water, and nutrients away from the precious rice. So drowning some of those weeds makes sense. But once you’ve flooded the paddy, you have another potential benefit: anything that likes water can be raised alongside your rice. Fish, crabs, crawfish, even ducks.
ZHANG: The ducks can eat weeds and also pests like snails, insects in a paddy. So farmers, they don’t have to put too much insecticides or pesticides or even herbicides in the paddy. And also the duck’s poop can help enrich the soil.
GRABER: Duck and rice—sounds like a great dinner to me! But wait, there’s more. Microbes! Drink!
HAMILTON: You have what’s, what’s sort of called rice’s microbiome, that enables the plants and the soil together to fix nitrogen from the air. And what that means is that the soil can regenerate its own productivity.
TWILLEY: If you’ve listened to Gastropod at all, you know that fertilizer and restoring soil fertility is a big deal and has always been a big deal for wheat and corn—to grow those crops successfully, farmers have to do rotations and add manure or nowadays, petrochemicals.
HAMILTON: Rice doesn’t need that. Rice can be grown continually for you know, in theory for hundreds, thousands of years. And in some place it, it has. That has made it so that a society needed, ultimately, less room to grow their food. Because they didn’t have to rotate the crops around.
GRABER: Rice was domesticated more than 9,000 years ago in China and it spread throughout the region. And that has to do with water, too.
HAMILTON: Particularly in Southeast Asia, but also in East Asia, flat land is at a premium. If you look at the, you know, a topographic map from Shanghai south, you’re contending with mountains. It’s not flat like Iowa. And so rice offered this, sort of, perfect tool for states to grow in those places because you didn’t need as much land. You just needed water. But water was never… never an issue because you’re in monsoon Asia.
GRABER: The point is that China didn’t have a lot of flat, arable land, but rice produced a lot of food on the arable land they did have. The Chinese could maximize.
TWILLEY: The landscape—mountainous, but with plentiful water—shaped what grew, and then what grew shaped how people lived. For one thing, Sharon says that rice basically required the invention of pottery.
GRABER: In China, people had to cook whole grains of rice. That’s because rice doesn’t have gluten—unlike wheat. With wheat, you can turn it into flour, and then you knead it, it becomes a stretchy dough, and so you can just put it out on a rock and heat the rock and the dough will turn into flat bread.
TWILLEY: Rice flour doesn’t do that, so early rice eaters in China had to cook it as a whole grain.
GRABER: And Sharon says that’s why pottery was invented in China about 9,000 years before it was invented in the Middle East. The oldest pottery in China is from about 20,000 years ago. It’s far and away the oldest in the world, and the theory is that it’s because of rice.
TWILLEY: It’s easy to forget this today, but the invention of pottery was a huge deal historically—it’s not the wheel, sure, but pottery allowed early humans to collect and store water, and also store and ferment grains and veggies to make alcohol and pickles.
GRABER: And of course to cook rice in. And then rice, once it was domesticated and people settled down to farm it, it also shaped the community that grew it.
HAMILTON: If you are growing a rice paddy, even a small rice paddy, it’s producing a lot of food relative to the space that it takes up. But it also requires an incredible amount of work and infrastructure.
GRABER: That’s because for rice, you have to have not only a system to plant and harvest the grain, but also to control when water flows and for how long. You have to have a really complex system of irrigation and water management, and that literally took a village.
TWILLEY: That combination—the fact that rice is so productive but also requires an organized group of people to grow it—Lisa says that combination became a feedback loop that ended up structuring society.
GRABER: There’s a well accepted theory that because rice is so communal to grow—you can’t have your own rice paddy and live solo off the land—that this is what created more communal and cooperative types of cultures, like in China. Scientists say you can still see signs of this rice-based cooperation in rice-based cultures today.
TWILLEY: This early start on the centralized bureaucracy of rice had political effects too. What happens with rice is that your small but organized group of people is able to grow even more food, so more kids survive to become workers and you have a larger organized group, which can grow even more food, and so on, and before you know it …
HAMILTON: This itself is the foundation of states. Going from smaller groups of people to organized centrally controlled states. Food is the linchpin. And rice was the sort of the ultimate both thing to feed the growing population and the thing that necessitated that organized population.
GRABER: And so for much of China, rice became absolutely central.
ZHANG: Yeah. All Chinese eat rice. But especially for southerners, they eat rice daily.
