The shiny reflections found in these paddy fields are more than a pretty landscape scene — they represent an ancient agricultural legacy that is now responsible for producing one of the world's most important staple foods: rice.

This simple cereal grain is the one of the largest agricultural commodities, just behind sugar and corn. It is most consistently found in Asian diets, which isn't surprising considering its history.

Rice paddy farming is believed to have originated in China, where the earliest known paddy field dates back more than 9,400 years, according to a new study. Chinese archaeologists working at a site called Shangshan found the microscopic bits of rice, which showed this staple crop was key to our diet thousands of years earlier in human history than we thought.

Centuries later, this farming technique is still used throughout Asia and has also sprung up in Europe and the Americas.

Rice is a simple grain and one of the largest agricultural commodities, just behind sugar and corn. Rice is a simple grain and one of the largest agricultural commodities, just behind sugar and corn. (Photo: CHEN WS/Shutterstock

The cultivation of rice has developed over many centuries into a labor-intensive agricultural operation that requires a vast amount of water, most commonly sourced through irrigation, but can also be fed by rain or through location, such as coastal wetlands or places that experience tropical monsoons.

While rice can be grown in dry soil, rice farming in semi-aquatic or deep water environments is generally considered more practical because it helps discourage pests, disease and weed growth.

But there's a price for those landscaping methods; the rice industry accounts for one-third of the planet's annual freshwater use. Luckily, there's a new farming method on the rise that could help change that statistic. The process, known as the System of Rice Intensification, allows farmers to produce 50 percent more rice using significantly less water.

Rice terraces in China The rice industry accounts for one-third of the planet's annual freshwater use. (Photo: isarescheewin/Shutterstock)

When you look at these rice paddy fields, you might find yourself cringing at the insane amount of water being used. Even so, it's hard to deny the beauty of these exquisite designs etched into the ground like a topographical map.

Terraced rice fields in Yuan Yang, southern China. Terraced rice fields in Yuan Yang, southern China. (Photo: isarescheewin/Shutterstock)

A colorful sunrise is reflected in China's rice fields. A colorful sunrise is reflected in China's rice fields. (Photo: CHEN WS/Shutterstock)

Greenery around glassy rice terraces Rice is farmed in semi-aquatic or deep water environments because it helps discourage pests, disease and weed growth. (Photo: isarescheewin/Shutterstock)

Golden rice terraces This technique of rice paddy farming has spread from China to Europe and the Americas. (Photo: isarescheewin/Shutterstock

Sky reflected in rice terraces The water is most commonly sourced through irrigation, but can also be fed by rain or through location, such as coastal wetlands. (Photo: isarescheewin/Shutterstock)

Sky reflected in glassy rice terraces Yuan Yang County in China reflects the light of the late afternoon skies. (Photo: CHEN WS/Shutterstock)

Editor's note: This story has been updated since it was originally published in December 2014.

Catie Leary ( @catieleary ) writes about science, travel, animals and the arts.