The Future

Twenty-foot-tall rice could feed a flooded planet

When climate change floods regions around the world, deepwater rice could thrive while other species die off.

The Future

food for a changing climate

The Future

Twenty-foot-tall rice could feed a flooded planet

When climate change floods regions around the world, deepwater rice could thrive while other species die off.

By the end of the century, climate change will have ushered in a much more watery world. From 20 to 80 inches of water — or 1.5 to 6.5 feet — is expected to make an unwelcome entrance into coastal areas, depending on the area. For perspective, four feet of flooding is enough to put three million acres of land completely underwater.

The damage to infrastructure is daunting in and of itself, but what’s arguably more terrifying is the fact that most plants aren’t equipped to survive in saltwater, or deep levels of water. By the end of the century, almost the entire planet is expected to be vulnerable to hunger. In a race against the clock, scientists are working to figure out which crops could survive, which crops won’t, and how and how we can feed our changing planet.

According to new research from Nagoya University published in Science today, we may be able to learn some genetic lessons from deepwater rice, or stalks of rice buried feet underwater. They evolved from regular rice and can reach several stories from the ground in order to breach a water surface, and survive when other plants drown.

During the 1960s to 1980s, Bangladesh took advantage of this mutation, planted the strain of deepwater rice in huge numbers, and used it to help feed their growing population and fuel their developing economy. In an email to The Outline, lead researcher Moto Ashikari said that by unlocking what makes this plant more likely to survive, scientists can better genetically engineer and breed deepwater rice, and perhaps other deepwater cereal crops. After all: plants can’t just get up and walk away. They have to survive in the environment they’ve been given.

“Insects and animals can escape from adverse conditions, but plants cannot evacuate from the adverse conditions,” Ashikari said to The Outline in an email. “Plant has been obtained unique function to adapt in many different environmental conditions.”

Compared to the control on the top row (non-deepwater) rice, stem elongation in deepwater rice is much more rapid and significant.

Compared to the control on the top row (non-deepwater) rice, stem elongation in deepwater rice is much more rapid and significant.

In China, researchers have been working for decades to develop strains of rice that are resistant to salt water, and they can grown in even larger amounts than non-salt resistant rice. This year, scientist Yuan Longping was able to harvest 7.5 metric tons of rice per hectare of land. The non-salt resistant average of 3 metric tons of rice.

Deepwater rice can grow several meters in height.

Deepwater rice can grow several meters in height.

However, obviously, humans can’t subsist off of just rice. Many of the foods that are crucial for human nutrition — like corn, fish, beans, and certain types of cherries and berries — are all threatened by a warmer world. While the widespread deployment of deepwater crops is a step in the right direction, it’s far from a complete solution.

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