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Rice terraces in Yunnan
China is the world’s top producer and consumer of rice. It produces and consumes a third of the world’s rice, about 200 million tons a year. In 2004, China was forced to import rice when it produced 124 million tons but consumed 150 million tons. In 1989 the output was 179 million metric tons.

Rice yields in China increased dramatically with the introduction of high-yield dwarf rices. These scientifically-bred strains — crosses between Mexican- and Philippine-bred wheat and cold weather rice from China — have been so successful that farmers have been able to raise more rice on less land. The surplus land has been used to raise more profitable crops like cotton, fruit and vegetables. Some land has been used to raise fodder for cattle and cows to meet the new demand for dairy products and meat.

Rice blast is harmful disease that affects China’s rice crop. Interspersing two varieties of rice have doubled yields in Yunnan and occurrence of rice blast decreased by 93 percent.

Rice fields shrunk by 19 million hectares in the late 1990s and early 2000s as farmers have switched to other crops and abandoned marginal land.

Websites and Sources: Rice Culture of China china.org.cn ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia Products List and Links made-in-china.com ; China’s Ministry of Agriculture english.agri.gov.cn

History of Rice in China

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Growing the seedlings in the 1990s

Rice is believed to have been first cultivated in China or possibly somewhere else in eastern Asia around 10,000 years ago. The earliest concrete evidence of rice farming comes from a 7000-year-old archeological site near the lower Yangtze River village of Hemudu in Zheijiang province in China. When the rice grains unearthed there were found they were white but exposure to air turned them black in a matter minutes. These grains can now be seen at a museum in Hemudu.

According to a Chinese legend rice came to China tied to a dogs tail, rescuing people from a famine that occurred after a severe flood. Evidence of rice dated to 7000 B.C. has been found near the village of Jiahu in Henan Province northern China near the Yellow River. It is not clear whether the rice was cultivated or simply collected. Rice gains dated to 6000 B.C. have been discovered Changsa in the Hunan Province. In the early 2000s, a team form South Korea’s Chungbuk National University announced that it had found the remains of rice grains in the Paleolithic site of Sorori dated to around 12,000 B.C.

Plants from southern China, particularly in the mountainous areas of Yunnan are being studied for the potential of being used in bioegineered crops. Among these are varieties of rice that thrive in unusually cool temperatures, high altitudes or dry soil and rice that is rich in calcium, vitamins and iron. These varieties are being cross bred with popular food varieties to produce edible vitamin- and mineral-rich crops that grow in harsh conditions. Scientist have also figured out how to extract a cold-tolerant gene from mountain varieties and place then other varieties to improve their cold tolerance.

Yuan Longping, 'Father of Hybrid Rice'

Yuan Longping (1930-2021) was a Chinese scientist who developed higher-yield rice varieties that helped feed millions — if not billions — of people around the world. Known as the “father of hybrid rice,” Yuan was considered a national hero for boosting grain harvests and saving millions from hunger thanks to his work on high-yielding hybrid rice varieties in the 1970s.

After his death in 202 at the age of 91 in the southern city of Changsha, Associated Press reported: Yuan spent his life researching rice and was a household name in China. Worldwide, a fifth of all rice now comes from species created by hybrid rice following Yuan’s breakthrough discoveries, according to the website of the World Food Prize, which he won in 2004. On Saturday afternoon, large crowds honored the scientist by marching past the hospital in Hunan province where he died, local media reported, calling out phrases such as: “Grandpa Ye, have a good journey!” [Source: Huizhong WU, Associated Press, May 22, 2021, 9:33 PM

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Bundling the seedlings in the 1990s
“It was in the 1970s when Yuan achieved the breakthroughs that would make him a household name. He developed a hybrid strain of rice that recorded an annual yield 20% higher than existing varieties — meaning it could feed an extra 70 million people a year, according to Xinhua. His work helped transform China from “food deficiency to food security” within three decades, according to the World Food Prize, which was created by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Norman Borlaug in 1986 to recognize scientists and others who have improved the quality and availability of food.

