Tag Archives: rice

Asia’s languages developed and spread alongside rice, millet agriculture

New research is peering into the shared past of the Transeurasian (or ‘Altaic’) family of languages. According to the findings, the hundreds of millions of people who speak one such language today can trace their shared legacy back to a single group of millet farmers that lived 9,000 years ago in what today is northeast China.

Integration of linguistic, agricultural, and genetic expansions in Northeast Asia. Red arrows show the eastward migrations of
millet farmers in the Neolithic, alongside Koreanic and Tungusic languages. Green arrows mark the integration of rice
agriculture in the Late Neolithic and the Bronze Age, alongside the Japonic language. Image credits Martine Robbeets at al, (2021), Nature.

This family of languages includes peoples and countries all across Eurasia, with notable members including Japanese, Korean, Tungusic, Mongolic, and Turkic. As such, it is definitely a very populous language family. Exactly how Transeurasian languages came to be, however, is still a matter of heated debate. This history is rife with expansions, population dispersals, and linguistic dispersals, making it exceedingly difficult to trace back and determine its origin.

New research, however, aims to shed light on this topic. The study combined three disciplines — historical linguistics, ancient DNA research, and archaeology — to determine where Transeurasian languages first originated. According to the findings, its roots formed around 9,000 years ago in modern China and then spread alongside the development and adoption of agriculture throughout Eurasia.

Hard to pinpoint

“We developed a method of ‘triangulation’, bringing linguistics, archaeology, and genetics together in equal proportions in a single approach,” Prof. Dr. habil Martine Robbeets, the corresponding author of the paper, said for ZME Science. “Taken by itself, linguistics alone will not conclusively resolve the big issues in the science of human history but taken together with genetics and archaeology it can increase the credibility and validity of certain scenarios.”

“Aligning the evidence offered by the three disciplines, we gained a more balanced and richer understanding of Transeurasian prehistory than each of the three disciplines could provide us with individually.”

The origin of Transeurasian languages can be traced back to a group of millet farmers — the “Amur ” people — in the Liao valley, according to the team’s findings.

These languages spread throughout Eurasia in two major phases. The first one took place during the Early–Middle Neolithic (Stone Age), when sub-groups of the Amur spread throughout the areas around the West Liao River. During this time, the five major branches of the Transeurasian linguistic family started to develop among the different groups, as the distance between them allowed for the creation of dialects.

The second phase involved contact between these five daughter branches during the Late Neolithic, Bronze Age, and Iron Age. This phase was characterized by these intergroup interactions as well as genetic inflows (and possible linguistic imports from) populations in the Yellow River area, western Eurasian peoples, and Jomon populations. Agriculturally speaking, this period also saw the adoption of rice farming (from the Yellow River area), the farming of crops native to west Eurasia, and pastoralism.

Although the spread of Transeurasian languages was largely driven by the expansion of a single ethnic group, it was not limited to a single one. Several peoples mixed together with the descendants of those millet farmers from the Liao River over time to create the rich tapestry of language, customs, and heritages seen in Eurasia today.

“Our [results] show that prehistoric hunter-gatherers from Northeast Asia as well as Neolithic farmers from the West Liao and Amur all project within the cluster of present-day Tungusic speakers. We call this shared genetic profile Amur-like ancestry,” explains Dr. Robbeets for ZME Science. “Turkic and Mongolic speakers and their ancestors preserve some of this Amur ancestry but with increasing gene flow from western Eurasia from the Bronze Age onwards.”

“As Amur-related ancestry can also be traced back to speakers of Japanese and Korean, it appears to be the original genetic component common to all speakers of Transeurasian languages. So the languages spread with a certain ethnic group, but this ethnic group got admixed with other ethnic groups as it spread across North and East Asia.”

Although we can trace these interactions in the genomes of individuals from across Eurasia, there are still a lot of unknowns. For example, we can’t estimate the degree or direction of linguistic and cultural exchanges between different groups. We can tell that there was an increasing degree of Yellow River genetic legacy woven into the peoples of the West Liao River, but there is no record after which we can gauge whether there was an exchange of words or cultural practices between these groups. Similarly, we can’t estimate the magnitude of the influence this exchange had on the two groups.

Still, one of the topics that Dr. Robbeets wants to underline with these findings is that, in order to truly understand the history of languages in Northeast Asia, a different approach is needed compared to what is being performed today.

“Archaeology and linguistics in Northeast Asia have tended to be conducted within the framework of modern nation-states,” she explained in an email for ZME Science. “Accepting that the roots of one’s language, culture, or people lie beyond the present national boundaries is a kind of surrender of identity, which some people are not yet prepared to make. Powerful nations such as Japan, Korea, and China are often pictured as representing one language, one culture, and one genetic profile but a truth that makes people with nationalist agendas uncomfortable is that all languages, cultures, and humans, including those in Asia, are mixed.”

