A Global Staple

Rice is the primary staple for more than half the world's population, with Asia, South America, and Sub-Saharan Africa the largest consuming regions. Developing countries have long depended on rice's versatility and high caloric value. Food use of rice is declining in Northeast Asia (Japan, South Korea, Taiwan), but continues to rise in Sub-Saharan Africa.

An ancient grain, rice is known to have been domesticated as early as the fifth millennium, B.C.E. The species cultivated in Asia, believed to be where rice originated, is Oryza sativa from the Graminaceae (grass) family. It is also the species cultivated in most of today's rice-producing countries. Rice is produced worldwide and is the world's second- or third-largest staple crop, behind corn (maize). Rice production, prior to milling, is about the same as total wheat production.

Although rice is produced over vast areas of the world, the physical requirements for growing rice (available water, soil types) are limited to certain areas. Economically sound production typically requires high average temperatures during the growing season, a plentiful supply of water applied in a timely fashion, a smooth land surface to facilitate uniform flooding and drainage, and a subsoil hardpan that inhibits the percolation of water.

Four major types of rice are produced worldwide:

  • Indica is grown mostly in tropical and subtropical regions and accounts for more than 75 percent of global trade. Indica rice cooks dry, with separate grains.
  • Japonica rice, typically grown in regions with cooler climates, accounts for about 8  percent of global rice trade.
  • Aromatic rice, primarily jasmine from Thailand and basmati from India and Pakistan, accounts for around 15 percent of global trade and typically sells at a premium in world markets
  • Glutinous rice, grown mostly in Southeast Asia and used in desserts and ceremonial dishes, and several other specialty rices account for most of the remainder.

U.S. Rice Production

Four regions produce almost the entire U.S. rice crop:

  • Arkansas Grand Prairie,
  • Mississippi Delta, (parts of Arkansas, Mississippi, Missouri, and Louisiana);
  • Gulf Coast (Texas and Southwest Louisiana); and
  • Sacramento Valley of California.

Each of these regions generally specializes in a specific type of rice, which, in the United States, is referred to by length of grain--long, medium, and short. U.S. long-grain varieties typically cook dry and separate, while U.S. medium- and short-grain varieties are typically moist and clingy.

  • Long grain is grown almost exclusively in the South and accounts for more than 70 percent of U.S. production.
  • Medium grain, grown both in California and the South, accounts for more than one-fourth of total U.S. production and forms most of California's rice crop. Arkansas accounts for most of the southern medium-grain production.
  • Short grain accounts for 1-2 percent of total U.S. rice production and is grown almost exclusively in California.

All U.S. rice is produced in irrigated fields, achieving some of the highest yields in the world. Producers in the United States can apply seed aerially in dry or flooded fields, or drill or broadcast seed into dry fields. Fertilizers, insecticides, and pesticides can also be applied by air. California producers seed primarily by air directly into flooded fields. Except for parts of southwest Louisiana and the Texas Gulf Coast, most producers in the South drill seed.

Planting typically begins in early March in Texas and southwest Louisiana. The Delta plants the bulk of its crop in April, and California's crop is planted from late April through May. Harvest begins in early or mid-July in Texas and southwest Louisiana. Peak harvest in the South is in September and early October, when the Delta harvests the bulk of its crop. Some producers in Texas and southwest Louisiana are able to reflood their fields after harvest and achieve a partial second or "ratoon" crop from the stubble of the first. California typically begins harvest at the end of September and finishes by early November.

Marketing and Use

Except for rough (unmilled) rice exports and domestic seed sales, virtually all U.S. rice is marketed as a whole-kernel milled product. In contrast, the bulk of wheat is sold as flour. For rice, care is necessary throughout the production, drying, storage, milling, and marketing phases to minimize the number of broken kernels, which sell at a considerable discount to whole-kernel rice.

Five different products (or types of rice) can be produced from rough rice: hulls, bran, brown rice, whole-kernel milled rice, and brokens (broken-kernel milled rice). The first stage of milling removes the hull, producing brown rice that can be cooked and consumed. The next stage of milling removes the bran layer, leaving milled white rice. Or, prior to milling, rough rice may be parboiled, a process of soaking the rice in water and steaming it under intense pressure. Parboiling makes the rice less likely to break during milling and pushes nutrients from the bran layer into the kernel. Parboiled rice typically sells at a premium. On average, every 100 pounds of rough rice yield around 60 pounds of whole-kernel milled rice, around 10 pounds of brokens, about 9 pounds of bran, and 20 pounds of hull.

About half of the U.S. rice crop is sold into the domestic market, which has more than doubled in size since the mid-1980s. In recent years, U.S. rice use has been growing about 1 percent a year, about even with U.S. population growth. Increasing domestic use of rice is partly attributed to demographic factors, including immigration and changing ethnic composition, with high per capita rice-consuming groups increasing their shares of the U.S. population. Healthy lifestyles, rising demand for gluten-free foods, convenience, and continued introduction of new rice-based products also contribute to growth in domestic use.

Domestic uses of rice include food for human consumption (direct food use and in processed foods), beer, and pet food. Direct food use accounts for about two-thirds of total domestic disappearance of rice (including imports). Use in processed foods--primarily flavored rice mixes, cereal, and rice cakes--, accounts for around 13 percent of domestic use. Use of rice in beer production, at less than  10 percent of domestic disappearance, has been declining since 2002. Rice use for pet food, which almost exclusively involves broken grains, accounts for almost  10 percent of total domestic disappearance.

See the Trade chapter for information and U.S. rice imports and exports.

Challenges for the U.S. Rice Industry

The combination of high operating costs (fuel, fertilizer, and irrigation expenses), steady growth in imports, and stiff competition from Asian and South American suppliers presents tough challenges for the U.S. rice industry. Higher fuel and fertilizer costs are among the most critical, since rice is a high-cost crop to grow in the United States. For example, running pumps and conducting other operations required for flood irrigation account for the much higher fuel and energy costs for rice than for other field crops.

Most U.S. rice imports are aromatic varieties from Asia--jasmine from Thailand and basmati from India and Pakistan. Varieties with these specific characteristics are not currently grown in the United States. U.S. plant breeders have research underway, but until the United States develops varieties with characteristics comparable to the Asian aromatic varieties, imports and the import share of domestic disappearance will continue to increase.

The global market for rice is largely dominated by Asian suppliers, who present tough competition for U.S. rice growers in several markets, although U.S. rice exports are consistently high-quality. Thailand, for more than 25 years, and India, since the mid-1990s, have greatly improved the quality of some grades of exportable rice. Top-quality exports from these countries can now compete with U.S. rice in some global markets--particularly in Europe and the Middle East. Exports remain critical to the health and viability of the U.S. rice industry, since U.S. rice producers are more dependent on the global market than U.S. producers of corn and soybeans.