TWILLEY: Sharon told us that rice is embedded in Chinese language.
ZHANG: The character for rice, it is called a mi. It’s really evolved from its ancient form. It’s really a picture of six rice grains attached to the stalk.
GRABER: And then that character is the basis for a lot of other words. For instance, if you add on to the rice character, it becomes the character for staple food.
ZHANG: Another character is farmland. It’s called a tien, it’s, a tien is a image of rice paddy.
TWILLEY: And that character in turn is the basis for the character that represents the unit you use to measure farmland—the Chinese equivalent of an acre or a hectare.
GRABER: And all sorts of idioms in China revolve around the importance of rice.
ZHANG: For example, one phrase called the iron rice bowl. That is a metaphor for job security. Because, a rice bowl made of iron is unbreakable. So that guarantees to bring the food to the table and to your mouth.
TWILLEY: Sharon told us that instead of saying what’s done is done, Chinese people say, the raw rice is now cooked. Instead of saying that fertile land is flowing with milk and honey, in China it would be a land of rice and fish. Instead of saying, how are you? When you meet someone, you can say, have you eaten rice? If the answer is yes, then they’re good. And wasting rice—that is a cardinal sin.
ZHANG: When I was a little girl, probably like four or five years old. My mom told me, don’t leave any grain in your rice bowl because that will turn into a pock mark on my face. So of course I was young. I believe that. [LAUGHS] And so that’s the lie told by almost every parent to their children in China.
GRABER: The Chinese aren’t the only ones who put rice at the heart of their societies and their language. Cultivated rice spread out from China around the region, and it became central in nearly every other country in Asia, too. Japan only started cultivating rice a couple thousand years ago, much later than in China, but it became so important there that rice literally served as currency.
BARAK KUSHNER: So rice is considered wealth in pre-Meiji Japan. And each fief, its wealth is counted in kokuho, or kind of barrels of rice. And that is how wealthy individuals count and establish their wealth is on the amount of rice that they produce.
TWILLEY: You might remember Barak Kushner from our ramen episode earlier this year. He’s a professor of East Asian history at Cambridge University, and he told us that rice is just as central in Japan as it is in China.
GRABER: When rice served as Japanese currency, lower classes paid their taxes to the local lords in rice. The value of land was assessed in rice. Samurais’ salaries were paid in rice.
TWILLEY: And like in China, Japanese children are also lied to by their parents—they’re told that if they leave a grain of rice, evil spirits will come and steal their belly button.
KUSHNER: And you do hear, even now, you know, kind of Japanese saying, oh, I’m not full until the end of the meal until I have my, my rice.
TWILLEY: That said, Barak told us that for many Japanese, for much of the country’s history, rice was often aspirational—the poor frequently had to make do with so-called lesser grains like buckwheat and millet, even if they wanted to be eating rice.
GRABER: Lisa says that story is true for the rice culture she’s spent the most time studying, the Hmong.
HAMILTON: Rice has always been the central food of the Hmong. But at times that has meant simply the food to which the Hmong aspire.
GRABER: The Hmong are a people who’ve traditionally lived in the mountainous regions of Southeast Asia, in Thailand, Vietnam, Laos. Lisa’s book tells the story of one particular Hmong woman, from her childhood in Laos, through the impact of the Vietnam war in the region, all the way to her rice farm in the US. Again, it’s called the Hungry Season—we can’t tell that whole story here, it’s the kind of thing you have to read.
TWILLEY: But rice *is* at the heart of Lisa’s book, because rice is at the heart of Hmong life.
HAMILTON: And it’s eaten with everything, but not not in the way that [LAUGHS] a lot of Americans sort of pile a bunch of curry or stir fry on top of a pile of rice. Rice is a dish unto itself.
GRABER: Lisa told us about a particular dish that is made for the Hmong New Year in November, which also was the time of the rice harvest.
HAMILTON: People would take some of the rice, a little bit green still, and toast it over a fire to make it palatable. And before eating any themselves, they would serve a ceremonial plate to the ancestors, ask for their blessing for the coming year and for the harvest that’s about to begin.
TWILLEY: Lisa’s description of this dish made me want to be Hmong ancestor.
HAMILTON: It’s a sort of buttered popcorn meets, like, caramel apple kind of smell. It’s really special and memorable.
GRABER: It sounds delicious. But it’s not just that rice can taste so different if you toast its green grains—as rice moved from region to region around the world, people developed different tasting and looking new varieties.
