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Sat, Jul 10, 2004 - Page 12 News List

Rice farmers pin hopes on breads

REUTERS , MATSUBUSHI, JAPAN

Eighth grader Akane Usui eats bread made of rice, part of a newly introduced school lunch, at a junior-high school in Matsubushi, Japn on June 22. Japanese farmers are seeking to turn rice into other foods, such as bread, to reverse declining consumption.

PHOTO: REUTERS

The aroma of baking bread wafts over Tsunemitsu Yokokawa's vast paddy fields, where his ancestors grew rice for Japan's emperors.

He still grows rice, but with bread slowly taking over as a staple food across Japan -- even in rice-growing townships like Matsubushi, 40km north of Tokyo -- farmers like Yokokawa are adapting to the trend.

Rather than lay down his hoe, Yokokawa took his rice and made it available to his neighbors in the form of buns and loaves at the local bakery.

"It is much easier to get people to eat another piece of bread than it is to get them to eat an extra bite of rice," Yokokawa said. "If rice bread catches on, we farmers will be able to grow more."

Faced with ever-expanding food options, Japanese are eating less and less of the traditional staple. Each person ate an average 59.5kg of rice last year, or just over half of the 114.9kg consumed in 1960.

Production curbs have been in place since the 1970s to support prices and prevent stocks from ballooning and to open the market to foreign rice.

The country's total farmland has shrunk by about 20 percent over the last 40 years. This year's rice production is forecast at 8.57 million tonnes, down from 8.7 million tonnes last year.

Faced with falling demand, farmers have hit on the idea of turning rice into other foods such as bread, the consumption of which has been rising for decades.

Last year Japanese ate 1.25 million tonnes of wheat in the form of bread, compared with 690,000 tonnes in 1962.

As popular as it is now, bread was a novelty for many Japanese until half a century ago.

In the postwar days, US occupation forces distributed flour to feed the hungry masses. It was made into noodles and pancakes as well as slightly sweetened rolls called koppe pan, a Japanese version of the French roll-like coupe.

Koppe pan was a hit and Japanese children ate these rolls for lunch until the mid 1970s, when rice was formally reintroduced into school-lunch menus.

But once rice lunches were resumed, the cooks discovered chil-dren, whose parents also grew up eating bread, would finish their rolls but not their rice.

Two years ago, in a bid to stem falling rice consumption, Matsubushi started a rice-bread project involving Yokokawa and schools.

The town was finally able to serve rice rolls in May to the town's ninth-graders. With a soft crust, velvety texture and a faint rice flavor, the bread met a positive response.

The town's 400 eighth-graders had the rolls for lunch last month with a stew made of locally grown corn, and by the end of the year all of the town's school-age children will have had a taste.

"Ordinary bread is dry and you need milk or soup to wash it down, but this bread is very soft and moist and you can eat it as it is," teacher Namie Kobayashi said.

Other bread connoisseurs also voiced favorable opinions.

"It's much chewier than regular bread, but I wouldn't have known it was made of rice if no one had told me," Kumiko Abe, 13, said.

Simply kneading together powdered rice and yeast will not produce bread. Rice lacks gluten, a protein found in cereals that acts as a glue in holding dough together.

It took Matsubushi baker Yoshio Mitsuishi a month of experimenting with different rice-gluten ratios to get the mix right. Now he can even make croissants.

But Mitsuishi's distinctly Japan-ese creations -- buns filled with soy-sauce flavored vegetables and topped with dried seaweed or curry buns -- are the favorites.

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