China plans to feed 80 million people with ‘seawater rice’

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Jinghai District in northern China is not a rice-growing paradise. Located along the coast of the Bohai Sea, more than half of the region’s land consists of saline and alkaline soils where crops cannot survive. Yet last fall, Jinghai produced 100 hectares of rice.

The secret to this bountiful harvest lies in new salt-tolerant strains of rice developed by Chinese scientists in hopes of ensuring food security threatened by rising sea levels, increased demand for cereals and supply chain disruptions.

Known as “saltwater rice” because it is grown in salty soil near the sea, the strains were created by overexpressing a selected wild rice gene that is more resistant to salt solution and to alkalis. The trial fields in Tianjin – the municipality that encompasses Jinghai – recorded a yield of 4.6 metric tons per acre last year, above the national average for producing standard rice varieties.

The breakthrough comes as China seeks ways to secure its food and energy supplies, as global warming and geopolitical tensions make imports less reliable. The nation has one-fifth of the world’s population and as many mouths to feed, with less than 10% of the Earth’s arable land. Meanwhile, grain consumption is increasing rapidly as the country becomes wealthier.

“Seeds are the ‘chips’ of agriculture,” said Wan Jili, director of the Qingdao Saline-Alkali Tolerant Rice Research and Development Center, drawing a parallel between the crucial role semiconductors play in developing new technologies and their role in ongoing development. trade war between the United States and China. Seawater rice could help improve China’s grain production in the face of an “extremely complicated situation regarding climate change and global food security”, she said.

China has been studying salt-tolerant rice since at least the 1950s. But the term “saltwater rice” only began to gain mainstream attention in recent years after the late Yuan Longping, once the the nation’s top agricultural scientist, began researching the idea in 2012.

Yuan, known as the “Father of Hybrid Rice”, is considered a national hero for boosting grain harvests and saving millions of people from hunger through his work on high-yielding hybrid rice varieties in the years 1970. In 2016, he selected six locations across the country with different soil conditions that were turned into test fields for salt-tolerant rice. The following year, China established the research center in Qingdao where Wan works. The institute’s goal is to harvest 30 million tons of rice using 6.7 million hectares of dry land.

“We could feed another 80 million people” with salt-tolerant rice, Yuan said in a documentary released in 2020. “Agricultural researchers like us should take responsibility for maintaining food security,” he said. to a local newspaper in 2018.

Climate change has made the task more urgent. China’s coastal waters have risen faster than the global average over the past 40 years, a worrying trend given the country’s heavy reliance on its long, low eastern coast for grain production. Successful cultivation of salt-tolerant rice on a large scale would allow the country to make more use of the region’s increasingly saline land.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, global sea levels could rise by up to 59 centimeters by the end of the century if the planet warms by 2 degrees Celsius. The oceans surrounding the United States will swell faster over the next three decades than over the past century, according to a report released this week by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

President Xi Jinping has stressed in several recent meetings with senior government officials that securing the supply of primary goods is a “major strategic issue” given climate and geopolitical pressures. “The food of the Chinese people must be made by and stay in the hands of the Chinese,” he said at a meeting of the Politburo Standing Committee in December.

Chinese scientists are betting that land once considered barren can be turned into productive grain plots. About 100 million hectares of land in the country, roughly the size of Egypt, is rich in salts and alkalis. Meanwhile, arable land has shrunk by 6% from 2009 to 2019 due to urbanization, pollution and overuse of fertilizers.

To utilize the salty soil, farmers traditionally dilute their fields with copious amounts of fresh water. The approach is still commonly used in some coastal regions. But the method requires large amounts of water and often does not improve yields enough to make economic sense.

“China is currently studying another method to develop grain varieties that can withstand soil salinity,” said Zhang Zhaoxin, a researcher with China’s Ministry of Agriculture. While seawater rice has been mainly planted in trial fields so far, Zhang said he believes commercial cultivation will soon take off with government support.

The Qingdao research team said last October that they could achieve the goal of cultivating 6.7 million hectares of sea rice within ten years. In 2021, the group was put in charge of 400,000 hectares of land to develop the production of sea rice.

“If China can be more self-sufficient in staple foods, that would also be a contribution to global food security,” Zhang said. “The less China imports, the more other countries will have.”

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