Salt-resistant rice could see the grain grown in the desert

With water insecurity and climate change impacting on agriculture, a new type of rice is being grown in seawater and could yield more than the regular crop. 

6 June 2018
image credit: Karisssa/iStock/Thinkstock

Rice grown in seawater? It’s making me thirsty!

Get a glass of pure H20 and sit down. It’s true it exists, but there isn’t any salty aftertaste.

Chinese scientists have developed a strain of rice that can be grown in diluted saltwater – something they have been working on for 40 years.

A wild species of rice was discovered in China that grows close to a mangrove forest. It’s been used for cross-breeding and genetic manipulation, but growing enough rice from various modified species had still proved elusive until recently. More than 200 different types of the grain have been planted and investigated.

Four decades? That’s a long time to spend researching rice.

Yes, but now the scientists are seeing results. Previous versions resulted in a low yield – meaning they were commercially unviable – but there was a breakthrough last year with a combination of different genes.

They first salt-resistant rice was harvested on a beach in China, ending up on supermarket shelves.

This new rice was sold at a premium: 1kg cost about £6, although it proved popular with six tonnes sold. There was praise for the flavour and texture of the grain.

Saltwater also acts as a natural pesticide, killing off harmful bacteria, which is an added selling point.

The Chinese scientists have six more areas across the country identified for testing and will look at commercial production potentials in 2019, with a goal of planting 6.7m hectares in five to eight years.

So this could mean survival in an inhospitable environment, right?

Not to sound dramatic, but it could be a great way to save areas threatened by food and water insecurity, as well as those affected by climate change.

Take China for example: it’s the world’s top rice importer, yet there are 1m square kilometres of waste in the country where plants struggle to grow due to high salinity levels in the soil.

Described as the ‘father of hybrid rice,’ Chinese researcher Yuan Longping has said that if a tenth of the wasteland was used to farm rice, then it could produce 50m tonnes of food, which is enough to feed 200 million people. It would also boost China’s rice production by 20%.

This new strain could also be useful for areas facing rising seawater levels like Pakistan, India and Australia, as land flooded by saltwater could still be used for agriculture.

Now, the scientists have introduced the technique into the Middle East. Considering 80% of the area of the United Arab Emirates is desert, fresh water is certainly a precious resource over there.

But how did it make it to Dubai?

The Chinese research facility responsible for the seawater rice and the Private Office of Sheikh Saeed Bin Ahmed Al Maktoum – a billionaire member of Dubai’s ruling family – have signed an agreement to promote this 'supergrain' to the Arab world to address future food threats. So there is quite the investment.

The rice was planted on the outskirts of Dubai in January and boy did it deliver. It was reported the yield was better than regular rice, with 7,500kg per hectare produced, when the global average is usually around 3,000kg. It could now see the deserts of Dubai transformed into paddy fields.

Really, rice paddies in the desert?

Yep, it’s full-steam ahead. A 100-hectare experimental farm is being set up and will be put to regular use next year.

All going well, expansion plans are set for 2020 and beyond, with the aim to cover around 10% of the UAE with paddy fields.

No word yet on where they will source the freshwater to aid in the dilution of the seawater though.

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