Scientists in China have successfully grown a particular strain of saltwater-tolerant rice, producing a yield that exceeded their expectations by three times.
The plan involved planting over 200 kinds of rice at the Saline-Alkali Tolerant Rice Research and Development Center in Qingdao. The nearby Yellow Sea provided the salt-rich water that was first pumped, then diluted and diverted into the expansive rice paddies.
Output expectations were a modest 4.5 tons per hectare of yield; however, an astonishing 6.5 to 9.3 per hectare yield was achieved in 4 varieties. Lead researcher Yuan Longping, affectionately known as the country’s “Father of Hybrid Rice,” optimistically reported the results. Local companies see these results as the green light for ramping up harvesting and importation of the grain.
The research team had formed a partnership with the locally-based Yuan Ce Biological Technology, which resulted in the rice being sold as “Yuan Mi”, a fitting name for the scientists behind its cultivation. The price, however, is a sticky issue. The average cost per kilogram is 50 yuan ($7.50)—roughly eight times the average cost of 1kg of rice on the market— and it is sold in packages ranging from 1 to 10-kilo bags. This does not seem to be a huge deterrent, as six tons have been consumed by customers since August.
The seawater rice seems to possess a different texture and unique flavor, which means it will be a consumer favorite, both on the domestic and international markets. There could be other benefits as well, according to Professor Huang Shiwen, leader of the Rice Disease Research Team at the China National Rice Research Institute based in Hangzhou, Zhejiang.
He is a strong supporter of using nanotechnology to address some of the common pathogens that cause rice diseases (such as sheath blight, blast, and bacterial panicle blight of rice, and rice spikelet rot disease). He says about seawater rice:
“To survive in the harsh environment, these species must have some ‘diehard’ genes which may enable them to better resist the attack of certain diseases or bugs, especially those happening at the root or lower stalk.”
This news is part of a larger shifting of rice industry priorities and crop cultivation methods in China. This year, for instance, the country agreed to allow rice imports from the US—without a doubt its main global market competitor—the first time such an agreement has been made.
Though the trade agreement will produce relatively small market exchanges in the beginning, the symbolic impact is more important. To give an idea of the scale of consumption, USA Rice President Betsy Ward said in a statement that China consumes the equivalent of the entire US rice crop every 13 days:
“We waited a decade for the protocol to be signed and our members are anxious to meet the demand of China’s consumers for safe, high-quality US rice.”