Chinese researchers have successfully grown and harvested rice in the deserts of Dubai after developing a strain that enables the crop to grow in saltwater.

A group of researchers, led by China’s “father of hybrid rice” Yuan Longping, has already started growing the crop in diluted sea-water at home and is now bringing the method to the Middle East, where fresh water is too valuable to utilize for growing water-intensive crops.

Last week’s rice harvest, which had been planted in January on the outskirts of the city, far surpassed researchers’ expectations, according to a report by the Chinese state news agency Xinhua.

salt water rice
Yuan Longping, the father of hybrid rice, centre, visits a project in Chain’s Hebei province. Photo: TopPhoto/Alamy Live News

The high yield reported — 7,500 kg per hectare compared to the worldwide average of 3,000 kg per hectare — has encouraged researchers to expand the project.

They now plan to set up a 100-hectare experimental farm later this year, put it into routine use next year and then start expanding after 2020.

Ultimately, the report stated, the objective is to cover around ten percent of the United Arab Emirates, which has an overall area of 83,600 sq km (32,278 sq miles), with paddy fields — although information regarding how this will be accomplished has yet to be disclosed.

Xinhua stated that the Dubai endeavor is the outcome of a partnership between China’s research centre into saltwater rice, based in the eastern port of Qingdao, with The Private Office of Sheikh Saeed Bin Ahmed Al Maktoum, a billionaire member of Dubai’s ruling family.

The 2 parties have also signed an agreement to promote seawater rice across the Arab world to minimize the threat of food shortages in the future.

A field with tomatos in Al-Fawaz
A field with tomatos in Al-Fawaz – File Photo

While researchers in some nations where water scarcities are a major concern — such as Australia or Israel — have been developing desalination techniques to transform seawater for use in farming, China has been working to develop strains of salt-resistant rice for the past 4 decades.

Although it is not yet clear how the Dubai project will be able to secure enough fresh water to dilute seawater for large-scale rice growing, Chinese researchers have already started growing it closer to home on a commercial scale.

China has one million square kilometres of waste land– an area the size of Ethiopia — where plants have a hard time to grow because of high salinity or alkalinity levels in the soil.

If a tenth of this area was planted with saltwater rice, it might improve China’s rice production by almost 20 percent, producing 50 million tonnes of food — sufficient to feed 200 million individuals, Yuan informed mainland media in 2017.

The project started in the 1970 s when a scientist called Chen Risheng discovered a species of wild rice that grew near a mangrove forest in the southern province of Guangdong.

After 4 decades of cross-breeding and genetic screening, scientists had developed 8 different species but their yields stayed too low to make widespread cultivation beneficial.

However last year the research team made an advancement by doubling the yield to more than 4.5 tonnes per hectare.

Last autumn the first salt-resistant rice, grown on a beach near Qingdao, made it into the stores.

As the South China Morning Post reported at the time one woman who had purchased a bag of the rice discovered it was “very good”, adding that her partner said it reminded him of the rice he had eaten in his home village as a young boy.