First question: What makes Basmati rice smell so good? Science has the answer - Basmati grains contain 0.09 parts per million of the chemical compound 2-acetyl-1-pyrroline, which is about 12 times more than concentrations found in unscented rice varieties and enough to give Basmati its distinctive spicy fragrance. That aroma - along with fine, slender grains and a soft, fluffy texture when cooked - has made Basmati the world's most sought-after rice, fetching up to 10 times more than common rices on international markets.
Second question: Why don't more of the world's rice farmers switch to growing varieties like Basmati and a host of other high-value "speciality rices" which today account for less than 10% of global rice production? "That's because until recently, rice was viewed mainly as a basic, staple food," explains Dat Van Tran, executive secretary of the International Rice Commission (IRC) based at FAO in Rome. "So, while much has been researched and written about the more common, high-yielding rice varieties, far less attention has been paid to special kinds, even though they command higher prices. To exploit new market opportunities, farmers need sources of up-to-date information on breeding, production and marketing of speciality rices."
To meet that need, the IRC and AG's Crop and Grassland Service have produced a new publication, Speciality rices of the world, which will be presented at the next session of the Commission in Bangkok this month (Details). With contributions from 60 experts in Asia, Africa and the United States, the book reviews in detail the latest breeding strategies, agronomic practices, production packages and market trends for several dozen aromatic, coloured, glutinous, organic and "boutique" rice types.
Aromatic rice: Asia's aromatic rices - including Basmati from India and Pakistan, Thailand's Jasmine rice, and hundreds of little-known locally adapted varieties - appear to hold great promise. Export markets in Europe and North America are expanding rapidly and local demand is also strong. In fact, says Dat Van Tran, "it is estimated that demand for this rice type cannot be met at any given time". The persistent undersupply of aromatic rices is explained by the relatively limited area planted to the crops, and by their low yields. In China, for example, the planting area of aromatic rice (used mainly in foods and cakes) is less than 1% of the national rice acreage and, due to lower grain fertility and susceptibility to rice blast, yields are 10% lower than those of common rice. In India, traditional Basmati varieties are unresponsive to fertilizer and difficult to harvest, and yield around two tonnes per hectare, well below the 5-6 tonnes per ha produced by high-yielding varieties. Despite decades of research, India's rice agronomists have yet to produce a high-yielding Basmati that growers and millers are ready to adopt. In neighbouring Pakistan, in contrast, improved varieties are widely grown, but the level of aroma in their grain does not match that found in the traditional cultivar.
"There is a general need to improve the yield potential of aromatic varieties", comments Dat Van Tran. In Thailand, a research programme is combining a Jasmine variety with the higher-yielding semi-dwarf plant type, which is photoperiod-insensitive and less vulnerable to diseases and pests. Drawing on the great genetic diversity among local aromatic rices, a breeding programme co-sponsored by FAO in India is developing Basmati hybrids, while the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines expects improved Basmati varieties with high-yield potential to become available within the next two to three years.
Glutinous ("sticky") rice: The consistency of "sticky" rice is determined by two kinds of starch in the kernels, amylose and amylopectin. The more amylopectin, the stickier the texture. Glutinous rice is easily distinguished from other varieties by its milky colour. Most widely consumed where it is grown - mainly in dry areas of northern Thailand, Laos and Cambodia - it is often used as an ingredient in sweet dishes and snacks, and for brewing beer. Per capita, Laos is the largest producer and consumer of glutinous rice, which accounts for about 85% of its rice production. As for many other speciality rices, "sticky" varieties bear much lower yields - in Thailand, average yields of non-glutinous varieties are around four tonnes per ha, compared to 1.9 tonnes per ha for glutinous types. But, Dat Van Tran observes, lower yield is compensated for by higher prices, and demand is increasing, especially on export markets.
Boutique and organic rice: Combining glutinous and aromatic characters are the so-called "boutique" rices, which include many traditional Lao varieties and others grown and consumed in Thailand and Cambodia. "Boutique" rices are considered to have the greatest potential for export markets, and breeding programmes have focused on boosting their yield. In China, for example, scientists have developed from a local aromatic cultivar a japonica waxy-aromatic variety, Shangnongxiangnuo, which yields an impressive 7.5 tonnes per hectare. Meanwhile, many rice growers are switching to production of organic rice - while exact statistics are unavailable, surveys show that both developed and developing countries (mainly in Asia) are growing rice organically, hoping to enter the world's $10,000 million commerce in organic foods. "Growth in this rice type is slower," says Dat Van Tran, "due to higher costs, unavailability of inputs and technology, and limited participation of supermarkets and retail outlets."
In conclusion, Speciality rices of the world sees a rosy future for the sector: "With growing prosperity, consumers are looking for better quality rice. Countries that could feed themselves with marginal quality but high yielding indica or hybrids, such as Republic of Korea, have switched almost entirely to low-yielding but superior quality japonica. Similarly, in India and Pakistan, demand for high quality Basmati has risen dramatically. Asians who migrate to Middle East, European and American countries can afford the best quality Basmati or Jasmine rice at any price. Thus, the future of speciality rices is linked to the growing prosperity of people."