food security in ChinaFor about 65% of the Chinese population, rice is the most essential part of a good diet. In fact, rice is a key part of food security in China. For thousands of years, families in China have farmed rice in large fields called paddies.  Surprisingly, the methods for growing and harvesting have remained the same for thousands of years with farmers still using hand cultivation and livestock-drawn plows. In recent years, soil salinity and overuse of fertilizers have presented challenges to rice production, and thus, food security in China. Fortunately, a Chinese scientist has discovered a way to revolutionize food security through a type of grain called “sea rice.”

How Does Rice Grow?

Fresh, clean water is absolutely essential to rice cultivation and farmers construct rice paddies with that in mind. The rice paddies are made with a relatively watertight subsoil on the bottom and at the borders. This allows for the paddy to hold around five inches of water for most of the growing season. Because the rice-growing field must stay flooded for months on end, if it is not naturally filled with rain or floodwater, it must be irrigated. Rice is also very sensitive to soil salinity (salt content) and pH (acid/base content), and as such, rice cannot grow in what agronomists refer to as saline-alkali soil — earth that is too salty and chemically basic.

Why is Rice Farming in Trouble?

Unfortunately, China has a large amount of this saline-alkali land that cannot be used for agriculture, spanning about 100 million hectares. That is a little more than 386,102 square miles; roughly the size of Egypt.

There is currently a lack of food security in China. According to the World Food Programme, around 150.8 million people endure malnourishment in China. Further, more than 186 million people face the impacts of floods and other crop-destroying national disasters.

Additionally, Chinese farmers have dramatically. increased the amount of fertilizer use in recent decades. As of 2014, the average application rate was 434.3 kg/hectare, which is almost twice the internationally recognized safe upper limit. This plays into a vicious cycle; such excessive long-term use of fertilizer turns previously fertile land saline-alkali, providing an incentive to use even more fertilizer to meet previous productivity levels.

Discovery of Sea Rice

Since the 1950s, there has been a consensus among scientists that these problems could be fixed if farmers could grow rice in saline-alkali soil. In 1986, a Chinese scientist named Chen Risheng finally had a breakthrough. While studying mangrove trees at a beach, he stumbled across a single green stalk sticking out of the ground.

Against all odds, there was a wild rice plant actually growing in saline-alkali soil. Chen collected around 500 grains and began a painstakingly precise breeding process. By 1991, that breeding resulted in about 3.8 kg of precious salt-tolerant grains. Chen named his cultivar “sea-rice 86” and continued selecting, planting and harvesting the seeds for years.

The result? A variety of rice with remarkably valuable characteristics. Chen’s research confirmed that sea-rice 86 (also called SR86) can be planted in heavily saline-alkali soil for six years. Not only does the rice survive but it also improves the soil quality in half that time. This variety of rice can withstand up to three times the amount of salt than other strains.

SR86 is also more resistant to flooding and waterlogging, and in strong conditions, the stem does not break as easily. Thus, the strain is less delicate and more resistant to natural disasters in comparison to regular rice varieties. This rice does not require fertilizer, it is naturally resistant to pests and disease. Furthermore, it is significantly more nutritious than other major rice strains.

Recent Progress with Sea Rice

Since the discovery of SR86, scientists have been working to identify the exact genes that make it so desirable. These efforts have been largely successful, and now, the scientific community has a starting point for future projects involving genetic rice modification as they now know the precise genes that give SR86 its astounding properties. In this way, sea-rice 86 has the potential to strengthen food security in China.

Currently, SR86 and other salt-resistant rice strains have yet to be introduced into the mainstream farming community and market, although rapid progress is in motion. In the autumn of 2021, the Chinese district of Jinghai (a location filled with saline-alkali soil) was able to harvest more than 100 hectares of salt-resistant rice.

The research team that led the harvest has since received 400,000 hectares for the purpose of continuing farming and observation. Additionally, the team is confident that it will be able to cultivate salt-resistant rice across 6.7 million hectares by October 2031.

Risheng, the original pioneer of SR86, has also expressed a desire to turn the area where he found the original rice plant into a preserve where SR86 can be grown all over the beach as a permanent commemoration of the advent of sea rice.

500 Grains Toward Food Security

It is strange to think that a single stalk of rice could provide such a natural solution to enhance food security in China. Because of one plant, the Egypt-sized portion of Chinese land now has agricultural potential. In the future, people will have access to a grain that does not waste freshwater, improves the quality of the soil it grows in, stands strong against the elements, needs no fertilizer and is very nutritious. SR86 provides agronomists today with the tools necessary to solve tomorrow’s problems regarding food security in China.