“Our results show that a much more flexible and international framework is needed.”

Another more direct implication of these findings is that it implies that sedentarism and agriculture took root in the area much earlier than assumed up to now. Previously, the emergence of the Transeurasian family of languages was believed to have coincided with the adoption of livestock herding in Asia’s Eastern Steppes. Tying it to agricultural practices in the Liao River area, however, pushes the timeline of its emergence back roughly 4,000 years.

The paper “Triangulation supports agricultural spread of the Transeurasian languages” has been published in the journal Nature.

A world first: Philippines will soon start eating GMO “golden rice”

Developed by Philippines’ Department of Agriculture in partnership with the International Rice Research Institute, this rice is just what the doctor ordered: it contains additional levels of beta-carotene, which then the body converts into vitamin A. 

“It’s a really significant step for our project because it means that we are past this regulatory phase and golden rice will be declared as safe as ordinary rice,” Russell Reinke of the International Rice Research Institute told AFP. “The next step is to take out few kilos of seeds and multiply it, so it can be made widely available.”

A new type of rice

Image credit: Pixabay

Golden rice has a rich history, with researchers from Germany and Switzerland starting to look into it in 1982. Then, in 1999, various groups came together and continued the research, successfully triggering beta carotene production in rice in 1999. An improved version was later produced with Syngenta, with much higher levels of beta carotene. The body converts beta carotene into vitamin A (retinol).

While ordinary rice does produce beta carotene, it’s not found in the grain. Thus, scientists used genetic engineering to add the compound to the grain. The beta carotene is identical to the one found in green leafy and yellow-colored vegetables, orange-colored fruit, and even in many vitamin supplements and food ingredients.

However, GMOs ares not without their critics. If anything, critics outnumber and outpower the supporters.

This new type of rice was harshly questioned by environmental organizations opposed to genetically altered food plants, such as Greenpeace. While it has now passed the final regulatory hurdle, the rice is still far from appearing across Asia. Limited quantities of seed would start being distributed to selected farmers next year.

“The only change that we’ve made is to produce beta-carotene in the grain,” Reinke told AFP, replying to the criticism. “The farmers will be able to grow them in exactly the same way as ordinary varieties. It doesn’t need additional fertilizer or changes in management and it carries with it the benefit of improved nutrition.”

Why this matters

Vitamin A is one of many nutrients lacking in the diets of many children in Asia. It’s essential for normal growth and development, the proper functioning of the immune system, and vision. Vitamin A deficiency, also known as VAD, can cause blindness and even premature death. An estimated 190 million children worldwide are affected by it.

The vitamin comes directly from animal products and indirectly from beta carotene in plants, which the human body can convert to Vitamin A.  As rice is a staple food in many communities in Asia, golden rice could be of significant help in improving these areas’ vitamin A status once the grain becomes available for public consumption.

Still, there are some unanswered questions. In a recent blog post, US researchers Dominic Glover and Glenn Stone said the claim that golden rice will remedy the Vitamin A deficiency remains unproven. Plus, the families that are poor enough to be affected by VAD in the Philippines often lack land to grow rice for themselves.

“The Philippines has managed to cut its childhood VAD rate in half with conventional nutrition programs. If Golden Rice appears on the market in the Philippines by 2022, it will have taken over 30 years of development to create a product that may not affect vitamin levels in its target population, and that farmers may need to be paid to plant,” they wrote.

This could be a turning point for not just the Philippines, but for the rest of the world as well. Many researchers have supported the implementation of some GMO foods such as golden rice, but due to popular opposition, plans haven’t really caught on.

New study points the way to rice straw soaps

Researchers at the University of Portsmouth have developed a novel way to make soaps — out of rice straw.

Image via Pixabay.

Rice straw is one of the most abundant, readily available, cheap, and underused resources. Now, an innovative research effort from the University of Portsmouth has shown that bails of rice straw could create a ‘biosurfacant’ (surfactants are basically soaps). The findings point the way towards non-toxic alternatives for petroleum-based materials used in a wide range of products.

Straw-scented soap

“Surfactants are everywhere, including detergent, fabric softener, glue, insecticides, shampoo, toothpaste, paint, laxatives and makeup,” explains Dr. Pattanathu Rahman, microbial biotechnologist from the University of Portsmouth and study co-author. “Imagine if we could make and manufacture biosurfacants in sufficient quantities to use instead of surfactants, taking the manmade chemical bonds out of these products.”

“This research shows that with the use of agricultural waste such as rice straws, which is in plentiful supply, we are a step closer.”

The team embarked on the project in an effort to find ways of reducing the need for artificial chemical compounds used in industry and daily life applications. They were aided in their research by members from the University of Portsmouth’s Centre for Enzyme Innovation, the Amity University in India, and the Indian Institute of Technology.