HAMILTON: It can be red, yellow, purple, deep black. And yeah, it can be sticky, it can be non-sticky, it can be—the grains can be short and fat. They can be long and thin. In the case of basmati and other rices like it, you can have grains that when they’re cooked, they split apart and curl. And when you combine all these different factors and start changing, you know, having purple sticky rice instead of just white sticky rice, it’s, it feels like the combinations are endless.
TWILLEY: Especially if you include all the varieties that have disappeared over time, it’s not infinite, but it’s definitely uncountable. The main rice gene bank for the world holds 120,000 different varieties of rice today. But Lisa told us that in India, where rice may have been separately domesticated—that’s something scientists are still debating—there were likely more varieties of rice grown there, in the past, than there are in the world genebank today.
HAMILTON: So we’ll never know how many varieties of rice there have been over time. But just as a starting place to think of 120,000, that alone is—it’s sort of mind boggling [LAUGHS] to wrap your head around.
GRABER: And as rice traveled around the world and people developed all those new kinds, they selected for different traits and built entirely new dishes around those new kinds of rice. Rice got to Italy and it thrived in the valley of the Po River. And in Spain it was planted in the delta of the Ebro River. And those local varieties of rice became the basis of risotto and paella.
TWILLEY: Lisa told us that people who live in the wheat and corn cultures of the world, like the US—we’re often a little rice blind. We’re not aware of all of rice’s manifold splendors.
HAMILTON: Most people think of white rice or brown rice, if they think of any distinction at all.
GRABER: This distinction is important in rice’s history. We think of brown rice as the more nutritious version of rice, and it is, because the germ and the bran that make it brown contain the fiber and things like B vitamins and vitamin E and important minerals.
HAMILTON: Brown rice still has all the pieces of the grain. So the germ and the bran. Whereas white rice has had that milled off.
GRABER: But over the centuries, white rice became THE rice of choice. In most rice-centric cultures today, you see far more white rice than brown rice.
TWILLEY: This seems like a counterintuitive move, especially for cultures that are eating a lot of rice—why would you want to lose any of it, let alone what turned out to be the most nutritious part?
GRABER: Well for one, milled rice was white and pretty and also softer and more delicate, which I can imagine that people who could afford the time and energy to mill it might think was an improvement. But Lisa said that wasn’t the only benefit.
HAMILTON: The benefit of milling it off is that the germ and the bran and all that sort of other stuff in the grain outside of the starch is what goes bad. So if you want to grow a lot of rice, export it, or even just move it from the country to the city, and store it for a long time, then the milled white rice is going to last a lot longer.
TWILLEY: This helped rice become even more global. It was storable, and transportable, and so it spread all over the world—including to the New World too. And that’s where we’re going next. Rice is all about water and all about resilience and community ties, and we’ve got three stories that show how that combination has shaped lives in the US, and beyond, coming up after the break.
GRABER: Lisa spent years in California rice fields with Hmong rice farmers as they planted and harvested rice. And she told us that the fields are really entrancing as they change over the course of a season.
HAMILTON: You know, it starts off as a grass for most of the time that it’s growing and doesn’t look too different from other grasses we know. At a certain point, in the rice fields that I’ve spent the most time in, which are in Fresno, dragonflies appear in late July, August. And they start sort of dancing around the tops of the plants, and the farmers know that when the dragon flies appear in great numbers, that’s when the rice will start flowering. And when the rice begins to flower, there starts being a sort of faint sweet smell to it. And as it matures, that smell grows. It’s never like you know, a wall of jasmine or, [LAUGHS] or ripe pineapple. It’s not an overwhelming smell. It’s almost like it’s almost like humidity or something. Like you can sense it, but you’re not aware of it all the time.
TWILLEY: The smell—it’s like a warm green smell—and the chirping and buzzing of lots of bugs—that’s what hit us when we visited a California rice field, a couple hours drive inland southeast of San Francisco.
ROSS KODA: This was planted in late April. And we’ve finished draining the field. When the weather’s still hot like this, it’ll require about two more weeks of drying, drying out, before a harvester can safely go into the rice field and start cutting the rice without getting stuck in mud.
GRABER: This isn’t where most rice is grown in California: most of it is grown in a region north from San Francisco in the Sacramento River valley. But rice has been growing on this farm, on Koda Farms, for nearly a century. We wanted to visit Koda because their story is an iconic one in America, a story of the role of rice in rebuilding after loss.