– Mia Sharpe
Photo: Flickr

Food Security in China
On January 24, 2022, China’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs published new guidelines for the approval of gene-edited crops. These guidelines come amid an influx of measures “aimed at overhauling China’s seed industry” and ensuring the nation has the ability to provide enough food for its own people as the world’s largest population. Given the Chinese government’s strong investment in gene-editing, it is important to examine the impact of this technology on food security in China.

Barriers to Food Security in China

  • Limited Fertile Land: China has about “20% of the world’s population” to provide food with only 7% of arable land. In 2016, Beijing established a “red line” with the aim to set aside a minimum of “120 million hectares of arable land” for agricultural purposes. However, industrialization, urbanization and the growing preference for the cultivation of cash crops over grains and legumes have “accelerated the loss of agricultural land since then.” With soil fertility becoming increasingly poor, China is at the risk of falling below its red line.
  • Lack of Self-Sufficiency in Food Production: Greater self-sufficiency in grains, soybean and oil crops production is a policy priority for the Chinese government in efforts to maintain food security in China. For example, as of 2020, China has relied on imports to supply about 85% of its soybeans. While this has allowed China to stock up on other staples, such as rice, wheat and corn, many view the nation’s reliance on imported soybeans as a weakness for stability and food security in China. In 2021, “China imported a record 164.5 million tonnes of grain,” an 18.1% increase from 2020. China’s weak influence in global supply chains has caused its food self-sufficiency rate to decrease from 101.8% in 2000 to just 76.8% in 2020. This is a percentage experts predict will decline further to 65% by 2035. Also, the pandemic-induced setbacks for food exporting nations have heightened concerns about the reliance on imports for stability and food security in China. With the increasing demand for measures that allow for self-sufficiency and import diversification, the Chinese government has turned to gene editing for a breakthrough.

What is Gene Editing?

Simply put, gene editing is the altering of a plant’s genes to adjust or enhance its performance. Unlike its counterpart, gene modification, which introduces a foreign gene into a plant’s DNA, gene editing tweaks existing genes in plants to make genes more efficient.

The process involves the use of biological catalysts, such as “transcription activator-like effector nucleases (TALENs), Zinc Finger Nucleases (ZFNs) and CRISPR/Cas systems” that can “be engineered to bind to any DNA sequence.” The main advantages of gene editing are affordability, precision and efficiency. With gene editing, plant breeders can achieve results comparable to traditional breeding methods but within a shorter period of time and “with greater precision than ever before.” In addition, gene editing can curb hunger and malnutrition by providing higher-yielding, nutritious crops that are resilient to pests, diseases and environmental changes, thus sustaining the agricultural economies of areas that rely on farming produce for both food security and income. In crop science, genome editing has shown the ability to create less sugary potatoes and “a soybean containing high levels of omega-3.”

China’s Gene Editing Guidelines

Although China has performed more extensive research on gene editing than any other country, none of the gene-altered crops have yet reached commercialization. However, the new guidelines may change that. The guidelines “stipulate that once gene-edited plants have completed pilot trials, a production certificate can be applied for, skipping the lengthy field trials required for the approval of a [genetically modified] plant.” This means that approval for a gene-edited plant could range from one to two years in comparison to about six years for genetically modified plants. The crop must “also pose no danger to the environment and China’s food security.” Researchers are confident that these new trial rules will significantly boost the “yields, taste and resilience” of crops, thereby strengthening food security in China.

Looking Ahead

In light of this, many researchers are actively working to research and develop a successful gene-edited crop. For example, Caixin Gao, a plant biologist and an employee of the Chinese Academy of Science’s Institute of Genetics and Development Biology, worked “on developing a strain of wheat that combats mildew since 2014.” Although Gao’s research team could remove the gene that “makes wheat prone to fungal growth,” the wheat’s post-editing growth faced stunting. However, since realizing that the issue stems from the inadequate repression of the sugar-producing gene, the researchers strongly believe that they have managed to isolate a high-yielding, fungal-resistant wheat strain. Therefore, this crop may be among the first to receive approval for commercialization. Overall, gene-edited crops show potential to enhance food security in China and across the world.

– Divine Adeniyi
Photo: Unsplash