It’s hard to believe but it’s true

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By Alfred Sasako.


CAN you imagine growing rice in seawater? Many of us will find it hard to believe it but it’s true. After years of research, Chinese scientists have put rice grown in seawater on the nation’s tables, according to news dispatches from China, whose leadership has begun its Congress in Beijing today (Wednesday).

Salt-resistant species could boost country’s rice harvest by nearly 20 per cent, top researcher says.

Rice grown on a commercial scale in diluted seawater has, for the first time, made it into the rice bowls of ordinary Chinese people after a breakthrough in food production following more than four decades of efforts by farmers, researchers, government agencies and businesses.

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Ning Meng bought a bag of the rice online and had it delivered to the family of her boyfriend early this month. Her boyfriend was living with his parents in a city in Zhejiang province, and the rice was a gift to her future in-laws.

On the evening of the Mid-Autumn Festival, they gathered around the rice cooker. The lid lifted, releasing a puff of steam and fragrance that made everyone take a breath.

“I could tell one grain from the other in my mouth,” said Ning, who gave it a top satisfaction rating. “My boyfriend said it was like the braised rice he had back in his village. It is very good.”

The rice was not grown in traditional rice paddy, where fields are filled with fresh water, but on a salty beach on the Yellow Sea coast in Qingdao, Shandong.

China has one million square kilometres of waste land, an area the size of Ethiopia, where plants struggle to grow because of high salinity or alkalinity levels in the soil.

Agricultural scientist Yuan Longping, known as China’s “father of hybrid rice”, told mainland media that if a tenth of such areas were planted with rice species resistant to salt, they could boost China’s rice production by nearly 20 per cent.

They could produce 50 million tonnes of food, enough to feed 200 million people, he said.

A research team led by Yuan, 87, recently doubled the output of seawater rice, which in the past was too low for large-scale production.

In the mid-1970s, worrying about how to feed the world’s largest, and rapidly growing population, the Chinese government started looking for rice species that could grow in salt-soaked fields.

A major discovery was made by Guangdong-based researcher Chen Risheng, who stumbled on a species of red wild rice near a mangrove forest in Suixi county, Zhanjiang.

After decades of trait selection, cross-breeding and genetic screening, researchers across the country came up with at least eight candidate species, but their productivity remained low, at two tonnes a hectare, just a third that of ordinary rice and insufficient for large-scale planting.

Where did that rice in your bowl originally come from?

Last month, at the nation’s largest seawater rice farm, in Qingdao, the output of Yuan’s seawater rice exceeded 4.5 tonnes a hectare, according to state media reports.

Yuan Ce Biological Technology, a Qingdao-based start-up and business partner of Yuan’s team, said it set up an online shop in August, branding the rice “Yuan Mi” in honour of the project’s chief scientist.

The rice now being sold was harvested last year. This year’s crop will enter barns next month.

Each kilogram of “Yuan Mi” costs 50 yuan (US$7.50), or eight times as much as ordinary rice. It is sold in packs weighing 1kg, 2kg, 5kg and 10kg.

Nearly 1,000 people placed an order last month, and six tonnes of the rice had been sold since August, a Yuan Ce sales manager said.

“Our sales revenue target is 10 million yuan by the end of this year,” he said.

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