Latest Case Studies/ Field Note

Leaves From a New Rice Variety Fuel a More Nourished People and Planet

Just before dawn, baker Sasipen Pan rises and slips into her kitchen in central Thailand. On a sparkling clean counter, she begins making bread—or sometimes brownies or meringue cookies—with a “secret ingredient.”

With support from the Rice Science Center at Bangkok’s Kasetsart University and The Rockefeller Foundation, Pan is the world’s only baker regularly using powder made from rice leaves, generally burned as a waste product.

The only baker so far, that is.

If the Rice Science Center’s director, Professor Apichart Vanavichit, gets his way, food products from the leaves of a new breed known as Rainbow Rice will be widely used throughout the world for their nutritional value, taste, texture, and beauty.

 

Further, the crop will lead to a government-envisioned “Rainbow Rice Village” to increase eco-tourism, provide a better income for farmers who often live in poverty, and as an indirect benefit, support reduced field burning which, for several days each year, makes northern Thailand’s Chiang Mai the most polluted city on Earth.

Baker Sasipen Pan with a bread loaf made with rice leaf powder. (Photo Courtesy of Professor Apichart Vanavichit)

Image is of a farmer in the rainbow rice field.
Farmer in the Rainbow rice field. (Photo Courtesy of Professor Apichart Vanavichit)

The Game-Changer

Consuming Rice Leaves

Rice has been integral to Thai culture for centuries, featured in festivals, folktales, storybooks, and song lyrics. In the Thai language, when someone asks a guest “Would you like to eat?” the literal translation is “Would you like to eat rice?” Thailand boasts 3.7 million farmer households and 24.7 million acres of rice fields, or three-fourths of its arable land, and is the second largest global exporter of rice after India.

But there are danger signs in this critical sector. The growing impact of climate change, including drought, floods, saltwater, and extreme temperatures, threaten to devastate crops and risk the livelihoods of 144 million smallholder rice farmers worldwide each growing season, who already earn an average of the equivalent of only $5.18 a month. Some 40 percent of Thai farm families live below the poverty level.

With the global population projected to increase to 9.8 billion people by the year 2050, and farmers confronted by other resource challenges caused by pollution and soil degradation, Professor Vanavichit believes that breeding nutrient-dense rice—and making full use of the rice plant—is more essential than ever to food security and human well-being.

For years, he has centered his work on rice, first breeding disease-resistant rice for larger yields and reduced use of chemical pesticides, then more aromatic rice, and finally more nutritious rice. Prior to developing Rainbow Rice, the professor helped develop Riceberry Rice, a distinctive purple grain which is high in antioxidants and minerals like zinc and iron. Purple rice was cultivated from as far back as 2500 BC. In Imperial China, it was known as “Forbidden Rice” that only the aristocracy was allowed to eat. Riceberry Rice is a cross breed of Jao Hom Nin, a Thai purple rice, and Khao Dawk Mali 105, or Thai Jasmine rice.

With Rainbow Rice, the game-changer is the use of the leaves for human consumption.

Rich in dietary fiber, the leaves contain up to 50 times more bio-available minerals and micronutrients, as well as higher quality protein and fatty acid, compared with prior rice varieties, he says.

Rainbow Rice a progeny of White Stripped Leaf Rice, which evolved from Jao Hom Nin, and Klum Hom, an aromatic purple leaf variety. Rainbow Rice leaves are heavily pigmented with flavonoids and carotenoids, making them more of an antioxidant powerhouse than even the Riceberry grains.

Additionally, farmers can harvest the leaves during the vegetative stage and regrow the crop for the grain yield, which will allow them to increase their output, improving their livelihoods while enhancing global food security.

Image is of rainbow rice leaves.
Rainbow Rice leaves are used to help create colorful dishware, while also ensuring less of the rice product remains behind after harvesting. (Photo Courtesy of Professor Apichart Vanavichit)

Burning Season:

Rainbow Rice Has Potential to Help Reduce Pollution

The delicately colored leaves are also prized for their potential decorative use. Netnapa Takahachi is an entrepreneur who has developed a method to preserve the color of Rainbow Rice leaves and weave them into dishware. Her next goal is to incorporate them into handbags as well.