“Yuan and his team worked with dozens of countries around the world to address issues of food security as well as malnutrition. “Even in his later years, Yuan did not stop doing research. In 2017, working with a Hunan agricultural school, he helped create a strain of low-cadmium indica rice for areas suffering from heavy metal pollution, reducing the amount of cadmium in rice by more than 90%.

China Plans to Feed 80 Million People With ‘Seawater Rice’

In 2022, Bloomberg reported: “Jinghai district in northern China is hardly a rice-growing paradise. Located along the coast of the Bohai Sea, over half of the region’s land is made of salty, alkaline soil where crops can’t survive. In the autumn of 2021, Jinghai produced 100 hectares of rice. The secret to the bountiful harvest is new salt-tolerant rice strains developed by Chinese scientists in the hope of ensuring food security that’s been threatened by rising sea levels, increasing grain demand and supply chain disruptions. [Source: Bloomberg News, February 19, 2022]

“Known as “seawater rice” because it’s grown in salty soil near the sea, the strains were created by over-expressing a gene from selected wild rice that’s more resistant to saline and alkali. Test fields in Tianjin—the municipality that encompasses Jinghai—recorded a yield of 4.6 metric tons per acre last year, higher than the national average for production of standard rice varieties.

“The breakthrough comes as China searches for ways to secure domestic food and energy supplies as global warming and geopolitical tensions make imports less reliable. The nation has one-fifth of the world’s population, and that many mouths to feed, with less than 10% of the Earth’s arable land. Meanwhile, grain consumption is rising quickly as the country grows more wealthy.

““Seeds are the ‘chips’ of agriculture,” said Wan Jili, a manager at Qingdao Saline-Alkali Tolerant Rice Research and Development Center, drawing a parallel between the crucial role semiconductors play in the development of new technologies and their role in the ongoing trade war between the U.S. and China. Seawater rice could help improve China’s grain production in the face of an “extremely complicated situation regarding climate change and global food security,” she said.

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winnowing rice in the 1990s
“China has been studying salt-tolerant rice since at least the 1950s. But the term “seawater rice” only started to gain mainstream attention in recent years after the late Yuan Longping, once the nation’s top agricultural scientist, began researching the idea in 2012. In 2016, he selected six locations across the country with different soil conditions that were turned into testing fields for salt-tolerant rice. The following year, China established the research center in Qingdao where Wan works. The institute’s goal is to harvest 30 million tons of rice using 6.7 million hectares of barren land.“We could feed 80 million more people” with salt-tolerant rice, Yuan said in a documentary broadcast in 2020. “Agricultural researchers like us should shoulder the responsibility to safeguard food security,” he told a local newspaper in 2018.

“Climate change has made the task more urgent. China’s coastal waters have risen faster than the global average over the last 40 years, a worrying trend given the country’s deep reliance on its long and low eastern coast for grain production. Successfully growing salt-tolerant rice on a large scale would allow the country to utilize more of the increasingly salty land in the area. President Xi Jinping has stressed in several recent meetings with top government officials that ensuring the supply of primary goods is a “major strategic issue” given climate and geopolitical pressures

“Chinese scientists are betting that land once dismissed as barren can be turned into productive grain-producing plots. About 100 million hectares of land in the country, about the size of Egypt, is high in saline and alkaline. Meanwhile arable land has decreased 6% from 2009 to 2019 because of urbanization, pollution and overuse of fertilizers.

“To make use of salty soil, farmers traditionally dilute their fields with large amounts of fresh water. The approach is still commonly used in some coastal regions. But the method requires vast amounts of water and often doesn’t improve yields enough to make sense economically. “China is looking at another method now, to develop grain varieties that can withstand the soil’s saltiness,” said Zhang Zhaoxin, a researcher with China’s agricultural ministry. While seawater rice has mostly been planted on trial fields so far, Zhang said he believes commercial cultivation will soon take off with the government’s support.

“The research team in Qingdao said last October that it can meet the goal of growing 6.7 million hectares of seawater rice within ten years. In 2021, the group was put in charge of 400,000 hectares of land to expand production of seawater rice. “If China can be more self-sufficient in staple foods, it would be a contribution to the world's food security too,” said Zhang. “The less China imports, the more other countries will have.”

Image Sources: University of Washington, Nolls China website http://www.paulnoll.com/China/index.html

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2022

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