Ten thousand years ago, China’s ancient inhabitants harvested the grains of wild rice, a perennial grass growing up to 15 feet tall in bogs and streams. The grains were small and red, maturing in waves and often shattering into the water. Their descendants transformed that grain into the high-yielding annual crop that today feeds half the world’s population. When agronomist F. H. King toured China’s meticulously maintained rice terraces in 1909, he called the men and women who tilled them “farmers of forty centuries.” To him, they seemed to have unlocked the secret to conserving soil and maintaining agricultural fertility indefinitely.
Today, with the climate changing and far more land under intensive cultivation, rice farmers face a less certain future. In parts of Asia, melting glaciers threaten to dry up water supplies for irrigated paddies, while higher temperatures and unpredictable rainfall stress rain-fed fields. In uplands worldwide, where farmers grow rice on steep hillsides using slash-and-burn techniques, fallow periods are growing shorter and severe erosion is undermining both productivity and ecosystem health.
An international network of scientists is working toward a radical solution: perennial rice that yields grain for many years without replanting. By crossing domesticated rice with its wild predecessors, they hope to create deep-rooted varieties that hold soils in place, require less labor, and survive extremes of temperature and water supply. Plant breeders have been trying to do the same for wheat, sorghum, and other crops for decades.
With rice, the vision is finally nearing reality.
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