Their research focused on alternatives for chemical surfactants from day one, as this is a key chemical class in use today. Surfactants are the main active ingredient in the production of cleaning products, medicine, sunscreen, makeup, and insecticides. They’re so important because they can tie oil and water molecules together and lower the surface tension of liquids — i.e., they make it possible for us to wash oil and fats with water.

Rice straw.
Image via Pixabay.

Dr. Rahman’s (who is also the Director of TeeGene Biotech Ltd in the UK) team sought to create a biosurfacant by brewing rice straw with enzymes. Rice straw was selected as it’s readily available waste produced in huge quantities every year. The team was also confident that the straw-based method could produce the kind of high-quality materials that manufacturing industries keep an eye out for. The method also has a number of positive ecological effects:

  • Rice straw is a natural byproduct of the rice harvest, with millions of tons created worldwide every year; the method would help put that waste material to productive use.
  • Tied to the previous point, farmers make a habit of burning rice straws to get rid of it. Finding an economic use for this material could help reduce emissions and potentially give farmers an extra source of income.
  • A biosurfactant would help appease concerns about the impact of chemical surfactants used in household products, most of which end up in the oceans.

“The levels of purity needed for biosurfactants in the industries in which they’re used is extremely high,” Dr. Rahman explains. “Because of this, they can be very expensive.”

“However, the methods we have of producing them make it much more economical and cost efficient. It’s a very exciting technology with tremendous potential for applications in a range of industries.”

The study reports that biosurfactants could be a viable alternative to synthetic ones, with a possible market value of $US2.8 billion by 2023. Among their comparative advantages, the study lists their low toxicity, biodegradable nature, and specificity — the last point would help them meet the European Surfactant Directive.

“Most people consider soap to be an effective means of removing bacteria from their skin. However, we have flipped this concept on its head by discovering a way to create soap from bacteria,” Dr. Rahman concludes.

“They have antimicrobial properties suitable for cosmetic products and biotherapeutics. This approach will channelise the majority of the waste management solutions and could create new job opportunities.”

The paper “Statistical and sequential (fill-and-draw) approach to enhance rhamnolipid production using industrial lignocellulosic hydrolysate C6 stream from Achromobacter sp. (PS1)” has been published in the journal Bioresource Technology.

Field Fire.

Air pollution levels rise by 30% in India as farmers align to new groundwater depletion policy

New research shows how well-meaning environmental measures can backfire if they don’t take into account the wider picture.

Field Fire.

Image credits Natalya Kollegova.

A new groundwater conservation policy in northwestern India is increasing air pollution in the already haze- and smog-filled area, new research reports. The problem is caused by how water-use policies require farmers to shift rice crops to later in the year, which in turn delays the harvests and results in the burning of agricultural residue in November — a month when breezes stagnate, leading to increased air pollution.

Late burners

“This analysis shows that we need to think about sustainable agriculture from a systems perspective, because it’s not a single objective we’re managing for — it’s multidimensional, and solving one problem in isolation can exacerbate others,” said Andrew McDonald, associate professor of soil and crop sciences at the Cornell University, and a co-author of the paper.

India has quite a water problem. Being a (generally) pretty dry place, agriculture here relies heavily on groundwater resources — and they’re being rapidly depleted. First, authorities tried to convince farmers to plant less water-intensive crops than rice, but this failed due to a number of reasons (such as free electricity for irrigation, assured output markets, and minimum support price
guarantees for rice). So in March 2009, the government passed The Punjab Preservation of Subsoil Water Act and the Haryana Preservation of Subsoil Water Act, legislation that forced farmers to delay rice transplanting (basically rice sowing) after the onset of the monsoon season on June 10; this was later adjusted to after the 20th of June.

So far, so good — the team notes that these groundwater acts helped “significantly reduce” groundwater depletion in northwestern India. However, they’ve also inadvertently helped increase air pollution levels. The team analyzed their effect on the timing of farmers’ planting and harvesting crops, and burning crop residues. They also connected this information with meteorological and air pollution data.

The team explains that residue burning patterns shifted following the groundwater acts, declining within October but significantly increasing in the first three weeks of November. “With the advent of combine harvesting in the 1980s, [on-field] burning of rice residues became the method of choice for accelerating the turn-around time between crops to ensure timely wheat planting and maintenance of yield potential,” the team explains. The sowing date imposed by the groundwater acts leaves farmers very little time to clear out reside apart from burning before the wheat season begins.

“Before the acts, maximum occurrence was on 24 October at 490 fires per day. After implementation of the acts, this increased to 681 fires per day, peaking around 4 November,” they add.