TWILLEY: This is, this is the rice, right?
KODA: Oh, that’s a weed.
GRABER: But there’s rice there.
TWILLEY: Oh, here, yeah.
GRABER: Oh, yeah.
TWILLEY: Oh, beautiful.
[CRICKETS, BIRDS CHIRPING]
TWILLEY: We were standing in this rice field with farmer Ross Koda—it’s his family farm.
KODA: We are the third generation. My grandfather started the farm in 1928. And he originally came from Fukushima, Japan in the 1910s. His family in Japan were rice millers.
GRABER: But Ross’s grandfather Keisaburo was not the first-born son, and so he wasn’t in line to inherit the family rice milling business. So he decided to move to the US and see if he could make his fortune here.
KODA: Some of his other, ventures were a fish canning company. He had some partners and they bought boats. That, ultimately, that business did not succeed. He tried wildcatting for oil, but never managed to strike oil.
TWILLEY: So Keisaburo went back to where came from—not Japan, but rice. He began working as a farm manager on a rice farm in the Sacramento Valley.
KODA: I think it was there that he learned the American production methods for growing rice. It’s on a much larger scale, and more, it was more mechanized at that time. And after several years of being a farm manager, then he had saved up enough money to move south to the Central Valley location, and he purchased land to start his own farm.
GRABER: Well, Ross says Keisaburo purchased land, but it actually wasn’t quite that straightforward.
KODA: There was the alien land law which prevented Asian immigrants from owning land. And so by the time he moved down to South Dos Palos, he had two sons. And so he set up a corporation with his two sons as the shareholders, and then the corporation was able to purchase land.
TWILLEY: Both of those sons were born in the US so they could own land, and one of them was Ross’s dad.
GRABER: Ross’s grandpa Keisaburo had a lot of ideas for how to make his farm a success. He bought a rice dryer and a mill so that he could do all the processing on site and market his rice under his own name and brand. And as the farm grew, he started sowing the rice seed using a new technology, and that was airplanes.
KODA: And so he bought his own planes in order to be able to sow his seed by air.
GRABER: Ross’s grandfather was really successful on his innovative rice farm. At its peak, he either owned or leased about 10,000 acres. And then, World War II broke out, and the Japanese military bombed Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.
TWILLEY: And the US government freaked out and completely overreacted. Virtually everyone of Japanese descent in the US, even if they were US citizens, even if they were third generation, they were rounded up and put into prison camps.
KODA: And, my father and my grandfather’s family, when they were, when the Koda family was notified they would need to evacuate, my grandfather’s plan was just to close down the operation until he could come back from internment. But the government told him that he had to keep his operation going to support the war effort.
GRABER: I just want to say here that this is not only horribly racist overreacting on the part of the US government, it’s also out of control. So the Koda family had to leave and be interned in these prison camps, and they *also* somehow had to keep their farm going? What the hell?
KODA: And, while my grandfather did have friends who were farming in this area, they were, you know, they were extremely busy themselves, because agriculture was booming and so they were, you know, too busy building their own businesses. So my grandfather was really left with the only option of kind of leaving control to people he didn’t know very well. And so that didn’t work out so well for him, because they convinced him that he needed to sign over a power of attorney to them.
TWILLEY: So Keisaburo signed away his farm, and then his whole family, including Ross’s dad and uncle, were locked up in a camp in Colorado with no way to communicate with anyone on the farm. And when the war ended and they came back, they discovered that the farm’s caretakers had sold off all their most valuable assets.
KODA: They no longer owned the dryer and the mill or the processing operation. And, the Koda family was left with about a thousand acres of the, you know, the poorest soil. And so they were able to get a $1,000 line of credit from the bank. And so then they rebuilt from there.
GRABER: They had no recourse with the neighbors who sold off the machinery and the farmland, they just started rebuilding, and they turned back to rice to do so. Ross’s grandfather gave the running of the business to his dad and uncle, but Keisaburo was involved in the creation of what became America’s sushi rice.
TWILLEY: He worked with a breeder to cross a couple of varieties. He crossed a longer grain middle eastern variety with a medium grain variety called Calrose that UC Davis had developed, and that was sort of the bedrock of the California rice industry at the time. The result was something called KR55, a rice that not only had higher yields, but also tasted and cooked better. They called it Kokuho Rose.
