Developing a new strain of crop is time-consuming, but that doesn’t worry 86-year-old Yuan Longping, China’s renowned rice scientist, in the least.
Yuan, best known as the country’s “father of hybrid rice”, has set his eye on his next trophy－a seawater rice for full commercial production in five years.
By that time, a rice strain grown by his research team is expected to yield up to 4.5 metric tons per hectare－around 60 percent of the yield from regular paddies, Yuan said.
If the potential is fully utilized, Yuan said, China can reap an additional 50 million metric tons of grain per year, enough to feed 200 million people.
Although wild rice that is potentially resistant to diseases and does not need fertilizer is known to grow in briny swamps, such rice has never been turned into a commercial crop.
China has much saline-alkaline wasteland that could be put to use when the country’s arable land is sparse, Yuan said. More than 13 million hectares of such wasteland in the country is suitable for seawater rice farming, he added.
Under Yuan’s direction, a research center will be built in Licang district of Qingdao, Shandong province, where his team will use molecular breeding technologies to develop a sea rice strain with high photosynthetic efficiency and yield.
With funding of 100 million yuan ($14.79 million), scientists will start their experiments on 2 hectares of saline-alkaline marshland north of Jiaozhou Bay in April, and they expect their first harvest next autumn.
Once the 2 billion yuan research and development center is completed, Yuan’s team will start planting a sea rice species in 1.33 million hectares of saline-alkaline soil along the coast.
Seawater rice seeds and planting techniques could also be exported, such as to countries in Southeast Asia, which has a total of 20 million hectares of saline-alkaline soil, Yuan said.
“Our Qingdao center is likely to help Southeast Asia raise its yearly rice production by 20 million tons,” he said.
Zhang Guodong, general manager of Yuance Biotech, a partner in Yuan’s project, said this marks the first time a rice strain that can thrive on seawater as well as yield a high output has been reported.
Although overseas institutions reportedly are trying to develop seawater rice using genetic technology, the efforts seem to be merely lab attempts so far, Zhang said.