“Groundwater act implementation is associated with a concentration of crop residue burning into a narrower window, later in the season, and with a peak intensity that is 39% higher.”

The team further notes that this date coincides with weaker winds compared to October, which favors the build-up of air pollution. Daily PM2.5 (atmospheric particulate matter with a diameter under 2.5 micrometers) in November rose 29% after the groundwater acts.

On one hand, northwest India needs to tackle groundwater depletion. On the other hand, air pollution claimed the lives of almost 1.1 million Indians in 2015, and costs 3% of the country’s gross domestic product, according to the study. The team suggests technology that would allow farmers to plant new seeds without burning rice residue as a possible solution. Alternatively, they recommend the use of shorter-duration rice varieties that offer flexibility in planting and harvesting dates.

The paper “Tradeoffs between groundwater conservation and air pollution from agricultural fires in northwest India” has been published in the journal Nature Sustainability.

Wheat crop.

The world’s farms are dominated by only four crops

Crop fields around the world are becoming increasingly uniform, and that’s a problem.

Wheat crop.

Image via Pixabay.

The world as a whole is increasingly narrowing agricultural production to only a few crops and lineages according to new research from the University of Toronto (UoT). This not only impacts the contents of our plates, but also makes global food production less resilient against pests and disease.

More of the same

“What we’re seeing is large monocultures of crops that are commercially valuable being grown in greater numbers around the world,” says lead researcher Adam Martin, assistant professor of  ecologist in the Department of Physical and Environmental Sciences at UoT Scarborough.

“So large industrial farms are often growing one crop species, which are usually just a single genotype, across thousands of hectares of land.”

The team worked from data recorded by the U.N.’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), quantifying which crops were grown on large-scale industrial farms globally from 1961 to 2014. While crop diversity in each region has increased — North America, for example, now grows 93 different crops, whereas the 1960s it was only 80 crops — it has gone down on a global scale. Large scale, industrialized farms in Asia or Europe, for example, are looking more and more like those in North or South America.

Soybeans, wheat, rice, and corn occupy just under 50% of the planet’s agricultural lands, the team reports. The rest is divided among 152 different crops. There is also very little genetic diversity within individual crops. In North America, six individual genotypes comprise about 50% of all corn crops, the team explains.

The 1980s saw a massive peak in global crop diversity as different types of plants were being sowed in new places on an industrial scale. This peak had largely flattened by the 1990s, and crop diversity across regions have declined ever since.

So, why is this a problem? Several reasons. The first is that it affects global food sovereignty, the team explains.

“If regional crop diversity is threatened, it really cuts into people’s ability to eat or afford food that is culturally significant to them,” says Martin.

Secondly, it’s also an ecological issue. If farms are dominated by a few lineages of crops, that makes the global food supply extremely susceptible to pests or diseases. All bananas (that we cultivate) today, for example, are clones —  they’re all genetically identical. And they’re being wiped out by the Panama disease, a fungicide-resistant fungus.

Martin hopes to expand his research to look at patterns of crop diversity in the context of individual nations. He says there’s a policy angle to consider, since government decisions that favour growing certain kinds of crops may contribute to a lack of diversity.

“It will be important to look at what governments are doing to promote more different types of crops being grown, or at a policy-level, are they favouring farms to grow certain types of cash crops,” he says.

The paper “Regional and global shifts in crop diversity through the Anthropocene” has been published in the journal PLOS ONE.

Rice paddy.

GMO rice may hold the key to fighting HIV on the cheap

How’s that for internal conflict, eh, soccer moms?

Rice paddy.

A rice paddy in the Kerala province, India.
Image credits muffinn / Flickr.

An international team of researchers, with members from Spain, the U.S., and the U.K., plans to fight HIV using only cereal; namely, rice. In a new paper, they describe how they developed a strain of the plant that produces HIV-neutralizing proteins, and how the resulting rice can be used to prevent the spread of this disease.

Rice 2.0

“Our paper provides an approach for the durable deployment of anti-HIV agents in the developing world,” the team writes.

HIV isn’t the death sentence it used to be. Researchers and doctors have had quite a lot of success in developing treatments for people infected with HIV and — at least in more developed countries — death rates associated with HIV have declined significantly. The real prize is to develop a functional vaccine against the virus, an endeavor which has so far borne no fruit.

Still, since we don’t yet have such a vaccine ready, oral medication has been developed that can keep an infection at bay for a limited amount of time. However, such treatments are still expensive — prohibitively so for the many areas in third world countries that are struggling under high rates of HIV infection. Compounding the problem is that production of such drugs — involving a process known as recombinant protein manufacturing — is technologically-intensive and time-consuming, meaning that any production facilities these countries could put together wouldn’t come anywhere near to satisfying demand.