KODA: To me, Calrose just tastes kind of flat. And whereas the, the KR55 that we package in Kokuho Rose is, is… a little more floral and has a little bit of a sweet after note. Which I like. And usually the Kokuho Rose is a rice that’s very easy to fall in love with.
GRABER: Kokuho Rose became kind of the go-to rice for Asian Americans for decades, and it was *the* rice for the growing sushi industry. At the time, sushi restaurants were still pretty new and they were mostly geared towards Asian-Americans. And they had to import rice from Japan, which was expensive.
TWILLEY: Without the Koda Farms Kokuho Rose, sushi wouldn’t have been able to spread in America the way it did back then. Sushi restaurant owners needed and loved Kokuho Rose rice.
GRABER: The Koda family still grows this rice today, as well as a couple of other varieties—they grow a delicious sweet rice and now some sake rices too. And they flood the fields to grow their rice, which actually helps local wildlife, because this area used to be a wetland before it was drained for agriculture.
KODA: And so rice provides, you know, a diversity of habitat that, shorebirds can find here where, you know, they can’t get it in any other, you know, row crop that’s grown around here. We’ve actually had Audubon come out and they’ve identified shorebirds that come out and use the rice fields. We always have ducks that, you know, raise families in the rice fields. And, like stilts, herons, ibis.
TWILLEY: It’s the same beautiful symbiosis that Sharon told us about where the water keeps down the weeds and hosts the ducks, which poo and fertilize the fields. Except there’s a problem. Which is that water is in very short supply in the American west.
KODA: And so last year was, you know, a very critical year. There were so many water districts that were cut down to zero water supply, or near-zero water supply. Which, you know, severely reduced the rice acreage in the Sacramento Valley. And that had repercussions throughout California.
GRABER: California’s rice growing region has one major thing going for it: it’s sunny nearly every day of the growing season. But it’s missing the other critical element, and that’s water. So they have to import water, and that’s been a huge and growing problem, as we’ve talked about on Gastropod before.
KODA: So, you know, it’s a concern that, you know, the demands in California continue to go up, to increase, but, we don’t have any way to increase availability of water other than taking it away from agriculture.
TWILLEY: Which also means taking it away from the migrating birds. It’s a tricky situation.
GRABER: Too little water is a problem for rice growers. But so is too much. The story of so-called scuba rice, which can survive extreme flooding, coming up after the break.
GRABER: We’ve told you that rice roots can thrive underwater when most grassy grains we eat can’t. But rice can’t survive underwater forever, if it’s submerged for more than about three days it’ll die.
PAMELA RONALD: Well, it’s estimated that in these regions in south and Southeast Asia, four million tons of rice—enough to feed 30 million people—is lost every year, to flooding. And that’s expected to become more challenging as the climate changes.
TWILLEY: This is Pam Ronald, she’s a professor at UC Davis and she’s spent her career focused on rice genetics.
GRABER: Pam had been working on finding a gene in rice varieties that would help it resist fungus, and this work caught the attention of a guy who worked at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines. He asked her if she’d help find a gene that would make rice survive underwater longer.
TWILLEY: Pam’s lab grew thousands of rice plants, all different varieties from the Rice Institute’s seedbank. Then they flooded them for two weeks and saw which ones survived. And then they looked for the genes that those survivors had in common, that the other plants didn’t.
RONALD: We were able to identify one piece of DNA that carried a single gene that was very robustly tolerant of flooding.
GRABER: The rice plants that survived originally came from India, and they were from a domesticated variety that seems to be several thousand years old. It used to be grown in India and Sri Lanka, but it’s fallen out of favor because it’s not super productive.
TWILLEY: Pam and her lab spent a bunch of time figuring out how this gene helped the rice survive. Basically, when normal rice plants are flooded for too long, they try to grow their way out of the water. They burn through all their energy trying and failing, and, they die. The gene in these survivor plants essentially switches off that panic response.
RONALD: So these plants can sort of hold their breath underwater for two, three weeks and then wait till the flood is gone, and then they start to grow again.
TWILLEY: What that means is that if a flood comes along, these flood-tolerant varieties will still yield a lot of rice, whereas the non scuba varieties die—the whole harvest can be wiped out. So it’s more productive if there’s a flood for sure.
GRABER: But this ancient variety is less productive under normal circumstances. So Pam’s colleagues then were able to use a technique that would let them follow this gene as they bred the ancient variety with newer, more productive rice plants, and they could tell which baby rice plants still had the gene. This whole project took about ten years—and at the end, they ended up creating a new variety that can hold its breath for two weeks and is also delicious and productive.
