Fri | Jan 22, 2021

Orville Taylor | Plastic makes perfect: Just the tip of the 'riceberg'

Published:Friday | December 16, 2016 | 12:00 AMDr Orville Taylor

We all saw the video of an Asian looking man making what looks like rice from something that resemble plastic, and of course, the recent reports of a woman who purportedly had the polymer-based ‘sin-thetic’ staple, which melted instead of rising.
I am awaiting positive confirmation that plastic rice has been sold here and will test it with my bamboo chopsticks. 

There is another with a different set of Asians making fake cabbage from eggs and one in which a woman with a distinct Caribbean accent and fake hair demonstrating how resilient the artificial cabbage is.  Of course, the general narrative is that the Chinese are the experts when it comes to falsification of original stuff.  Indeed, a friend once said that his wife’s close friend was such a fake that she should have, ‘made in China’ emblazoned on her chest.
The videos are viral on YouTube and let me set the first disclaimer that not everything that we think is Chinese is so.  True, inhabitants from countries in the South East Asia region have generally common features. But many Native Americans such as the Inuit (Eskimos) and several Eurasian people living along the border of Russia and Asia would balk at the generic Jamaican nomenclature of, ‘Missa Chin’.  In fact, the fake rice video is, from my little knowledge, Vietnamese and not Chinese. And of course, popular lore has the Chinese eating anything with legs except furniture.
True, the Chinese have a more elaborate pallet than the typical westerner.  Yes, the same westerners like you, who have no problem eating nasty crabs, which scavenge dead animals in landfills; sucking down carrion-eating lobsters or male swine raised by themselves in preparation for being made into jerk pork. 
Consumers of beef are pious ‘neighsayers’ on the topic of eating horse meat, despite the equine creatures having leaner meat and are more finicky eaters. Have you ever seen a horse, donkey or mule eating dirty, semi-rotting food from a dumpster? Eating a cow raised in the city is simply a lot of bull.

Cultural relativism

Inasmuch as I've always been bemused and amused that the signature Chinese dog breed is called the Chow and a meat-filled dumpling is called 'sow bow' I've never felt that there was anything fundamentally wrong with eating canine or any other type of meat. Although admittedly, even in my most carnal loving period of my life, I could never bring myself to eat any species of cat, whether a big tiger or a little kitty. Simply put, it’s to each his own. In anthropology and sociology we learn to respect other peoples’ cultures and their laws.  This, we call cultural relativism.
Nevertheless, eating our crocodiles, ground lizards, gallowasps, marine turtles, parrots and lignum vitae and mahoe wood is illegal. And here is where the Chinese, and Asians in general, may seem to be in a league of their own.  The Japanese eat a species of puffer fish whose toxin is stronger than that of the cobra. Snakes, rats, opossum, iguanas and other ‘disgusting’ creatures are part of the fare of scores of other peoples.  And before you retch, some Africans eat insect larva and others make burger-type patties from ‘dingy’ flies inhabiting the Lake Victoria region.
Nevertheless, the Chinese present a potentially major food problem in the world.  Around 20 per cent of all living human beings reside in China. With a population of 1.35 billion, there is always going to be pressure on natural resources in that part of the world.  Moreover, as large as it is, only eight per cent of the world’s arable land is Chinese territory and despite having 30 per cent of the world’s fresh water supply, its poor environmental record has put a major strain on clean water being made available.
Yet, it is not that China is an impoverished country with an inability to feed itself.  Ironically it has been one of the world's fastest growing economies over the past decade.  Unlike the typical patterns of economic growth in newly industrialising states, China’s wealth is spreading and its middle class growing.  Thus, with the increased ‘effective demand’ a larger percentage of the population can now buy more rice and animal protein; and this includes the illegally hunted wildlife such as the Chinese alligator.  Consequently, it is one of the worst countries in terms of its protection of its wildlife.  Myriad species of animals have disappeared on the altar of China's growing appetite. 

Demand for rice

But that is only half of the issue.  China is Riceland and this member of the grass family is a backbone crop.  Deeply entrenched in Chinese culture, rice is part of most major dishes.  Indeed, the delicate rice paper is both a craft and culinary input.  Its citizens consume more than 146 million metric tons of rice annually with India running second at 98 million. The plastic rice maker’s country Vietnam is fifth at 21 million.  It might be surprising, but inasmuch as China is the largest gross consumer of the product, its residents are not the largest average consumers.  In fact, Myanmar (Burma) with 227 kilograms per capita annually, Vietnam at 220 kilograms, Bangladesh 198 and Indonesia at 147, are way ahead of China with a mere 82.
Therefore, China has far more space its stomach and an increasing supply of dollars to buy it.  So, it is simple math, if Mr Xiang can now buy more rice, there is going to be less globally, whether it is brown, jasmine or Basmati whole grain. Once self-sufficient in the crop, the paradox of industrialisation has reduced the percentage of lands dedicated to farming and rice is no exception. But with increased demand and no matching increase in global production, there will be scarcity.
Just as they are in business, the Chinese are no fools.  Therefore, they have in place regulations to keep domestic grain security until 2020.  This means that imports of rice must never exceed domestic production while domestic and international demand grows.  So then, if more Chinese can buy more rice, but are importing less and still have less land dedicated to rice farming what do you have globally?
Hopefully the plastic rice claim is untrue, but if confirmed in Jamaica I’m done eating rice and will in order to avoid the plastic be innovative and wrap my spring rolls with copious pieces of locally manufactured bamboo cloth or paper.
- Dr Orville Taylor, senior lecturer in sociology at the UWI and a radio talk-show host, is the author of 'Broken Promises, Hearts and Pockets'. Email feedback to and