Here’s where the rice comes in. The strain engineered by the team synthesizes the same HIV-neutralizing compounds used in oral medication. Once the crop is fully grown, farmers can process the grains to make a topical cream and apply it to their skin — allowing these active compounds to enter the body. The rice plants produce one type of (monoclonal) antibody and two kinds of proteins that bind directly to the HIV virus (the lectins griffithsin and cyanovirin-N), preventing them from interacting with human cells.

“Simultaneous expression in the same plant allows the crude seed extract to be used directly as a topical microbicide cocktail, avoiding the costs of multiple downstream processes,” the team explains in their paper “This groundbreaking strategy is realistically the only way that microbicidal cocktails can be manufactured at a cost low enough for the developing world, where HIV prophylaxis is most in demand.”

Turning the seeds into cream is a very simple process, the team notes, allowing virtually anybody anywhere to have access to an HIV treatment option if required. It’s also virtually free once you have the rice. The team hopes that people living in areas with high rates of infection will simply grow as much of the rice as they need, potentially providing treatment for whole communities at a time.

However, there’s still work to be done before the GMO rice hits paddies around the world. The team wants to run an exhaustive battery of tests to ensure that their genetic machinations didn’t introduce genes for unknown (and potentially harmful) chemicals in the plants.

They’re also very much aware that GMOs are a subject of much debate, and their efforts might have to suffer from the controversy that has built around GM crops in recent years. There will also be regulatory hurdles to overcome in each part of the world where the rice might be grown and used.

The paper “Unexpected synergistic HIV neutralization by a triple microbicide produced in rice endosperm” has been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Rice is losing its nutritional value due to rising CO2 levels

Increasing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere due to human activity are lowering the nutritional value of rice, according to a new study published in Science Advances. 

Credit: Pixabay.

After wheat, rice is the second most important food crop in the developing world. Over two billion people in Asia and hundreds of millions in Africa and Latin America depend on rice for their daily calorie needs. It’s estimated that more than 40,000 varieties of cultivated rice (the grass species Oryza sativa) exist.

Rice is also an important source of protein and vitamins, which is why the latest findings by researchers at the University of Tokyo are so worrisome. Their experiments suggest that rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere are lowing the nutritional value of rice, specifically iron, zinc, protein, and vitamins B1, B2, B5, and B9.

The team grew rice at sites in China and Japan using an open-field method called FACE (free-air CO2 enrichment). Professor Kazuhiko Kobayashi and colleagues at the University of Tokyo decided to grow the rice in an open field because plants raised in a closed greenhouse do not grow as they would in normal field conditions. Air with higher carbon dioxide concentrations, as expected in the second half of this century (568 to 590 parts per million), was blown through 17-meter-wide (56-foot-wide) plastic pipe octagons at about 30 centimeters (1 foot) above the tops of plants within standard rice fields.

In total, the researchers analyzed 18 different varieties of rice for protein, iron, and zinc levels. Nine varieties of rice grown in China were used for the vitamin B1, B2, B5, and B9 analyses.

Experimental rice field near Tsukuba, Japan.Dr. Toshihiro HASEGAWA (National Agriculture and Food Research Organization of Japan).

Experimental rice field near Tsukuba, Japan.Dr. Toshihiro HASEGAWA (National Agriculture and Food Research Organization of Japan).

The two FACE experiments have provided a unique opportunity to investigate how a crop fares in response to predictably elevated levels of CO2 in the atmosphere. But like with any other unique science experiment, the Japanese researchers had to overcome some challenges, including the presence of uninvited guests.

“The unique experiments attracted other species. An example was raccoons in my own experience. We did the FACE experiment in farmer’s fields, where we installed plastic tubes to sample air from the field and measure CO2 concentrations in the experimental plots. Raccoons came out of the nearby mountains at night and tested the strength of their teeth against the plastic tubes. They eventually cut the air sampling tubes, which fell into the flooded water in the rice field jeopardizing our experiment. We then had to raise the tubes higher than their reach. The higher CO2 concentrations in the experimental plots also attracted blood-sucking insects, which we had to fight against while working in the plots,” Kobayashi told ZME Science.

Little is known about the mechanisms responsible for the decline in nutrient concentrations associated with elevated CO2. Some authors have proposed “carbohydrate dilution” whereby CO2-stimulated carbohydrate production by plants dilutes the rest of the grain components, but studies so far have been inconclusive. What’s certain is that it’s happening.

In many countries, rice is so important that they’re literally synonymous with food. The Chinese word for rice is the same as the word for food, in Thailand when you call your family to a meal you say, “eat rice”, and in Japan, the word for cooked rice is the same as the word for meal.

The Japanese don’t consume as much rice as they used to during the 1960s, for instance, relying on only about 20 percent of their daily calorie intake from the crop. However, people in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Myanmar, Vietnam, and Madagascar who receive at least 50 percent of their calories and protein from rice are the most vulnerable to poorer nutritional content.

