But salt in the soil where rice is grown ruins the crop, a problem that is worsening in Asia. Can anything be done?
Sea surges and salt water intrusion have rendered several million hectares of potential rice farmland in the region unproductive, adding to the poverty of millions of people living in coastal areas. In Bangladesh, salinity has damaged about a million hectares of land near the sea, according to the International Rice Research Institute based in the Philippines.
For years, the IRRI and other research organisations have been developing salt-tolerant rice varieties, some of which have helped make damaged rice lands in south Asia and Africa productive once more. For example, a variety released in Bangladesh in 2007 helped assure farmers of a harvest even during high tide when salinity is at its peak.
This week, IRRI said its scientists had succeeded in growing a new generation of rice with twice the salt tolerance of other varieties. “Unlike regular rice, the new rice line can expel salt it takes from the soil into the air through salt glands it has on its leaves,” said IRRI in a statement. The new rice line, which may be made available to farmers in four or five years, can tolerate higher salt concentrations similar to those found in sea water, it added.
“This will make saline-stricken rice farms in coastal areas usable to farmers,” said Dr Kshirod Jena, lead scientist at the IRRI. “These farmlands are usually abandoned by coastal farmers because the encroaching seawater has rendered the soil useless. That means livelihoods lost for these communities.”
That is good news for countries such as the Philippines, which is struggling to produce enough rice to feed its growing population. Almost 8 per cent of rice farms in the Philippines’ two rice growing regions, Bicol and Cagayan Valley in the main island of Luzon, are potentially affected by saline water intrusion, according to the government rice research agency.
The Philippines was the world’s biggest rice importer for a number of years before it embarked on an ambitious program to boost production in 2010. It has drastically cut rice purchases from Thailand and Vietnam over the past two years. Reviving or boosting rice output in salt-affected areas could help the Philippines grow enough of the food staple, eaten by more than 90m Filipinos at least three times a day.