Long before the Pharaohs of Egypt, the farmers of the Far East have cultivated rice, a crop which can produce nearly double the calories of wheat, the main growth in Europe at the time. As a matter of fact, archaeologists today can map exactly where and when ancient societies in India and South East Asia had an expansion in rice cultivation that led to a rapid rise in population.

Rice held back one thing from the ancients though; it could not tolerate saltwater and therefore detested the salty marshes that dotted the Orient’s river deltas. Across East Asia today, this is more than 1,000,000 square kilometres of natural quagmires.

Last year, researchers in the city of Qingdao announced to the world that they had developed a strain of rice which could tolerate saline water at 20% of seawater concentration. The rice, “Yuan Mi” (You and Me?), is named after the leader of the research project Yuan Longping.

Of more than 200 samples of salt-resistant crops initially planted at the research centre, four different rice crops had managed to grow beyond expectations to 6.5 tonnes (~38,000 bowls of rice) per hectare, which would put its production on par with common Asian rice. “The test results greatly exceeded our expectations,” declared Liu Shiping, professor of agriculture at Yangzhou University.

This has been the significant breakthrough in this field given that previous strains could not break commercially viable harvest biomass. “If a farmer tries to grow some types of saline-tolerant rice now, they most likely will get 1,500 kilograms per hectare. That is just not profitable and not even worth the effort,” Yuan said. “Farmers will have an incentive to grow the rice if we can double the yield.”

Speculation is abuzz elsewhere in the world too. International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) scientists have in recent years identified a major part of the rice genome which is responsible for rice tolerance to salinity. Researchers there achieved a small miracle with their green thumbs; out of 34,000 cross-breeds made between a salt-tolerant wild species and the common Asian rice, a single plant germinated from an embryo. “We treated this single plant survivor like a baby,” said Dr Kshirod Jena, one of the lead researchers of this project.

This seedling was then crossed with Asian rice again to isolate the trait of salt tolerance. To date, the IRRI says it is helping farmers across South Asia with more than 100 salinity-tolerant varieties of rice being developed by them. “Unlike regular rice, the new rice line can expel salt it takes from the soil into the air through salt glands it has on its leaves”, explained Dr Jena.

For the pioneers of Yuan Mi and those at the IRRI, they stand in the fog with many problems in their futures to take apart. The Yuan Mi researchers planted their crops in coastal areas under supervised conditions, whereas further up the mouth of the Yangtze River soil environments greatly differ in composition. It may therefore have problems dealing with heavier salinity & alkalinity and changes such as the presence of sulphates not found commonly on the coast. Salinity problems within marshes are expected to become exacerbated with rising global sea levels. It is apparent that the wetlands this rice can grow in will need to be drained and destroyed in the process too.

On a personal note, this has been the story that inspired me to stay with science for second year. Deciphering the genetic code to making drought/salt/flood etc. resilient crops will shield many future generations from famine. Biotechnologists are making civilisation more resilient to biological disasters whether they be ecological, agricultural, aquatic or pathogenic. We are besieging problems one at a time until they yield to the might of peer reviewed science.

I think that is what drives much of science; hoping to make the world a better place. The world has come very far and standing of the shoulders of its giants gone by, I hope to continue to lift it up.


Vincent Guan