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The global staple

Rice, wheat, and maize are the world’s three leading food crops; together they directly supply more than 42% of all calories consumed by the entire human population. Human consumption in 2009 accounted for 78% of total production for rice, compared with 64% for wheat and 14% for maize. Of these three major crops, rice is by far the most important food crop for people in low- and lower-middle-income countries. Although rice consumption is spread across income classes relatively equally in low-income countries, the poorest people consume relatively little wheat. 

Rice is the staple food of more than half of the world’s population – more than 3.5 billion people depend on rice for more than 20% of their daily calories. Rice provided 19% of global human per capita energy and 13% of per capita protein in 2009. Asia accounts for 90% of global rice consumption, and total rice demand there continues to rise. But outside Asia, where rice is not a staple yet, per capita consumption continues to grow. Rice is the fastest growing food staple in Africa, and also one of the fastest in Latin America. Global rice consumption remains strong, driven by both population and economic growth, especially in many Asian and African countries. 


In Asia, rice consumption is very high, exceeding 100 kg per capita annually in many countries. For about 520 million people in Asia, most of them poor or very poor, rice provides more than 50% of the caloric supply. It is widely expected that per capita rice consumption in a majority of Asian countries will start or continue to decline in the future with rising income as people diversify their diets. Among high-income Asian countries such as Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea, as well as in Hong Kong, a significant decline in per capita consumption has been witnessed in the last four decades. Similar patterns have started to emerge in middle-income countries such as China, Malaysia, and Thailand in the last two decades as people there have begun to consume proportionately more meat and vegetables. 

In many other developing Asian nations, including India, Vietnam, and Indonesia, per capita consumption in recent years has also started to decline with rising income, but at a rather slow pace. On the other hand, many other middle- to low-income Asian countries, including the Philippines, Myanmar, Cambodia, Bangladesh, and Laos, continue to witness rising per capita consumption. Due to differing national dietary habits – such as the large number of lacto-ovo vegetarians in India, for example – it cannot be assumed that all Asian countries will follow the same patterns of declining rice consumption with rising disposable income. The key question is how the consumption patterns of each country will change as income rises and a rapid increase in urbanization influences food habits. Overall, despite the observed variation in the Asian per capita rice consumption trend, total rice demand in Asia continues to rise. 

global-staple1In sub-Saharan Africa, rice is the fastest growing staple food. Annual per capita rice consumption has doubled since 1970 to 27 kg and continues to increase rapidly in most countries, caused by high rates of population growth and changing consumer preferences. Urban dwellers who rarely ate rice only a few decades ago now consume it daily. In African countries, such as Nigeria, Tanzania, and Niger, people are moving away from tubers and cassava to rice with rising income. The gap between demand and supply in sub-Saharan Africa, where rice is grown and eaten in 38 countries, reached 10 million tons of milled rice in 2008, costing the region an estimated $3.6 billion for imports. 

Rice is also one of the most important and fastest growing staple foods in Latin America, especially among urban consumers and particularly the poor. In Latin America and the Caribbean, there has been a 40% increase in rice consumption over the last two decades due to a combination of population growth and steadily rising per capita consumption. In South America, average annual per capita rice consumption is 45 kg, while in the Caribbean it has reached over 70 kg. Like Africa, Latin America is a net importer of rice, with a projected annual deficit of 4 million tons by 2015. 

global-staple2Similar strong consumption growth has also been evident among Middle Eastern countries with rice consumption almost doubling in the last two decades. Along with strong population growth, rapid rise in per capita consumption has also contributed to this rapid growth in rice demand. Even in developed countries and regions such as the United States and the European Union, per capita consumption of rice continues to grow, partly due to immigration from Asian countries.Worldwide, using population projections from the United Nations and income projections from the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute (FAPRI), global demand for milled rice is estimated to rise from 439 million tons in 2010 to 496 million tons in 2020 and further increase to 555 million tons in 2035. This is an overall increase of 26% in the next 25 years, but the rate of growth will decline from 13% for the first 10 years to 12% in the next 15 years, as the population growth rate drops and people diversify from rice to other foods. Asian rice consumption is projected to account for 67% of the total increase, rising from 388 million tons in 2010 to 465 million tons in 2035, despite a continuing decline in per capita consumption in China and India. In addition, 30 million tons more rice will be needed by Africa, an increase of 130% from 2010 rice consumption. In the Americas, total rice consumption is projected to rise by 33% over the next 25 years.

In most of the developing world, rice availability is equated with food security and closely connected to political stability. Changes in rice availability, and hence price, have caused social unrest in several countries. During the food crisis of 2008 rice prices tripled; The World Bank estimated that an additional 100 million people were pushed into poverty as a result. For the extreme poor in Asia, who live on less than $1.25 a day, rice accounts for nearly half of their food expenditures and a fifth of total household expenditures, on average. This group alone annually spends the equivalent of $62 billion (PPP) on rice.

It has been estimated that for every one billion people added to the world’s population, 100 million more tons of rice (paddy) need to be produced annually. With further area expansion unlikely, global rice yields must rise faster than in the recent past if world market prices are to be stabilized at affordable levels for the billions of consumers. Projected demand for rice will outstrip supply in the near to medium term unless something is done to reverse current trends of slow productivity growth and inefficient, often unsustainable, management of natural resources. For more information, please see food security.

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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