In today’s Finshots, we discuss a new variety of rice that China has been experimenting with of late.

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The Story

A few years ago, if you’d asked people, “Can you create rice that lasts forever?” they would’ve laughed and called you crazy. They would’ve said that it can never be done.

But there’s a Chinese proverb that goes “The person who says it cannot be done, should not interrupt the person doing it.” And maybe Chinese researcher Fengyi Hu took that to heart. You see, back in the 1990s, when he was a student, Hu got the backing of the International Rice Research Institute. He had to work on developing a perennial variety of rice. One that would almost last forever. But people didn’t really believe in the project. And slowly, the funding dried up.

But Fengyi Hu didn’t give up. In 2012, he set out to try again. He got 21 researchers on board and began his experiments. Finally, 5 attempts later, they did it. They managed to create perennial rice — a lab-developed cross between domestic Asian rice called Oryza sativa and its perennial African relative Oryza longistaminata. They called it PR23!

And in 2021, more than 44,000 smallholder farmers grew perennial rice in China! The Chinese government even put it on the list of ‘Top 29 Recommended Rice Varieties’!

Now there’s a caveat. Just because the name says ‘perennial’, it doesn’t really mean that the rice will last forever. Rather, it means that PR23 will last a long time. Farmers can plant the crop just once and reap about 8 harvests (or go 4 years) without resowing it. The rice can be harvested without killing the plant and the rice simply continues to grow.

Sounds like something out of a sci-fi movie, no?

Now based on experimental data, it’s safe to say that it won’t be a game-changer for crop yield. Not yet anyway. For now, the perennial rice yields 6.8 metric tons per hectare. Whereas, our everyday ‘annual’ rice variant generates about 6.7 metric tons.

So yield is not the exciting part. But it can save time and money.

Now on the face of it, cost savings may not be apparent. Because the first sowing costs pretty much the same as any other variety of rice would. It needs the same machines, the same labour, everything. It’s only in the second sowing season that the true benefits appear.

You see, rice seeds are normally first sown in a nursery before they are replanted in ploughed fields. Since perennial rice didn’t need a second round of resowing, it didn’t need to depend on nurseries, didn’t require reploughing and also didn’t have to be transplanted from nurseries to fields.

Also, the soil doesn’t have to be tilled each year. And there’s no replanting. So costs inevitably drop. In fact, farmers saved upwards of $1200 per hectare in labour and non-labour costs. And perennial rice saved about 68 to 77 days of labour. The researchers say that perennial rice cuts cost by 50% in years when farmers don’t have to plant it.

Also, perennial rice is quite a hardy crop. One that has deeper and stronger roots. One that can self-grow. But also, one that retains much more water than the regular rice crop. That means, in regions where paddy cultivation is dependent on rainfall and is prone to droughts, growing the PR23 can help you save on irrigation costs too.

In fact, depending on the area studied, profits from perennial rice were 17% to 161% more than annual rice.

Also, it could really aid the environment you know?

To put things in perspective, regular or annual rice varieties require tilling the soil once a year before it receives seeds. This means that the soil’s surface is regularly disturbed. And it’s left exposed to water and wind erosion. Also, in the process of tilling, soil oxidising bacteria are disturbed. And that can create 51% more methane emissions than perennial rice.

Since you only have to plough the field once in four years for PR23, it means fewer harmful gases are released into the air — after all, methane is 25 times more potent at warming the earth when compared to carbon dioxide.

Reduced tilling also increases the organic carbon and total nitrogen composition in the soil. This simply means that crops can be healthier. They can tap into the abundance of nutrients in the soil to stimulate its regeneration.

But everything new comes with its share of problems, no? And with 17 countries now administering trials, we have to talk about the downsides as well.

Some researchers suggest that since the soil isn’t ploughed regularly, it could become a breeding ground for fungi and pathogens. Also, weeds flourish in such fields and they require more herbicide treatments (which actually add to the cost). Then there’s the insect problem — after harvesting, these critters can remain in the crop. They could then transmit viruses when they feed on the regenerating crop. And finally, when the 4 year period is over, taking out the strong roots to replant the rice could actually be a tougher task. Again, it could lead to labour demanding higher rates for the effort. And maybe some of that cost savings won’t add up.

Anyway, with rice being the primary crop for more than half of the world’s population, perennial rice could become a game changer for farmers. And we will just have to wait and see how the trials go from here on in.

Tell us what you think.

Until then…

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PS: Fun fact — All rice is perennial to a certain degree. Rice actually grows again after a harvest without the need for replanting. The downside is that the second harvest usually has a low-quality yield which is why farmers replant every year.

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