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Though neither a staple food nor a major crop in Europe, rice has an important sociocultural significance and ecological importance in several Mediterranean countries of Europe. Per capita annual consumption ranges from 3.5 to 5.5 kg of milled rice in nonrice-growing countries of northern Europe to 6–18 kg in southern Europe. The total rice-growing area within the 27 European Union (EU) member countries is about 450.000 ha, the average annual production about 3.1 million t of paddy rice, and average annual rice imports about 1.1 million t. EU self-sufficiency in rice is about 70%. Some 80% of EU rice production takes place in Italy and Spain, with a further 12% in Greece and Portugal. The remainder is in four other countries: France, Romania, Bulgaria, and Hungary. Outside the EU, rice is also grown in the Russian Federation (120,000 ha in the Krasnodar region and 50,000 ha in the far east region of Vladivostok) as well as in Ukraine (25,000 ha).

Socio-cultural and ecological importance 

Rice was introduced in Greece following Alexander the Great’s expedition to Asia, as far as the banks of the Indus, in about 320 B.C. The Arabs introduced rice in the south of the Iberian Peninsula in the eighth century. Rice was then a rare foodstuff, reserved for royal tables! There is evid ence of rice growing in Portugal in the thirteenth century and it was re-launched by the Portuguese navigators after the opening of the route to the Indies in the late fifteenth century. Rice doubtless spread to Italy from Portugal, first in the Kingdom of Naples and then in the plain of the river Po, where the crop became definitively established. With the succession of generations, each region has developed its own rice culinary specialities: riz au gras in the Camargue, the many Milan-style risottos in Italy, and the paella valenciana in Spain, etc. Rice has thus participated in the economic development of initially very underprivileged zones and in the emergence of social and cultural traditions that contribute to the reputation of these regions today.

European rice-growing areas resulted from the drainage of regions long considered as being unhealthy and inhospitable (the deltas of major rivers and alluvial plains) but that had abundant water resources. Rice was introduced, after substantial development work, as a “pioneer” crop that leaches the soil, making it suitable for other crops (grapevines and grain crops). Today, rice cropping plays an important role in the maintenance of ecological equilibrium and biological richness of these fragile ecosystems.

Major economic traits 

Rice production is regulated through the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) of the EU. That means financial incentives for production but also requirements in terms of environment-friendly agricultural practices: for example, with regard to water management and pesticide and fertilizer use.

The number of rice farms diminished dramatically in the last 25 years in all European countries. For instance, the total number of farms decreased to one-half in Italy and to one-fifth in Valencia, Spain. In the same period, the mean surface area per farm increased in rough proportion to the reduction in the number of farms (from 20 to 47 ha in Italy and from 1.9 to 4.7 in the Valencia area). In France, rice farms range from 50 to 500 ha, with holdings with more than 150 ha accounting for more than 75% of the total rice-growing area. The trend in the increase in average farm dimensions was accompanied by particularly high mechanization. Despite the increase in working capacity, production costs (US$360–410/ha) remain much higher than in most Asian countries and in the U.S. This difference is largely due to the high costs of inputs: water, fertilizer, crop protection products, seed, machinery, fuel, and labor.

In application of the “Uruguay Round agreements,” the liberalization of rice markets in Europe came into effect in 2009.

Geographical features and major cultivation constraints 

Italy is the leading European producer with a total of 220,000 ha under rice. The crop is grown mainly in the Po basin (the Piedmont, Lombardy, Venetia, and the Romagna). The other regions (Tuscany, Latium, Sardinia, etc.) provide only a complement. The second European rice producer is Spain with 117,000 ha. The two main rice-producing regions are Andalusia and Estremadura, where yields vary considerably from year to year because of the capricious water resources. Rice is also produced in Valencia, the Ebro delta, and the Navarre region that enjoy more stable water supply. Greek rice production area used to be very scattered but is now concentrated around Thessaloniki (25,000 ha). Portuguese production, also 25,000 ha, is concentrated in three regions—Coimbra, the Tagus plain northeast of Lisbon, and the Sado and Guadiana valleys. In France, the whole production (18,000 ha) is concentrated in the Camargue region situated in the delta of the Rhone River. So is the case for other EU small rice-growing countries, Bulgaria, Romania, and Hungary.