This brings in extra income, but Takahachi is as enthusiastic about the potential of supporting the fight against climate change through Rainbow Rice leaves as she is about her business.

Every year, Chiang Mai in northern Thailand has a “Burning Season,” when farmers set their fields ablaze to get rid of the unused portions of rice stalks. Smoke suffocates the city and surrounding rural regions in a steely gray blanket.

The smoke is sometimes so thick that planes are unable to land. In the short-term, lung disease rates are higher. In the long term, a battle is lost in the fight against climate change. Burning rice straw in open fields, combined with traditional cultivation methods such as flooding paddy fields, contribute approximately 10 percent of global man-made methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Plus, burning the fields reduce the soil’s fertility over time.

Takahachi, 47, wears her mask each time she ventures outside her home, and worries about the pollution’s impact on her two children, ages 20 and 22.

Though crop burning is banned in Thailand, it is the cheapest, fastest way for cash-strapped farmers to make way for the next crop. They can neither afford nor have time for cutting their fields by hand or machine.

“Using both the leaf and the stem of the rice plant, instead of burning the waste, can contribute to fighting global warming,” says Takahachi. “I am happy to be part of this, even if it is just a small part.”

Five Rice Facts:

  1. Rice is the oldest known food still widely consumed today; archaeologists date its consumption back to 5000 BC.
  2. Rice is grown on every continent except Antarctica.
  3. There are more than 40,000 rice varieties.
  4. The Great Wall of China is held together with sticky rice.
  5. Rice, when thrown at weddings, is a symbolic wish for prosperity and fruitfulness.

Rainbow Rice Powder Finds a Home in the Kitchen—and the Pharmacy?

The Rockefeller Foundation’s decades of work in Thailand and elsewhere in Asia is deeply rooted in food innovation.

Image is of a bread loaf made with rainbow rice leaf powder,
A Bread Loaf made with Rainbow Rice leaf powder. (Photo Courtesy of Professor Apichart Vanavichit)

In the 1940s, The Foundation supported traditional crossbreeding research to produce improved staple crops, working in partnership with the Ford Foundation and others to spur the “Green Revolution” from about 1950 to the late 1960s, a period that saw a sharp increase in crop production, in part due to the development of new, more disease-resistant grain varieties. In the 1980s, The Foundation supported building research capacity to produce cheaper, protein-dense rice varieties, including through its International Program on Rice Biotechnology.

Suriya, 65, began working in the fields as a 15-year-old. “I never imagined I would see something like Rainbow Rice,” says the Chiang Mai resident. Her son, Tanet Sandt Mate, works in the government’s soil department. Though Rainbow Rice is delicate and harder to grow, he predicts it will eventually help rice farmers ear three to four times more than they do now.

For Professor Vanavichit, improved income for farmers is one of many reasons to celebrate the development of Rainbow Rice, but “what makes me proudest is that the powder from the leaves is being used in bread. I’m really interested in nutrition. I want low glycemic to prevent Type 2 Diabetes and a lot of antioxidants.”

“The Rainbow Rice leaf has ten times more antioxidants, along with more protein, very little starch, lots of good dietary fiber and iron,” he says. “The rice is a little tricky to grow, the most labor intensive, and we have to create a consumer market. Right now, it is just being grown in test markets, but my hope is that in three years, it will be widely available as part of a premium niche market.”

To this end, he works closely with Pan, who gave The Rockefeller Foundation a Zoom glimpse into her kitchen and work. Together they experiment with how much Rainbow Rice leaf powder can be added to bread and other baked goods without making them too hard. He stops by her kitchen on his way to his office to pick up tasting samples.

“She is ready to keep experimenting as long as I am responsible for what comes out of the oven—and sometimes I have had to turn it into crackers,” he says with a laugh. “When we get it to where she really likes it, it will sell.”

He believes Rainbow Rice leaf powder will be a key part of his legacy. “There is a lot of promise and potential here,” he says. “I can imagine in the future medical products developed from Rainbow Rice leaves.”

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