Zinc deficiency is already linked to around 800,000 deaths among under-fives, in whom it can seriously exacerbate such conditions as diarrhea, pneumonia, and malaria, while iron deficiency is the main cause of anemia, a condition that contributes to around one in every five maternal deaths around the world.

“Our finding has demonstrated another reason why we have to be concerned about the nutrition for the poorer fractions of the population in less developed countries. Any measures to improve their nutrition would effectively alleviate the negative effects of the lower nutrient content under higher CO2 level. The measures could be better policies and/ or better varieties, but must reach the target population,” Kobayashi wrote in an e-mail.

As the world’s population continues to swell, not only will developing countries have to grow more rice and improve their yield, they will also have to find ways to offset the poorer nutritional value of the crops. Of course, rice won’t be alone. Previous studies have found that rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reduce the nutritional value of other staple crops, such as wheat or soy.

“This is one of the multitudes of challenges of climate change due to the energy production based on fossil fuel burning. We, in the so-called developed countries, take advantage of the fossil fuel energies, while having little troubles with the less nutritious grains, because we take the nutrients from other food stuffs. On the other hand, those in the less-developed countries depend grains for their nutrient intake, and would be affected by the changes in grain nutrient content. And, they are much less responsible for the climate change than we are on per person basis. This is really a shame on us, I think,” Kobayashi concluded.

Scientific reference: C. Zhu, K. Kobayashi, I. Loladze, J. Zhu, Q. Jiang, X. Xu, G. Liu, S. Seneweera, K. L. Ebi, A. Drewnowski, N. Fukagawa, L. H. Ziska, Carbon dioxide (CO2) levels this century will alter the protein, micronutrients, and vitamin content of rice grains with potential health consequences for the poorest rice-dependent countries. Sci. Adv. 4, eaaq1012 (2018).

Reinventing rice: New saltwater rice developed in China could feed over 200 million people

The new salt-resistant species could boost China’s production by 20%, providing unexpectedly good yields.

There are also reported benfits to these strains. Image credits: Xinhua.

Rice can be grown pretty much anywhere in the world, even on steep hills and mountain areas. However, it’s labor-intensive and requires ample quantities of water, which has made it a staple in many parts of Asia, where labor is cheap and water is abundant. However, rice is also grown in many low-lying coastal areas, such as Bangladesh or Eastern China, where millions of hectares are threatened by soil salinity. If soil salinity grows too much, it affects the plant’s physiology, destroying entire crops. This is why having salt-resistant rice can be such a game changer.

At the Saline-Alkali Tolerant Rice Research and Development Center in Qingdao, eastern China, researchers and students planted over 200 types of rice. They then treated the soil with seawater from the Yellow Sea, and progressed just like with a regular rice paddy. The scientists were confident in their projects and expected yields of around 4.5 tons per hectare, but the results were even better: four types registered 6.5 to 9.3 tons per hectare, making the prospect of commercial availability much more likely. This is significantly higher than the global average yield, which is around 4.5 tons per hectare.

[Also Read: Simple way of cooking rice could halve its calories]

This approach is not new. In the 1970s, Chinese researchers started looking at ways to make rice more resistant to salt. After decades of trait selection, cross-breeding and genetic screening, they finally narrowed it down to eight species — but yields were still low, just around 2 tons per hectare. Now, they seem to have finally achieved the big breakthrough. Although costs are still a big problem, the fact that they are the biggest problem is a good sign.

Surprisingly high yields made saltwater rice much more attractive. Image credits: Xinhua.

A kilogram of the rice costs 50 yuan (US$7.50), about 8 times more than regular rice. However, cost is expected to go down as mass production increases, and rice itself is a pretty cheap food. Considering that in total, China has more than one million square kilometres of waste land — an area big enough to fit Texas and California — it’s easy to see why researchers are so thrilled. It offers the potential to feed a lot of people, even if it does mean paying a bit more.

There are also other benefits to this technique. Saltwater keeps pests and parasites at bay, meaning that producers might reduce costs even more. Also, while the rice itself is not salty, it is richer in nutrients such as calcium. Professor Huang Shiwen, the leader of the rice disease research team at the China National Rice Research Institute in Hangzhou, Zhejiang, said this could help keep many potentially harmful bacteria at bay.

“To survive in the harsh environment, these species must have some ‘diehard’ genes which may enable them to better resist the attack of certain diseases or bugs, especially those happening at the root or lower stalk,” he said.

Yuan Longping, who has long studied salt-resistant rice founded Yuan Ce Biological Technology, a Qingdao-based start-up which plans to bring this modified rice to the tables. He believes that already by the end of the year, the “sea rice” will make 10 million yuan ($1.5 million) in revenue, a very optimistic figure for something up to a few months ago was completely uncertain.

