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.
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 kilometers 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.
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.
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.
The rice grains have a unique texture and pleasant flavour, according to the company. Consumers pay a high premium not just for the pleasurable eating experience, but also for some potential health and safety benefits.
Professor Huang Shiwen, the leader of the rice disease research team at the China National Rice Research Institute in Hangzhou, Zhejiang, said salt was a disinfectant that could reduce or cut off the transmission of some diseases caused by bacteria.
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.
The seawater rice developed by Yuan and other research teams is not irrigated by pure seawater, but mixes it with fresh water to reduce the salt content to 6 grams per litre. The average litre of seawater contains five times as much salt.
Researchers said it would take years more research to develop a rice species that could grow in pure seawater.