The whole world has about 950 million hectares of saline and alkaline land, Asia claiming about a third. China has about 100 million hectares of such soil, whose salt content defied the possibility of rice production, which constitutes a real waste of land resource, especially given the huge size of Chinese population and food demand, when 65 percent of the population live on rice as the staple food.
Research and trial planting of a kind of rice hyped as salt resistant seems to promise the utilization of vast wasteland and enhanced food security.
However, experts caution against the early overoptimism and point out that there will be a long way to go before the commercial feasibility of such rice planting can be proved.
Also called saline-alkali resistant rice, it is developed by experts in rice-planting through hybrid breeding and is specifically designed to plant in tidal flats and other kinds of land with a salt content that is too high for ordinary rice to grow.
Yuan Longping, China’s “Father of Hybrid Rice”, has won fame for his contribution to hybrid rice development in 1970s. Thanks to these rice varieties, China’s rice yields has been greatly enhanced and food security ensured. He said this year that, his program assumed a yield of 4.5 metric tons a hectare, and a land of 6.67 million hectares (including swamps, bogs and brackish coastal areas), which would increase 30 million tons of rice to the nation’s barns every year, based on an average daily rice need of 0.5Kg per person, that’s enough to feed about 80 million people.
In the past three years, Yuan has concentrated on salt tolerant rice and led a team for research and development based in Qingdao of eastern China’s Shandong Province, where they established a R&D center in September 2016. The center aims to develop salt-tolerant rice variety that can grow in saline-alkaline soil in different areas with varied climate conditions. And they set a “conservative” goal of producing 4.5 tons of rice per hectare in such unfavorable soil, compared with China’s average rice yield of about 6.75 tons per hectare.
The first batch of salt-tolerant rice was planted in two trial paddies in northern part of Jiaozhou Bay in April 2017 and the harvest came five months later in September 2017. Agricultural experts overseeing the harvest revealed that, the four highest-producing varieties respectively returned 9.3 tons, 8.2 tons, 7.4 tons and 6.6 tons per hectare, all above the center’s moderate goal of 4.5 tons. Experts also say the salt-tolerant variety growing in saline-alkaline land can deliver nutritional goods as it has higher mineral content than regular rice.
Expert at the center said, the results showed that the salt-tolerant strain can survive in diluted seawater with a salt content of no higher than 0.6 per cent, while salt content of seawater being 3.5 per cent. In this sense, it was not academically right to call it “seawater rice,” which can cause misunderstanding, yet the media tends to uses as a stunt to catch eye-balls. While there is a long way to go before planting on commercial scale can be decided, the center expressed confidence in the market prospect of the rice varieties.
The Qingdao team even brought the rice strain to foreign land and launched a trail project in Dubai in early January 2018, and harvested in late May, with returns ranging between 4.8 to 7.8 tons per hectare. This is the first successful trial planting of rice in desert areas, which faces prohibitively challenging conditions, such as extreme temperatures, water with too high saline content, lack of fresh water, sandstorms. The successful trial marks a historic breakthrough in planting technology and set a good example of cooperation and friendship. The two sides are joining hands to advance the planting, and hope to make no less than 10 percent of UAE’s land arable.
The team also reveals their plans on bringing the varieties and technologies to Middle East and North Africa, to help them grow more food to feed the people and alleviate poverty.