A 'Miracle Rice' that May Not Be

If it was true that a Chinese company run by one of the country's leading agronomists has developed a new rice that delivers nearly 14 tons per hectare, it would be staggeringly good news. This would indeed be a miracle grain, since most Chinese rice yields are only 6 metric tons per hectare or less.

Unfortunately the story heralding the breakthrough failed to mention one important fact. The rice, developed by a team led by Dr Yuan Longping in test plots in the southern province of Hunan, also apparently requires more than twice as much fertilizer as conventional rice does – as much as 250 kilograms of nitrogen per hectare, compared to about 120 kg used in India, other agronomists say.

For more than a decade, China has been the world’s biggest producer of fertilizers, which environmentalists say is destroying the country’s soils and turning its rivers and lakes into nightmares of bright green algae.

Since the 1980s agricultural yields have leapt upwards in China, as has the nation's use of chemical fertilizers. China consumed 32.6 million metric tons of nitrogen fertilizer in 2007, a 191 percent increase over 1981, according to a Feb. 11, 2010 article in Nature News by Natasha Gilbert. Nitrogen contributes to soil acidity.

There is rising concern that fertilizer overuse could lead to falling productivity as the soil is depleted, threatening China’s food security. The country has only 9 percent of the world’s arable land and is feeding 23 percent of the world’s people on it, meaning that agriculture production is some of the most intensive on the planet.

According to Sources of Chinese Economic Growth, 1978-1996, written by Chris Bramall and published by Oxford University Press, China’s farm soils largely had severe nitrogen deficiencies. The rapid introduction of fertilizer, to which dwarf hybrids reacted vigorously, changed that dramatically. The Chinese government’s purchase of large ammonia-urea fertilizer plants, which went into production beginning in 1974, meant an explosion in crop productivity.

However, it didn’t take long for agricultural land to swing from nitrogen deficiency to nitrogen overload. According to a study, “Fertilizer is Acidifying Chinese Land” by Mara Hvistendahl, published on 11 Feb. 2010 in ScienceNOW, “for nearly all soil types found in China, soil pH has dropped 0.13 to 0.80 units since the early 1980s.” A drop on that scale normally takes hundreds of thousands of years, Hvistendahl writes.

“Beginning in the 1970s, Chinese farmers applied ever-increasing amounts of fertilizer with the hope that it would lead to bigger harvests. Instead of high yield, however they got water and air pollution. Today, agricultural experts estimate that in many parts of China, fertilizer use can be slashed by up to 60 percent.”

Yuan is one of the most admired men in China. He is the recipient of the World Food prize, the 2001 Magsaysay Award, the China State Supreme Science and Technology Award, the United National Food and Agriculture Organization Medal of Honor for Food Security and the 2004 Wolf Prize in Agriculture. His commercial hybrid rice variety, called Nan-you no. 2, is credited with helping to feed an extra 60 million more people in China alone.

Yuan began his research in the 1970s with a dwarf rice, a commercial hybrid variety called Nan-you No. 2, which dramatically increased crop yield, and is credited with helping feed an extra 60 million more people per year in China alone. It is estimated that as much as 60 percent of the rice grown n China was developed by Dr Yuan and his team. He has spent the last 30 years teaching his techniques to thousands of scientists and researchers in over 25 countries in Asia, Africa and the Americas. He is the 2004 recipient of the World Food Prize, the 2001 Magsaysay Award, China's State Supreme Science and Technology Award (often referred to as the "Nobel Prize of China"), the UN FAO Medal of Honor for Food Security, and the 2004 Wolf Prize in Agriculture.

According to the website of Yuan Longping High-Tech Agriculture Co.,Ltd, Dr Yuan’s company, “Better farming practices, including the use of high quality fertilizers that produces higher crop yields will allow farmers to divert cultivated land areas to cash crops while maintaining their grain quotas.”

By contrast, scientists at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Scientists in Beijing, in cooperation with the International Rice Research Institute n the Philippines, have spent nearly 14 years seeking to develop a high-yielding rice that uses neither fertilizers nor pesticides. The process involves the painstaking crossbreeding of hundreds of strains of rice to fashion plants that are resistant to diseases and bugs, need no fertilizer and raise yields dramatically. Their experiments have led to rice that can increase yields to as much as six metric tons per hectare in Africa, higher in Asia where agricultural methods are more advanced.

Both Yuan’s rice and the Chinese Academy’s version are classified as hybrids rather than genetically modified varieties because they are being produced without using modern genetic techniques. Sales of GM rice are banned in China.