The new rice reportedly has a different texture and flavor. Image credits: Xinhua.

However, not everyone is a fan of this project. Liu Guangfei, a wasteland treatment expert at Beijing-based Eagle Green Technology Development, said that the rice would only grow in China’s coastal areas, whereas 90 per cent of the saline and alkaline soils in China are in inland areas. These soils are also rich in sodium sulphate, which the rice isn’t prepared to deal with. Furthermore, he adds, planting the new rice species would only enable soils to gather more and more salt, rendering then completely unusable for any other plants. Instead, Liu argues, other commercial plants such as jujube and wolfberry could be grown over these soils, helping reduce the salt quantity and improving overall soil quality.

“Planting this rice will keep the land salty forever,” he said. “It cannot be used to grow other crops.”

But again, the decisive argument will perhaps be the economic one. This is a spectacular achievement which could make a big difference in some parts of the world, but at the same time — China now has a surplus of rice. Whether or not it can fit the new addition to the market remains to be seen.

India’s Bakey edible spoon does two of my favorite things: limits dishes and plastic waste

India-based company Bakeys has started producing edible spoons to try and fight world-wide plastic waste from disposable cutlery. Not only eco-friendly, but also delicious!

India-based Bakeys makes edible spoons in an attempt to cut back on plastic waste.
Image via inhabitat

I don’t know about you but I’m not big on plastic cups. Or plates. Or cutlery, for that matter. Even if they’re not the 2 cent-a-dozen variety that manage to break even when confronted with a salad, I just don’t like how food and drink from plastic containers tastes. Their main selling point is that they’re dine-and-forget. And, as there’s not one person alive excited to do the dishes, it’s a pretty strong sales pitch. But this only means that we’re throwing away an absurd amount of these things, some 7 million tonnes of plastic yearly from the USA alone, EPA estimates.

And I’d much rather eat my own plate than leave it laying around in a landfill for millions of years.

Narayana Peesapaty, founder of Bakeys, seems to feel the same way as I do on this topic. He was appalled to see India’s diners throw away an estimated 120 billion plastic utensils each year. But instead of just writing about it, he actually started doing something about it — a very delicious something. Peesapaty developed a new type of single use spoon, one that you can eat after your meal.

Made of millet, rice and wheat, Bakeys edible spoons are designed to last for up to 20 minutes in hot liquids, and come in several flavors: ginger-cinnamon, ginger-garlic, cumin, celery, black pepper, mint-ginger, and carrot-beet. There’s also a sugar-only option if you’re not looking to spice up your meal. They’re completely vegan-friendly too, if that’s your thing. Ironically, this spoon might be the healthiest part of your meal if you’re living in the United States.

And come on, a spoon that you can eat with your food? How awesome an idea is that?! No wonder then that they’re a huge success — Bakey has already sold more than 1.5 million spoons. Peepsapaty launched a Kickstarter campaign to expand the brand worldwide which received overwhelming support. From a 20,000$ goal, they raised more than $106,000 as of writing this article. And there’s more than two weeks to go.

Because Bakey is already manufacturing the spoons for sale in India, the company is promising a reward of 100 spoons in the flavor of your choice for every pledge of $10. The funds will go toward expanding current operations and increasing production. A new facility is already under construction that will turn out more than 800,000 of the edible spoons each day and the company plans to expand to other utensils within a few months.

While the spoons are a great alternative for domestic use, Peesapaty says he’s really after large commercial customers, where his tasty ustensils can really make a dent in worldwide plastic waste.

 

Image: Wattpad

This GMO rice tackles global warming by emitting 100 times less methane

Following a three-year-long trial in the rice of fields of China, scientists report a new genetically modified strain that promises to dramatically reduce the otherwise huge carbon footprint of rice farming. The new GMO crop emits only 1% of the methane – a highly potent greenhouse gas – that an unaltered rice paddies leaches out into the atmosphere. So far, the crop looks extremely advantageous but the unfavorable social climate against GMOs doesn’t help at all, particularly in China where the public is very sensitive and no genetically modified rice variety has been allowed on its fields apart from this trial. China is the second largest producer of rice in the world.

