For 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