Known as the “breadbasket of the Caribbean,” the small nation of Guyana has always had a strong agricultural presence. Guyana grows large amounts of rice and sugarcane, both for local consumption and export. Rice is a staple of the Guyanese diet and makes its way into a number of local dishes, including “cook up rice” (a popular and versatile dish that is made in a single pot). The local bank GBTI, which is a large supporter of the agricultural industry in Guyana, offers a range of competitive loans designed specifically for agricultural ventures in rice and sugarcane, as well as other crops. While there have been ventures into raising livestock and growing other types of cash crops, rice remains a staple of the Guyanese agricultural industry and has been an important aspect of the country’s economy for many years. Here’s a look at the history of rice farming and how it began in Guyana.
An Ancient Crop
The history of rice as a cultivated crop dates back to between 10,000 and 14,000 years ago. Evidence and artifacts found in China point to the Yangtze and Huai rivers as the earliest points of domestication of Oryza sativa (domesticated from a wild grass called Oryza rufipogon). Farming equipment and other tools believed to have been used with rice have been found in China dating back as far as 8,000 years ago. Rice would soon spread throughout the rest of the civilized world and establish its place as a staple of global cuisine, one that it continues to hold today.
There are two main subspecies of this type of domesticated rice, known as indica and japonica. Indica rice thrives in tropical climates, while japonica rice grows best in subtropical and temperate climates, like those found in East Asia. Another domesticated rice, Oryza glaberrima, came onto the global scene much later, developing in West Africa. As the rest of the world began to be colonized, the farming of rice would spread to those settlers, soon making its way to the Americas and other areas.
Rice in the Caribbean
Rice is not native to the Caribbean region. Just like in many other areas colonized by Europeans, rice was introduced by the early settlers who arrived in the region. For Guyana, that meant rice was introduced by Dutch settlers in the early 18th century. In 1738, the Dutch Governor of Essequibo (Laurens Storm van Gravesande) introduced the crop as a means of supplementing the diet of slave laborers working on sugarcane estates in the country. As indentured workers began to arrive later from East India, the demand for rice continued to increase. Many of the workers decided to stay in Guyana and began to cultivate rice on their own plots of land, which soon pushed the production of rice beyond what was needed for local consumption. The initial export of rice from Guyana occurred in 1896, when it was shipped off to Trinidad.
After the initial export, Guyana’s rice industry expanded, with exports heading to the West Indies, partly due to a reduction in shipments from the United States and Asia during World War I. By the end of World War II, Guyana had become the main supplier of rice to the market for the West Indies and also had established a marketing organization for rice in 1939. In 1946, both the British Guiana Rice Marketing Board (BGRMB) and the British Guiana Rice Producers Association (BGRPA) were established, and between the years of 1946 and 1950, Guyana was exporting around one-third of the rice that it produced (approximately 22,991 tons of rice paddy on average). Guyana earned the label of “the breadbasket of the Caribbean” by 1956, and after achieving its independence 10 years later, rice production had reached an average of 167,600 tons annually.
Rice in Guyana Today
Today, rice is the second largest crop in Guyana’s agricultural industry, second only to sugarcane in production. Rice is produced by a group of private farmers, as well as the Guyanese Rice Milling and Marketing Authority. Although a large portion of the rice that is produced is still kept in the country for local consumption, Guyana exports rice to several countries, including Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, Suriname, Antigua, Barbados, St. Lucia, Grenada, Dominica, and other nations that are a part of CARICOM. The largest importers of rice from Guyana are Latin American countries, including Venezuela (with 34% of exports in 2019). In 2019, the second-largest importer of rice was Portugal (with 12% of total exports in 2019).
In spite of issues with inconsistent weather and other problems, 2019 was a big year for rice production in Guyana. The country produced more than 1 million tons of paddy in 2019, its second-largest production year on record. Annual average yields for rice production are continuing to increase steadily. Experts believe that rice production in Guyana will likely continue to grow in the next several years.