An 87-year-old scientist may have just unlocked the secret to growing rice in saltwater


Yuan Longping, an 87-year-old Chinese scientist, has spent his life working to feed a world hungry for rice. Now he’s wading into saltier territory.

Longping is developing a new high-yield strain of rice that can grow in saltwater paddies.

The traditional process of cultivating rice requires a field to be flooded with a supply of fresh water. Only a fraction of China’s total land area can be farmed this way, since much of the soil has salt in it from coastal flooding and tides. In the region of Dongying on China’s eastern coast, for example, nearly 40% of the land now has salt content above .5%, according to the World Bank. (China nonetheless produces more rice than any other country, however.)

Growing rice in swamps, bogs, and clay-like or salty coastal waters, which comprise about a third of the total arable land in China, has typically been impossible because salt stresses the plants. That makes photosynthesis and respiration a challenge for the stalks, causing them to stop growing and die. An increasing amount of land is expected to face this problem as sea levels rise.

If Chinese farmers can start planting rice in the vast salty swaths of their country, however, that could dramatically increase the country’s food supply.

Early success

Longping’s first test results look promising: A crop of 200 different saltwater-tolerant strains of rice that his research group grew this year yielded up to 8,030 pounds of rice per acre, according to China’s Xinhua News Agency.

That’s more rice than most commercial US growers harvest in their yields (which usually range between 7,200-7,600 pounds per acre.)

Growing rice in saltwater would also free up stretches of soil that’s currently devoted to rice for other crops. Chinese diets are changing as more affluent consumers demand more meat and fewer grains, but space to raise livestock and vegetables is limited, since so much of China’s arable land is reserved for rice.

“That could, of course, have a huge impact on the overall food security and supply in China,” Ren Wang, assistant director general for agriculture at the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, told Business Insider.

Longping’s initial success came just as the 2017 global rice production forecast has taken a downturn. South Korea and Sri Lanka are suffering from “abnormal dryness,” according to the UN FAO, while Bangladesh recently experienced some of the worst flooding to hit South Asia in a decade. India and Nepal were hit by both floods and droughts this year, so are also expecting rice prices to tick up.

Feeding 200 million people

But although Longping’s experimental planting, which was conducted at the Qingdao Saline-Alkali Tolerant Rice Research and Development Center on the Yellow Sea, showed the rice was able to grow in sea-like water, the salt concentration was diluted.

“It’s still only maybe 10% the level of salt in sea water,” Wang said, cautioning that the rice is still “quite far” from any practical application for farmers.

The Chinese research team behind the new strain hopes that in three to five years, they’ll be able to produce enough of the saltwater-powered grain to feed 200 million Chinese people, and possibly hundreds of millions more around the world. Wang says the technique could also be adopted in other areas, including Bangladesh, Vietnam and parts of Africa.

The goal sounds lofty, but Longping knows a thing or two about how to grow new kinds of rice. The Chinese researcher won the 2004 World Food Prize for his work on some of the first high-yield hybrid rice varieties that were developed in the 1970s, which helped shift his country from food deficient to food secure.

New breeds

Rice has been a staple crop for more than 7,000 years, and today, more than half of the world’s population relies on the fingernail-sized grain for sustenance, according to the United Nations. High-yield varieties like those Longping has developed feed more mouths than traditional techniques, but are also more energy-intensive and require more non-organic fertilizer.

With the saltwater technique, rice growers are hoping to cut back on energy use. One successful strain, called Green Super Rice, has been shown to grow in salty water and is already being cultivated with some success in the Philippines. It’s more environmentally friendly than typical high-yield rice, and it fetches a higher price due to its high-quality, reddish grains, according to the International Rice Research Institute.

In addition to increasing the total volume of rice that can be produced, rice grown in saltwater may offer health benefits, since there’s more calcium and other micronutrients in alkaline waters.

But the scientists will have to make sure that consumers actually want to eat this new rice.

The saltwater-tolerant strains in China were developed with crosses from wild rice relatives, and Wang says he hasn’t found any detailed report on the rice quality. That makes him skeptical about how the new breeds taste.

“I personally would imagine there’s still a long way to go,” he said.

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