Image: Wattpad

Image: Wattpad

Methane is the second most important greenhouse gas behind CO2 in terms of its global warming impact.  Pound for pound, its impact is 20 times greater than CO2 over a 100-year period. Globally, 60% of all methane emissions stem from human activity.  Pound for pound, its impact is 20 times greater than CO2 over a 100-year period. Globally, 60% of all methane emissions stem from human activity. First, like other greenhouse gases, methane works directly to trap Earth’s radiation in the atmosphere. Second, when methane oxidizes in Earth’s atmosphere, it is broken into components that are also greenhouse gases: carbon dioxide and ozone. Third, the breakdown of methane in the atmosphere produces water vapor, which also functions as a greenhouse gas. Increased humidity, especially in the otherwise arid stratosphere where approximately 10 percent of methane is oxidized, further increases greenhouse-gas induced climate change

A lot of methane is produced from fossil fuels, but another huge chunk of the global share is emitted by the vast paddies of rice that litter south-east Asia. This is given off as a by-product produced by bacteria that thrive in the carbohydrate ritch environment found in the roots of the rice. The variety called SUSIBA2 was developed by Chinese and American scientists. It made  starched grain and a smaller root system than the unaltered variety. Besides vastly reducing methane output, the new rice also carries a higher yield. Essentially, the new rice enhances productivity per acre while reducing the carbon footprint at the same time.

“The new rice sounds like a win-win for good yields and reduced climate impact,” Paul West, lead scientist for the Global Landscapes Initiative at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment.

“This type of rice may be particularly useful in a predicted climate with higher temperatures, which will accelerate methane emissions from paddies, as methane emissions are temperature dependent. The GMO (rice) may counteract the acceleration,” according to Chuanxin Sun, a plant biologist at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in Uppsala, Sweden.

GMOs are never an easy bet, though. Though never proven essentially wrong, the Chinese government is reluctant to introduce GMO crops into its field out of fear that unintended consequences might occur in the long run. Superpests and weeds are first to come to mind. Beyond the ethical issues at hand though, it’s good to hear we have a rather sound alternative at hand. Previously, after a 12 year ban, Golden Rice was introduced into the Philippines. Golden Rice is a GMO rice that’s been modified to produced Vitamin A. Worldwide 250,000-500,000 children go blind each year, with half of these eventually dying within a year, due to vitamin A deficiency.

Simple way of cooking rice could halve its calories

I know, the title sounds like one of those scams that promise you’ll lose weight – but this is all science all the way. Researchers in Sri Lanka have found a simple way of cooking the rice that not only reduces calories by half, but also provides other health benefits. The key addition is coconut oil.

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Image via MorgueFile.

 

 

Rice is not only the fuel that powers millions of students around the world (alongside instant noodles), it’s a staple in numerous cuisines around the world. But as cheap and delicious as it is, there’s one major problem associated with rice – it’s not good for you. It’s not that it’s necessarily bad for you, but rice has many calories – according to Science Alert, one cup of cooked rice contains around 240 starchy calories – nasty carbohydrates that can quickly turn to fat if you don’t burn them off.

According to the researchers, all you need to do is add some coconut oil in the water you boil the rice in – some 3% of the rice quantity. So if you want to boil half a kg of rice (about 1 pound), all you need to do is add 15 grams of coconut oil (about one teaspoon).

Undergrad student Sudhair James conducted the research with his supervisor and presented the results at the National Meeting and Exposition of the American Chemical Society on Monday.

“After it was ready, we let it cool in the refrigerator for about 12 hours. That’s it,” James told Roberto A. Ferdman from The Washington Post. To eat it, you simply pop it in the microwave and, voila, you have a “fluffy white rice” that’s significantly better for you.

The process is extremely simply to make, but it actually involves some pretty interesting biochemistry. Rice contains a lot of starch; there are actually two main starches (polysaccharides): amylose and amylopectin. Amylose has a branched out structure and therefore has more surface area, which makes it easily digestible. But on the other hand, amylopectin is harder to digest; it passes through the large intestine, where they act like a fiber and provide numerous benefits. Most of the starchy foods contain these hard to digest starch, but when you cook them, they usually turn into more digestible versions of starch.

Image via Imgur.com

 

Sudhair wanted to investigate this issue and see how rice can be cooked so that it maintains the more healthy starch; he and his supervisor cooked it in 38 different ways, and they obtained the best results with coconut oil. A previous study also showed that letting pasta cool down before reheating it increased the content of resistant starch content, so they also tried that.

“Cooling for 12 hours will lead to formation of hydrogen bonds between the amylose molecules outside the rice grains which also turns it into a resistant starch,” explained James in a press release. And he notes that heating the rice back up afterwards doesn’t change the resistant starch levels.

If their results are confirmed by other studies, this might lead to a new generation of packaged rice – pre-cooked in coconut oil and then cooled down. But this might have even bigger implications – could this technique be applied to other foods? Could all our favorite starchy foods (like french fries or bread) become healthier? Could other substances (potentially cheaper and more accessible) be used instead of coconut oil? Those are the hot questions right now.

“It’s about more than rice,” Thavarajah said. “I mean, can we do the same thing for bread? That’s the real question here.”

As a rice fan, this is extremely exciting – and it could bring with it a major health and dietary revolution. I’m really looking forward to it.