Heirloom Rice and Sustainability

by Echo Store on June 03, 2022

For centuries, rice has been at the center of every Filipino home’s dining table. But for many farmers, especially ones in Cordillera, rice is more than just food or commodity. Though most of them look the same, there are over 120,00 varieties of rice in the world. Hundreds of these are found in the Philippines, including 300 heirloom rice varieties, some of which are already endangered.

What is heirloom rice?

The Department of Agriculture (DA) defines heirloom rice as “a special kind of indigenous rice that has been planted by the ancestors of Ifugao and other upland tribes”. Handed down by generations, heirloom rice varieties are a source of food and livelihood as well as a carrier of significant historical and cultural values. 


Heirloom rice varieties in the Philippines are known for their exceptional qualities. Compared to other organic rice varieties or the common well-milled rice, they have distinct aromas, outstanding flavors and textures, and more nutritional values. They also come in various colors such as red, purple, and black. More importantly, heirloom rice varieties are organically produced using traditional farming practices that sustain the local biodiversity.

Most of the known heirloom rice varieties in the Philippines are grown in the famed terraces in the Cordillera region. Some varieties also grow in Mindanao, particularly in some areas in Cotabato and Sultan Kudarat.


With the support of the DA and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), the Heirloom Rice Project was launched. This initiative under the DA’s Food Staples Sufficiency Program (FSSP) aims to enhance productivity and enrich the legacy of heirloom rice by empowering the communities that grow them.


Philippine heirloom rice varieties in the Ark of Taste

The Ark of Taste, an initiative of the non-profit organization Slow Food, catalogs endangered heritage foods that meet the following criteria: they must be of good quality, unique in taste, culturally or historically linked to a distinct ecoregion, locality, or ethnicity, and sustainably produced.


The goal is to create awareness of these products and let people know that they might disappear within a few generations and thus, need to be preserved, rediscovered, and put back on the table.

There are currently 65 Ark of Taste products in the Philippines. These include the following heirloom rice varieties:


Chong-ak rice

Known as ‘Uloy’ or ‘Unoy’ in the local Kalinga language, this medium grain rice with a rust-red seed coat is slow-growing, requiring five to six months from transplanting to harvest. This tall, aromatic plant grows best in irrigated terraces. The Chong-ak variety is linked to the cultural practices of the indigenous Taguibong people in Kalinga. 


Imbuucan rice

Also known as ‘imbu-an’, ‘tinglu’, or ‘tinawon’, Imbuucan is produced mainly in the municipality of Hingyon and the adjacent valleys in Banaue. Like Chong-ak, it is slow-growing and grows best in irrigated terraces. This traditional native variety has a distinctive red stripe on its grains.


Ingudpur rice

Also called Ifugao diket (sticky), Ingudpur is one of the rarest sticky rice varieties in Ifugao. It is a medium-sized grain that grows in small terraced paddies in Cordillera, with brans sporting a mix of black and brown and milky-white grains. Because of its strong color pigmentations, it is often used for making rice wine or tapuy, a ceremonial wine served during special occasions such as weddings and festivals.


Jeykot sticky rice

This plump, medium grain glutinous variety has salmon-colored bran on top of a milky-white grain. It grows in the municipalities of Lubuagan and Pasil, Kalinga, Philippines. This variety is used in both sweet and savory recipes, often in dishes that use coconut or coconut milk. It is also used in making rice wine.


Ominio rice

A medium grain, moderately glutinous variety, Ominio grows in both the Mountain Province and Ifugao Province. This rice has a distinct deep purple and black color and is often used for making rice desserts and rice wine. Ominio is linked to the indigenous people of the Mountain Province. In particular, its origin story is often told in myths of the Balangao people.



This red-colored, non-sticky, aromatic long-grain variety is also known as Minaangan. It grows in both Kalinga and Ifugao, is high-yielding, and is adaptable to both low and high elevations. When cooking, this rice smells earthy. It tastes mild though, has a soft texture, and goes best with dried legumes and wild river greens.


The above heirloom rice varieties are beginning to vanish in the fields and the markets because of several reasons — exploitation, biodiversity loss, and lack of awareness (which leads to a lack of demand). In some cases, the younger generations choose to leave the area in search of more economically feasible work, with only a few people left to tend to the farms.


How to consume rice sustainably

Rice farming is one of the biggest contributors to climate change, emitting potent greenhouse gases. On top of this, eating well-milled rice or white rice is stripped of fiber and nutrients that it’s hardly considered healthy.


One way to make rice consumption good for us, good for farmers, and good for the environment is to choose heirloom rice whenever possible. By doing so, you help generate more awareness for it, you contribute to the livelihood of farmers, and you help preserve a piece of Filipino culture.


These varieties are also not as processed as white rice and therefore, contain more nutrients. Furthermore, they are grown using sustainable practices. The farmers plant and harvest by hand, a practice that has been done for centuries. Carabaos and water buffaloes aid farmers to clear the land. They also don’t use pesticides. With support from the DA and IRRI, farmers are also taught more eco-friendly ways to farm.


Choosing these varieties will help create demand. But if not possible, you can opt for lowland rice such as Nueva Ecija’s brown, red, and black rice. This is also a sustainable choice as lowland rice is easier to transport and still provides more nutritional value than chemically-treated ones.


It may take some getting used to. But making a healthy and earth-loving choice is always worth it.