Perennial Rice Could Raise Yields and Cut Costs
Smithsonian Magazine recently covered breakthrough research on perennial rice. These plants that grow back year after year show promise, but they are not a silver bullet.
Today’s rice farmers must plant new seedlings every year, a process that requires time, energy and expensive inputs like fertilizer and pesticides. But a promising new option may be on the horizon: perennial rice plants that grow back again and again.
Perennial rice isn’t a cure-all. But researchers say it can help growers do less work and spend less money, while also providing benefits to the environment. They shared more details about the innovative crop in a paper published this month in the journal Nature Sustainability.
“This is a really big deal,” says study co-author Erik Sacks, a plant geneticist at the University of Illinois, to NPR’s Dan Charles. “This is a change in the way that we think about agriculture.”
Grown for millennia, rice is a staple crop that feeds an estimated four billion people around the world. But current production methods are labor-intensive and expensive. Many rice growers in China are aging, while the young people are moving away from farms and into cities. Moreover, rice is grown in flooded fields that are habitat for methane-producing microbes. Rice production currently releases an estimated 34 million tons of methane per year.
With these problems piling up, scientists suspected there was room for improvement.
“We have been feeding humanity by growing these grains as annuals since the dawn of agriculture, but it wasn’t necessarily the better way,” Sacks says in a statement. “Now we can consciously choose to make a better crop and a better, more sustainable agriculture. We can fix the errors of history.”