World hunger may soon become a thing of the past, now that Chinese researchers have developed a system for growing rice — in saltwater. The revolutionary breakthrough is expected to help feed over 200 million people, as well as give a hefty boost to China’s rice production by a staggering 20 percent.
Earlier this year, over 200 types of rice were planted at the Qingdao Saline-Alkali Tolerant Rice Research And Development Center in Qingdao on the eastern coast of China. Over the summer, the researchers flooded the area with diluted seawater to see which strains would thrive in the environment. They were stunned by the results. Said Liu Shiping, professor of agriculture at Yangzhou University:“The test results were way above our expectations.”
A breakthrough of this kind has been sought after for decades. Since the 1970’s, lead researcher Yuan Longping — who is known as the “godfather of rice” in China — has been developing hybrid rice varieties. When it became clear that China was due for a population boom, he and his team began creating hybrids that grow faster, yield more, and resist more stress. Approximately 20 percent of the world’s rice now comes from species that were created through is work.
Though there are some varieties of wild rice that tolerate salinity, most typically produce a low yield of about 1.12 to 2.24 US tons per acre (1.125 to 2.25 tonnes per hectare). In contrast, the newly-developed rice yields between 2.9 and 4 US tons per acre (6.5 and 9.2 tonnes per hectare).
“If a farmer tries to grow some types of saline-tolerant rice now, he or she most likely will get 1,500 kilograms per hectare [1,322 pounds per acre]. That is just not profitable and not even worth the effort,” said Yuan, according to Chinese state media. “Farmers will have enough incentive to grow the rice if we double the yield.”
Though the rice is expensive — on average, it costs about 8 times more than traditional varieties, it is already being sold in China. The distributor estimates that 6.6 US tons (6 tonnes) have already been sold. As commercialization continues, the price of the commodity is expected to decrease. Fortunately, consumers are getting some extra “bang” for their buck, as the “seawater” rice is naturally high in calcium. The new rice also requires fewer pesticides to grow, as less insects tolerate the salty conditions.
Because there are large swathes of land in China that are unable to be farmed due to their high saline levels and alkalinity, this breakthrough is expected to have grand implications. Growing rice varieties with saline tolerance will ensure the growing population is fed and, hopefully, incentivize farmers to plant more rice.
Best of all, it tastes good. “My boyfriend said it was like the braised rice he had back in his village. It is very good,” a local told the South China Morning Post.
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