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Rice-23: The rice that saves half of the work for farmers

Scientists have developed a method to double the annual crop from one to two times, while improving properties in rice that can make it at least partially a perennial plant

A bowl of rice. Image:
A bowl of rice. Image:

Rice was and still is one of the most important plants for humanity. More than 3.5 billion children, adults and the elderly - almost half the number of people on earth - eat rice on an almost daily basis[1]. It provides about a fifth of the total number of calories consumed by all humans, and is used in a variety of foods: Indian biryani, Japanese sushi and schnitzel-and-you-don't-get-up-from-the-table-until-you-finish-the-international-rice-too.

Of course, there is no good without bad. If you want to provide food for everyone, you also have to pay a price. Specifically, handmade. Rice is a perennial plant to some extent - but not for agricultural purposes. After the first growing season, the rice roots grow new stalks, but these are not rich in kernels. Because of this, the rice farmers have to plow the fields every season and plant new seedlings.

This phenomenon seems obvious to us in many plants, but try to think about it from the point of view of an alien looking down on us from Mars. He sees us planting primitive biological machines in the ground - plants, in one word. They are small, but grow over the next few months. He watches us as we provide them with huge amounts of water, expose them to the sun and protect them from pests. He nods in approval as he sees them grow and mature and produce rich and nutritious grains.

Then he stares in shock as the human farmers laboriously tear and uproot the plants from the ground, re-plow the field and plant… the little machines again. He doesn't understand why we do this chore over and over again, when we need almost exclusively kernels.

The reason the alien is so confused is that we have to rely on the internal programming of those natural machines. Specifically, about the fact that the genetic code of the rice plants directs them to die or stop growing after the kernels are harvested.

Rice fields -23 in the first year (e) and in the second year (h). Originally from Nature Sustainability

And now the alien asks - "Then why don't you reprogram the plants, so that they continue to grow throughout the year, and thus save you all the hard work, which repeats itself every season and wastes so many resources?"

And this is exactly what agronomists have been doing for the past decades - and now they have finally succeeded.

In recent decades, biotechnologists and agronomists have tried to create a new variety of rice that can continue to produce seeds every year in good quantity. They did this by primitive means: by crossing an Asian rice variety with its Nigerian relative, which lives in the wild and continues to exist and thrive season after season. These hybridizations took many years, but in 2018 the researchers finally arrived at a product that they felt safe to release to the market in China: "Perennial Rice 23". We will call it Orez-23 for short.

So far so good, but experiments in the laboratory are not considered experiments in the field. Therefore, for the past five years, Chinese agronomists and geneticists have monitored farmers who sowed rice-23 in three fields. The farmers harvested rice-23 twice a year, for four years. To remind you, normal rice is harvested every season, and then it must be replanted.

The results of the research have just been published in the respected journal Nature Sustainability, and provide us with a glimpse into the future[2]. They show that the yield of the 23-rice per acre was slightly higher than that of the normal rice. Rice-23 grew again every season, without harming the amount of the crop produced. Only in the fifth year was there a decline in the crop, and the farmers had to replant it.

Another impressive result is that Orez-23 also improved the quality of the soil. It left a greater number of nutrients in the soil, so a smaller amount of fertilizer would likely be needed to support it. Last but not least - and perhaps the most important - it cost the farmers less money and less work. In the first year, planting costs were similar to those of normal rice. But every year after that, the costs of treating the 23-rice were only half of those of the regular rice. The savings were also expressed in the number of working hours of the farmers: one hectare (10 dunams) of rice-23, saw a reduction of between 68 and 77 working days, compared to a hectare of normal rice. And let's not forget the reduction that there must have been in greenhouse gas emissions: these are caused by plowing the land with tractors that burn fossil fuels, but Orez-23 does not need such seasonal plowing.

Who does rice-23 help, then? For the environment, certainly, and also for consumers who will eventually see a drop in prices. But the immediate beneficiaries will probably be the children and women, who are especially involved in planting the rice in the fields every season. The children will be able to go to school instead of working in the fields. The mothers will be able to devote more time to taking care of the family and starting their own small businesses. And the fathers of the family will also be able to spend less time in Sisyphean work in the fields, and enjoy being with the family or find side jobs that will raise the standard of living of the family unit.

All this is already starting to happen today. The farmers become aware of the benefits of rice-23, and plant it in ever-increasing volumes. In 2021, 15,333 hectares of rice-23 were planted - four times more than in 2020. The Chinese government recommends farmers to use it, and provides them with seeds and training through universities. Farmers in 17 countries in Asia and Africa are currently experimenting with multi-seasonal rice[3].

I also have good news for the black seers among us: there are also dangers. Rice-23 does not require farmers to plow the fields regularly, so bacteria and fungi can accumulate in the soil more easily. Insects can find shelter among the rice roots, and spread diseases among the plants. And weeds spread more easily between rice-23, so these fields needed a treatment-or-two more than usual with herbicides. But these disadvantages do not seem so great in view of the great advantages that Orez-23 provides.

Orez-23 is just another swallow heralding the coming of spring. Spring, in this case, is a world where plants are engineered to serve us in the best possible way. If that sounds unnatural to you, you should know that almost none of the fruits we eat today, look like that 'originally'. The bananas were small, hard and with huge seeds. Watermelons a few hundred years ago were mostly made of inedible connective tissue. The corn was barely edible, and so on. All these plants have gone through countless generations of improvement to bring them to a state where they nourish humanity today.[4].

In short, we have been trying - successfully - to enslave nature for our benefit for thousands of years. Is there damage on the way? Always: for example, damage to biodiversity, when we choose to grow only one variety of bananas and completely neglect the other varieties. But thanks to this Hindu craft, growing parts of humanity can enjoy healthy plant-based food.

In the future we are entering, the plants will no longer be subject to their original programming - the one that was established over millions of years of evolution with the aim of serving the plant itself. Instead, they will serve us. They will grow in the places we want, in more difficult conditions of heat and salinity in the soil, and with a reduced need for irrigation. They will be more resistant to diseases and pests. They will grow throughout the year without a break. They will do what we tell them.

This is the power of science: the ability to decide on the acts of creation, which reaches the doorstep of ordinary people.

Now we just need to know how to use it wisely, to make the world better for everyone.





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