RONALD: And so that was very exciting. They had the same taste and other properties that farmers were growing before. So farmers adopted them very quickly.
TWILLEY: Today, millions of farmers in Bangladesh and India grow Pam’s scuba rice, which is officially called SUB1.
RONALD: It’s been a really successful project and we were able to visit farmers in India and Bangladesh and talk to them. And, they were really excited because they had the same flavor. They could grow them well, so they could just, swap out their varieties essentially. It’s everything the same, but one more important trait.
GRABER: Pam and her colleagues are now trying to breed newer varieties that are able to withstand even longer floods. The monsoons have been getting worse, and the team is trying to help rice growing communities build resilience in the face of climate change.
TWILLEY: Water and rice—it’s really a problem. Being able to grow in water was like rice’s superpower, to outcompete weeds, but in California, there’s not enough water, and then in other parts of the world like South East Asia there can be too much water. And actually, it’s not just the issue of water availability that’s a challenge.
KONDA MASON: Those flooded fields are a problem too. Inside the water are microbes that are off-gassing methane gas. So what that means: that the gazillions of microbes that are in all of that water, they’re all off-gassing methane in their metabolism. And that methane is 10 percent of the methane that agriculture creates that’s in the atmosphere. Comes from rice production.
GRABER: Konda Mason has done a lot of things in her life, but we called her because she’s the founder and president of a nonprofit called Jubilee Justice. And they’re pioneering a project in the southeastern US to grow rice with a lot less water.
TWILLEY: Not only does that, you know, save water, which is good, but the real win is that it reduces that methane production. And methane is 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas.
MASON: So what we have is a situation where the production of rice around the world is really a big contributor to global warming.
GRABER: We’ve said that rice grows well in water, but rice does actually also grow on dryland, too. In Asia there’s a long history of dryland rice farms, but they’re mostly on not-great farmland in the mountains. The Hmong, the community Lisa wrote about, they’re a marginalized community that grows rice in the mountains, and it’s not an easy life.
TWILLEY: But then, in the 1960s, something happened—very slowly—that changed the calculus of dry rice farming. It started when a French Jesuit priest named Henri de Laulanie went to Madagascar. He was trained as an agronomist and he spent the next 30 years working with local rice growers, gradually figuring out ways to help farmers increase their yield. Traditionally most Madagascan farmers flooded their paddies, which were terraced in the mountains. But Henri figured that rice doesn’t actually love being in a flooded paddy.
MASON: The only reason why water is there is to suppress weeds. Rice is a grass and the weeds that grow along with it. And so the water suppresses the weeds.
GRABER: But the rice plant in theory can grow better if it’s not flooded. The roots grow deeper with more oxygen, the plant gets bigger. The problem was that Henri and his Madagascan farmer colleagues had to figure out the right size rice plant to put in the fields so they could outcompete the weeds without the benefit of water and so they would thrive.
TWILLEY: This is where serendipity came in. The agronomy students that were working with Henri had limited space in their greenhouse, and they had to transplant their seedlings into the field early—after just 15 days instead of a full month.
GRABER: It turned out that the plants grew much better if they were transplanted at that young age! Henri did some research and he read about a Japanese scientist who had figured out that the younger plants were putting out more little side shoots. And so if they were transplanted earlier, those little side shoots helped them grow into bushier and bigger plants.
TWILLEY: Henri arrived at a couple other insights: if he planted the rice plants a foot apart, rather than all clustered together, they would have the space they needed to grow big and strong. And another thing that helped was making sure the plants had enough to eat, by adding lots of compost and mulch.
GRABER: Together, these practices added up to a working system—a way of successfully growing lots of rice without flooding the paddy. He called it SRI, or the system of rice intensification. And at the end, those bigger, bushier plants that grew in much less water yielded about 20 percent more rice.
TWILLEY: Henri arrived at the formula for growing SRI rice in the 1980s, and since then the technique has spread. Today there are more than a million households in India, and Southeast Asia, and West Africa, growing rice using SRI principles and seeing amazing results.
GRABER: But a lot of people haven’t heard of it before. Konda never had, until she was at a conference with Caryl Levine and Ken Lee who own a company called Lotus Foods. They sell rice and rice noodles and they work directly with a lot of farmers in Africa and Asia, and they were talking about the problems with rice farming and how SRI is a solution.
