Monday, February 6, 2017

Less rice on Taiwanese tables

Thanks to Taiwan's semitropical climate, the island's skilled farmers, and high levels of mechanization, Taiwan's paddy fields are among the world's most productive, consistently producing an average of over 4,500kg of rice per hectare. Various types of rice have been grown in Taiwan for at least 4,000 years, but large-scale paddy field cultivation didn't get underway until the Dutch, who controlled the Tainan area between 1624 and 1662, brought in thousands of Fujianese migrants to boost agricultural production. The land area devoted to rice growing expanding throughout the following Zheng, Qing and Japanese periods.

When Japan ceased being self-sufficient in rice production, around the end of World War I, they began importing the staple from Korea and Taiwan, both of which were Japanese colonies at that time. The Japanese authorities soon met with considerable success when they tried to increase rice yields in Taiwan. According to The Rice Economy of Asia (Volume 2) by Randolph Barker, Robert W. Herdt and Beth Rose, “Varieties suited to the semitropical conditions of Taiwan were developed and disseminated in the mid-1920s. The japonica varieties known as ponlai ('heavenly rice') were not only higher yielding than the native indica varieties, but had a shorter growth duration that permitted a significant increase in double cropping.”

Ponlai has been an enduring success. Even now, with consumers showing interest in other kinds of rice, more than five sixths of the rice grown in Taiwan is ponlai. Ponlai is also an ingredient in Taiwan Beer.

In the 1960s, scientists at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines worked on breeding new types of rice that were shorter, stiffer-stemmed and would respond better to nitrogen fertilizer. They obtained the dwarfing gene (for shortness) from native Taiwanese rice varieties, crossing them with tall indica varieties.

Despite progress on multiple fronts, nowadays Taiwan's national rice production is for three reasons is now barely half its 1976 peak of 2.7 million tonnes. First, a significant amount of rice-growing land has been concreted over so factories, homes and roads can be built. Secondly – although Taiwan's population has grown around 45% over the past four decades – per capita rice consumption has plummeted. In 1981, the figure was 98kg. The average Taiwanese now consumes approximately 45kg of rice each year – just a quarter of the amount of rice eaten by Vietnamese and Burmese. Interestingly, the Taiwan figure is lower than China, Japan and South Korea, and is now even lower than the global average! The third reason is that Taiwanese rice is expensive by international standards, so surpluses can't be exported in large quantities (although some is sold to Japan). There's little argument as to the main reason for declining rice consumption: Taiwanese now enjoy a much wider range of foods; compared to just 20 years ago, the island's people eat far more bread and pasta.

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