The unseen story behind rice, the world's most important food

Rice is the most commonly eaten food for half of the humans in the world, making up more than 20% of all calories consumed. It is eaten by almost all people of all cultures to some extent, and for many countries, it is a staple food that is relied upon for survival. Affordable and easily stored, it is a popular food among those with less income. Ironically, it is also produced almost exclusively by workers who have less income as well. Indonesia is one of the top producers of the world's rice. Most of the rice consumed by North Americans comes from Indonesia, China, and India. Many of us eat it almost daily, yet we don't give much thought to the way it is grown and harvested. This rice paddy in Bali is strikingly beautiful, especially when seen from the air. Terraces have been constructed on the hillside by making low walls to retain water. The terraces are flooded after the rice shoots are planted. Many people believe that rice needs this flooding to grow, but rice would grow just as well with wet soil that was not submerged. The flooding is done to control pests and prevent weeds from growing among the rice. Workers harvest the rice by hand, working long hours, toiling in the hot sun. It is a labour intensive job and the pay is meager. The workers in Indonesia are usually not paid for their efforts. Instead, they are given a portion of the harvest. This means that they will have a considerable food supply, but they will also need to work elsewhere to earn an income. We pay only pennies per serving for our rice, creating a market that prevents workers receiving much compensation. Rice is an excellent food source, but the plants absorb and retain a high concentration of arsenic in comparison with other crops. North America and many other countries regulate rice imports to limit concentrations to 100 parts per billion. China allows up to 150ppb, a much higher concentration of the carcinogen.