MASON: And I was like, mesmerized. I thought wow, that’s amazing. Who knew that methane and rice caused methane and contributed to global warming? Who knew that there was another way to do it that would actually benefit farmers and and and you know. So she started to explain to me how the farmers that she works with in Asia and Africa, that they were really benefiting. I mean, their communities were benefiting. They were going from subsistence farmers to thriving in the marketplace and—really changing the economics and the social fabric of their entire communities by doing this. And her partnering with these farmers. And I thought, wow, that’s incredible.
TWILLEY: And then Caryl said that the thing that really needed to happen was to spread SRI rice in the US and train American farmers in how to do it.
MASON: And I thought, the very first thing out of my mouth was: Caryl, what about Black farmers? They have been so marginalized. They have been under the thumb of so much oppression, so much racism, so much of everything that has been negative. What about Black farmers? If they were to learn this—can you imagine them going from, from where they are now to actually leading an innovative revolution in this country, around rice?
GRABER: This revelation hit Konda not just because she already had a career supporting and investing in African-American entrepreneurs, and farmers were a natural next step for her expertise. It’s that the relationship between African Americans and rice farming goes back…well, all the way to Africa.
TWILLEY: So this is a twist for many people, me included. Until we started making this episode, I believed that rice was domesticated in Asia. I had no idea that it was also domesticated entirely separately in West Africa, thousands of years ago, and farmed there.
MASON: They were in the parts of West Africa that, it was also known as the Rice Coast.
GRABER: When enslavers sailed to West Africa, the region stretching from modern day Senegal down to Sierra Leone and Liberia, they saw farmers employing really advanced systems of growing rice.
MASON: West African farmers were growing rice in the highlands, in the lowlands, in the wetlands, the drylands. Every topography that existed, they had developed a method of growing rice. And so what these enslavers did is they… intentionally targeted these farmers. So they enslaved them. They brought them to South Carolina. South Carolina in the 1700s was the capital of rice. And if you know anything about South Carolina, you know that it is swampy. Swampland. They literally took years and years and years just to build up the land and in the swamps of alligators and poisonous snakes. And it was treacherous, treacherous work that these west African farmers had to make happen. And they ended up growing an industry, a rice industry. Rice became the economic driver of the colonies in the 1700s. It was rice before it was cotton.
TWILLEY: Enslaved Africans made rice productive in the American south. But once they were finally free, they didn’t stick around and keep growing rice.
MASON: The West Africans were like, I’m out. Because, it was terrible work. So the rice industry just started to die and it ended up getting picked up, it’s in Arkansas now, that’s where the rice industry in America is, Arkansas, led by white farmers.
GRABER: Konda knew about the history of African-American farmers and rice, and as soon as she heard about SRI, she knew she needed to make this happen.
MASON: And so I’m sitting here thinking. Am I changing my life? Am I starting a rice business? [LAUGH] And the answer was yes. I had to raise my hand and say, okay, let’s do it. And that’s how it all began.
TWILLEY: When she started Jubilee Justice, Konda pulled together a group of experts, including an organic farming consultant and scientists at Cornell University, because they have expertise in SRI rice and have been leading research on it. Together, they’ve been gradually figuring out how to make SRI work in the American south.
MASON: So it is almost like—it’s like dry land. It’s like any other crop you plant it like a crop, like you would, you know, collard greens. And you water it as you would. It takes a little more water than, than most, but it does not need to be flooded all the time.
GRABER: This whole process uses about 50 percent less water.
TWILLEY: Another big benefit that you might not have thought of is that the farmer doesn’t have to use nearly as much seed. Konda says they use 90 percent less seed, because they’re planting fewer plants.
MASON: That’s a huge savings for the farmer. It’s a huge benefit for the planet. And it also allows the farmer, where not only do they benefit from the fact that they are putting in less seed, but also these plants are growing larger, having more rice. And so you get more yield. So they’re winning. It’s a win, win, win situation,
GRABER: Today, Konda is working with about a dozen farming families in Louisiana and Mississippi. They’ve been testing how well SRI works on a number of different varieties of rice.
MASON: And we’re doing all beautiful rice, all specialty rice. This is not your Uncle Ben’s rice. This is red rice, and black rices, arboreal, fragrant rices, jasmine. We’re doing all these different specialty rices that have a higher price point.
