Heirloom Rice Preserves Biodiversity

Agricultural biodiversity is important for many reasons -- ecological, economic, nutritional and cultural. Barbara Kingsolver, in her book, "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle", is among a growing number of writers and experts to express concern about the loss of biodiversity in our global food system. "History," she writes, "has regularly proven it unwise for a population to depend on just a few varieties for the majority of its sustenance. The Irish once depended on a single potato...."

Erosion of genetic diversity in rice is especially problematic given its prominence as the world’s most important food source. Some 80,000 different varieties of rice are stored in a genebank at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI). And yet, in the Philippines, where IRRI is based, almost half of the rice area is devoted to just four high-yielding varieties (HYVs).

Ensuring genetic diversity requires that local rices are cultivated continuously, and not simply locked up in seed banks until plant breeders want to find a specific trait. Traditional varieties (also called landraces) and heirlooms are locally evolved varieties subjected to continuous selection by farmers. They have adapted naturally to a vast range of microclimates and to resist pests and predators of their region. Genetic diversity is known to substantially decrease a crop’s vulnerability to diseases.

Heirlooms acquire histories when they are saved as seeds for many generations and become valuable for their stories and the wisdom they contain about their cooking and growing qualities, ceremonial purpose, and healing properties. "Biodiversity is the real capital of food and farming," says Vandana Shiva, "and linked to it is cultural diversity."

Scientists are also increasingly interested in local landraces and heirloom varieties for their nutritional value. HYVs have been developed to optimize yields and not nutritional value or taste. Studies show that the average protein content of HYVs is 6-10%, whereas traditional varieties in the Philippines and China, for example, have been reported with 14% and 16% protein content. Red, purple and black rices have higher levels of iron and betacarotene.

With our unique focus on heirloom and specialty rices cultivated on small family farms, our efforts contribute to keeping alive community traditions and valuable local biodiversity while offering consumers more nutritious rice options.

Further reading: "On Rice, Biodiversity & Nutrients" by Michael Frei and Klaus Becker, Institute of Animal Production in the Tropics and Subtropics, University of Hohenheim, 2004.