You know the old saying: when life gives you completely preventable freshwater availability problems caused by climate change, spend decades and millions of dollars genetically manipulating crops so that they can survive in the inhospitable world that we’ve created.
This is exactly what’s happening in China. This week, the South China Morning Post reported that scientist Yuan Longping harvested the most successful, efficient breed of salt-resistant rice in the country’s history, and that its crop yield even more efficient than regular rice.
If implemented widely, salt-resistant crops have huge potential to save areas threatened by food and water insecurity. In upcoming decades, climate change threatens regions around the world with a lethal cocktail of different conditions that make it more difficult to grow plants. Droughts will become more severe and more likely, even in areas that aren’t used to droughts.
This harvest is Longping’s second successful salt-resistant rice harvest in the past year, but this round of crops took huge leaps forward. In October, Longping grew more than 4.5 metric tons of rice per hectare of land (compared to the non-salt resistant average of 3 metric tons). This month’s harvest yielded 7.5 metric tons.
Climate change also sets off an environmental feedback that causes sea levels around the world to rise. For areas that don’t exist far above sea level—like small islands, areas of Pakistan, India, and Australia, and even Maryland—sea level rise can spell severe, consistent salt-water flooding. Since all of these areas rely on agriculture, consistent saltwater flooding could spell a hunger crisis if crops aren’t successful.
Bigger picture, it’s important to note that once an area starts growing salt-resistant plants, it’s next to impossible to get the soil back to its original state. Once a plot of land has been converted for saltwater planting, only saltwater plants can grow there for the indefinite future. As China National Rice Research Institute researcher Huang Shiwen told the South China Morning Post in 2017, “Planting this rice will keep the land salty forever. It cannot be used to grow other crops.”
Still, given the scale of the risk that climate change presents to food and water supplies around the world, progress in salt-resistant crop research from scientists is undoubtedly a step in the right direction.
The need and demand for salt-resistant crops has never been higher, but developing them hasn’t been easy. Scientists around the world have been working since the 1960s to engineer crops that are resistant to salt, but only recently has genetic knowledge advanced to the point where a more salt-resistant crop is possible. Plants are resistant to salt due to a combination of different genes, and until recently it was more practical to filter the salt from sea water than to breed a salt-resistant plant.
It’s not evident if salt-resistant crops such as rice are ready to be produced at scale yet. According to the South China Morning Post’s reporting from Longping’s October rice harvest, citizens have to pay a “premium” price. Some citizens told the Post that they could justify the purchase due to the above-average taste, and the fact that saltwater acts as a natural pesticide, killing off harmful bacteria. But the salt-resistant rice isn’t yet a realistic purchase for the 55 million people living below the poverty line in China.