TWILLEY: They’ve also now built a rice mill, which they run cooperatively.
MASON: The idea is that eventually this would be the first and just the first mill. That, you know, eventually there will be several mills in different locations. And the co op will become big and become very successful of, seeing Black farmers working together in a cooperative way. Working with specialty foods, specialty crops, and really being able to advance themselves economically, their communities economically, as well as have a real stake in reversing global warming and being a part of the solution and not the problem.
GRABER: They’re too early in the project to have any rice for sale yet, but they expect that it’ll be available next year, sold by Lotus Foods. You’ll be able to see a label on the bag that says it was grown by Jubilee Justice. They’re just not quite there yet.
MASON: So, we are three years in. And—this is our fourth year. We’ve learned a lot. We have been just trying to master how to grow SRI rice in the southeastern United States. No one has ever done it.
TWILLEY: Which seemed shocking to us. SRI rice sounds so great, what’s not to love? I mean, higher yields, less water, fewer seeds, and you’re saving the planet. Why isn’t everyone else doing it already?
MASON: Yeah, there’s a lot of drawbacks, I’ll tell you why.
GRABER: Konda told us the biggest issue is that it’s super labor intensive.
MASON: If you get rid of the water, you have weeds. If you get rid of the herbicides that kill the weeds, you have weeds. What is happening in countries like in Asia and Africa is that when it is time to plant, when it is time to weed, and when it is time to harvest, whole villages come out. It’s like, you know, tons of people come out and plant, tons of people come out and they weed, and they come back and they harvest. That doesn’t happen in this country. So we have to rely on mechanization. The mechanization has not been developed—yet.
TWILLEY: You just can’t grow rice economically with that much human labor in the US. But the machines for sale in America are all made for growing rice industrially at huge scale, and for sowing seeds.
GRABER: But for SRI, they’re not sowing seeds, they’re sowing baby plants. So they need a machine that can cut through thick mulch—they’re using the mulch to keep down weeds—and then also transplant and drop in tiny two-week old plants. And that doesn’t exist here.
MASON: Everything here is so hugely tractor based. We have all the tractors. But when we’re looking at places, what they’re doing in Asia and what they’re doing in Pakistan and India, different places. They are developing tools that are amazing. They’re just so intuitive, so much smaller, and yet getting the job done. So these are the kinds of things that we need.
TWILLEY: Jubilee Justice has just received a grant to be able to go visit some growers in other parts of the world and check out some of this groovy new small-scale, SRI-appropriate machinery, to see if they can bring it back to the South. Konda says having the right machinery will be a game changer.
GRABER: It’s been hard work so far for the farmers she’s partnered with, but they’re just getting started, and she says they feel like they’re part of something bigger.
MASON: What we are doing is claiming rice again as our natural African foodways. And us as rice farmers. And this time, this time, we own the means of production. We are growing a rice that is climate resilient, climate friendly. We are growing it organically. We are growing it regeneratively with Afro-Indigenous practices. So it’s exciting to come back to rice. And for African American farmers. We’ve lost the history, to learn the history, to re-educate each other and to claim rice again as our natural food ways.
TWILLEY: Konda told us that the members of the cooperative all got together recently to talk about how it’s going and what they’re learning and where they’re going next.
MASON: We talked about our ancestors, we talked about what, how we got to where we are. We talked about the co-op and how our people, if they didn’t work cooperatively, we would not be here right now today.
GRABER: It’s kind of like the origin of rice, how it took a whole community to work together to farm this incredibly productive grain. But also how throughout history African-Americans have had to work together to survive and lift each other up.
MASON: How did they get through the institution of, of enslavement? How did they get through Jim Crow and all the oppression and racism that our, that our people have suffered under? The only way that they did that is by coming together and working together and, and working cooperatively. And how it is incumbent upon us to honor them by doing the same.
TWILLEY: Thanks this episode to Lisa Hamilton, we have a link to her new book, The Hungry Season, on our website and you should definitely read it. Thanks also to Ross Koda at Koda Farms, Barak Kushner, Pam Ronald and her colleague Randy Ruan, Sharon Zhang, and Konda Mason of Jubilee Justice.
GRABER: You can find links to their books and their research and their rice on our website, gastropod.com. Thanks also as always to our incredible producer Claudia Geib. And thanks to you, our listeners, and especially our supporters who help us make the show!
TWILLEY: We’ll be back in a couple of weeks with a brand new episode. Stay tuned!