All these rice-growing areas are at the northern limit of the natural rice cultivation zone and suffer from the same constraints: a short cultural season (May to September), low temperatures at the extremities of the cycle, and irregular sunshine and harvests frequently hindered by rain. Specific varieties have therefore been bred, using mainly the temperate japonica genetic group. These have short cycles (100 to 120 days), very good cold tolerance at all stages, and good resistance to the main pests and diseases. Regarding edaphic conditions, rice is primarily grown on fine-textured, poorly drained soils with impervious hardpans and claypans that are not really suitable to other crops. Some of the soils are sandy on the surface but are underlain with hardpans.

Two other major constraints are (1) the looming water shortage and the associated increase in weed pressure and soil salinity, especially in the coastal areas, and (2) the tougher EU regulations regarding the use of pesticides, thus drastically reducing the number of families of chemicals for crop protection.

Market and consumer demand

The main components of rice quality have been defined by the EU “Regulation on the common organisation of the market in rice” (Council regulation No. 1785/2003). Quality components are mainly related to the shape, color, and integrity of the grain. Other important components are milling quality, cooking and processing behavior, and grain fissuring. The regulation distinguishes four categories, based on grain length (L) and length/width (L/W) ratio: Long A: L >6.0 mm, L/W<2.1–3.0; Long B: L >6.0, L/W = 3.0; Medium: L>5.2, L/W<3.0; Short: L <5.2, L/W <2.0.

Rice varieties grown in Europe mostly belong to the japonica group, initially associated with round to medium-long grains that readily become sticky when cooked. Local specialty varieties are highly appreciated in local markets, especially when they are associated with an Appellation of Protected Origin emphasizing their local origin and the environment-friendly specification of the cropping practices. However, demand for long indica-type grain, for exotic specialty rice such as Basmati and Jasmine rice, and for organic rice is rapidly growing with the increase in rice consumption in Europe, 6% per year.

Research challenges

Research challenges are to help European rice production move toward ecological intensification while diversifying grain quality to better meet consumer and industrial demand.

The impact of rice growing on the environment tends to be considered as beneficial as a result of the volumes of water applied to the land. But, as water resources are becoming increasingly scarce, the European rice-growing sector must reduce the amount of irrigation. It also has to reduce the amount of chemical fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, etc. used in order to make the environmental impact of rice cropping as neutral as possible. This means creating new varieties with improved resource-use efficiency and resistance to biotic stresses (mainly blast and stem borers), and with indica-type grain quality. This also means new cropping practices based on conservation agriculture and the adaptation of organic rice cultivation practices to European rice-growing conditions. As the European rice sector also needs to improve its economic competitivity vis-à-vis imported rice, the new varieties should also have an improved yield potential. As an increasing number of rice farmers switch to organic rice production systems, specific varieties with enhanced weed competitiveness need to be produced. Last but not least is the management of weedy red rice.

Research and development in Europe 

The EU and the FAO Mediterranean rice network encourage the research sector to work in partnership with the different countries. The FAO network includes all the rice-growing countries on the Mediterranean in the EU (Spain, France, Greece, Italy, and Portugal) and outside it (Bulgaria, Egypt, Hungary, Morocco, Romania, Russia, and Turkey). Through technical consultation and seminars, this network is making a strong contribution to the development of scientific and technical exchanges between its members, leading to collaboration in many areas: genetic resources, control of red rice, quality improvement, etc. The network has also established effective relations with rice-growing countries in other temperate zones, particularly in Australia, the United States, and Latin America.

Public research institutions with rice-dedicated teams include IVIA, Central Institute of Freshwater Aquaculture (CIFA), and Institute for Food Research and Technology (IRTA) (Spain); National Agricultural Research Foundation (NAGREF) (Greece); Computing Research Association (CRA) and Esercito Nazionale Repubblicano (ENR) (Italy); EAN (Portugal); VNIIRISA (Russia); and Centre de coopération internationale en recherche agronomique pour le développement (CIRAD), L'Institut de reserche pour le développement (IRD), and Institut national de la recherche agronomique (INRA) (France). These research teams are collaborating with professional organizations of the rice sector in their own country. Two French research institutions (CIRAD and IRD) also have international research mandates and are members of the Global Rice Science Partnership (GRiSP).

If you want to learn more, please read the Rice Almanac. You can purchase it on Kindle or download for free as a PDF.

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