Chinese scientists will begin field trials next year on varieties of rice that could eliminate the necessity of planting annually — an achievement that could have major environmental and food security benefits around the globe. Crop scientists have long sought to develop a perennial rice crop, writes Winifred Bird in Yale Environment 360, but the urgency has increased as climate change has put increasing stress on the world’s rice farmers.
Melting glaciers, Bird writes, are threatening to dry up water supplies for irrigated paddies. Meanwhile, in uplands, where farmers grow rice on steep hillsides, erosion is undermining both productivity and ecosystem health. A perennial rice could, however, yield rice for many years without replanting. By crossing domesticated rice with its wild predecessors using conventional breeding techniques, scientists at China’s Yunnan Academy of Agricultural Sciences hope to create deep-rooted varieties that hold soils in place, require less labor, and survive extremes of temperature and water supply. The idea of creating a perennial crop is not unusual; plant breeders have been trying to do the same for wheat, sorghum, and other crops for decades.
“This line of research foreshadows a more sustainable way of raising crops in the uplands,” Casiana Vera Cruz, of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), told Environment 360. She says the research could especially impact women, because they are most often responsible for the hard work of hand-planting rice each spring on small mountain farms.
While research on rice is taking place across the globe, the biggest strides, according to Bird’s story, are taking place in China. Geneticist Fengyi Hu and his colleagues at the China’s Academy of Agricultural Sciences are completing nearly a decade of trials on perennial rice varieties, including one strain they claim yields harvests close to those from conventional rice for four years or more. One agricultural company in Yunnan will plant perennial varieties on more than 1,500 acres this year. If Yunnan’s government approves the new rice for widespread release to farmers, Environment 360 reports, it will be among the world’s first perennial grains to be grown beyond experimental fields. Read the Environment 360 feature here