The scene was incredibly beautiful from afar. The fields were sparsely dotted with villagers wearing traditional straw hats and wielding machetes by hand. The glowing, radiant tones of the early morning sun flooded with fields with gold. The rice dried in perfect bundles while nearby water buffalos slowly chewed straw. It was a scene that could have existed for a hundred years. I’d come to photograph this beautiful, rural setting and captured in this light, the scene could easily have appeared idyllic. But standing there, experiencing it firsthand, I quickly saw that the reality of harvesting rice by hand is simply brutal.
Rewind to earlier that week when I’d been speaking with the owner of my guesthouse on Don Khong and I realized my visit in November coincided with the annual rice harvest in Laos. Having previously learned about the different types of rice grown in Southeast Asia, I was interested to see the production in action.
Rice is ubiquitous in Southeast Asia. Rice is so pervasive it is served with nearly every meal. It comes with Thai-style omelet at breakfast, it’s made into a fried rice for lunch, it’s served next to a coconut curry for dinner and it’s even sweetened to make mango sticky rice for dessert. After months of eating what seemed like an endless supply of rice, I never could have imagined a sight that would make me value every single grain.
It happened on a hot, humid day when my friends and I rented motorbikes to explore the island of Don Khong. A few rural hamlets dot the riverbanks and it was these remote villages that I was keen to visit. But when I found myself standing on the edge of the red dirt road in the early morning light, I was overwhelmed by the reality of the scene in front of me – the heat, the dust, the sheer difficulty of the physical labour. While a few villagers in Laos do have access to a tractor or a bundling machine, the vast majority of rice is cut, tied into bundles and stacked to dry by hand. Later the dried stalks must be shaken to remove the rice and the grains spread out in the sun to dry. Finally the rice is poured in burlap sacs and stored throughout the year. Rice is a major regional staple and families in Laos can often be seen sharing a bowl of sticky rice along with a few vegetables as their main meal of the day.
Estimates say that 85% of the population of Laos lives off of subsistence farming, mostly by producing rice. While my own amateur gardening attempts have increased my awareness of the effort that goes into growing food, I had never been confronted with the reality of depending entirely on what you can produce to survive. Farmers in Laos are already well aware of the necessity of reducing food waste. Being directly reliant on the land to produce food means that the farmers do not waste materials. While I doubt a farmer in Laos would use the terms like sustainable, organic or free range, the truth is they have a solid understanding of these principles and their farming practices support a diverse, healthy ecosystem.
Once the rice was harvested, a water buffalo can always be seen staked out in the field eating the ‘waste’ stalks. While spending time in the fields the animals would convert the stalks into manure which would re-fertilize the land. At the same time, chickens go into the fields to eat any stray grains of rice as well as the plethora of insects found in manure. In this way, food waste was kept to a minimum and the energy is recycled back into the ecosystem. More importantly, the villagers increase their food security and nutrition by having a steady supply of milk, eggs and (occasionally) meat.
In the West, our farming system has become so remove from biological principles that we believe fertilizer comes in a powder from a factory and waste products must be shipped away for processing. We’ve forgotten that healthy farms are closed loop systems that feeds themselves.
After seeing the reality of the working and living conditions of the farmers, I can’t condone the romantic image that I’ve seen in many travel photos, that life in rural Laos is quaint and idyllic. However, I do believe that there are many lessons to be learned from a way of life that values the environment, encourages cooperation in a community and reduces waste. I’ve always had strong convictions against wasting food, but I will never look at a single grain of rice the same. After seeing the level of labour that goes into its production, I will forever value every single grain of rice.
Have you ever eaten rice? Just kidding!! What steps do you take to reduce your food waste?
Now It’s Your Turn! At home or abroad it is important to value our food and there are lots of simple ways. Create a shopping list or meal plan before you shop to reduce spoilage. Encourage your family to take small portions and add more to their plate if needed. Consider getting a compost bin to eliminate organic waste from the landfill. Read the great suggestions in the comments below as well!