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Ancient rice-strain returns to China's dinner tables

Xinhua, March 17, 2017 Adjust font size:

In the mountainous terrain of east China's Jiangxi Province is the birthplace of rice cultivation, the roots of which have been traced back around 10,000 years.

Jiangxi remains one of the most important rice-growing provinces in China. In 1995, archeologists tested phytoliths -- microscopic pieces of silica found in plants that persist in the soil long after the plant has died and decayed -- found in Wannian County in eastern Jiangxi. From the results of their analysis, they concluded that Wannian County was the first place in the world where rice was cultivated as a crop.

"Wannian rice is remarkably old, a prototype variety if you like," said Wang Bingwan, former head of the county museum who took part in the archaeological research.

At Wannian, about 20 hectares of rice paddy fields have been earmarked for the Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems Program (GIAHS) by the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization.

Wannian rice contains anti-disease and anti-insect genes and is especially cold resistant, said Wang. In Feudal dynasties, rice from Wannian used to be a tribute to the emperor.

It is a location-specific variety to Heqiao Village in Peimei township, said Wang. "Scientists have tried to grow it elsewhere, but its genetic qualities changed with the environment," he said.

"Wannian itself means 'a thousand years,' but no one thought Wannian could be the home of rice cultivation in China," he added.

Now the 20 hectares of land has been cordoned off by the local government. The government owns the land, and allocates plots to farmers who live in Heqiao and the nearby Longgang village. Starting from 2013, a grain processing company, Jiangxi Wannian Rice Group, has bought the rice from farmers for three times the price of ordinary rice.

It takes about 175 days, from April to October, for the rice to grow and ripen, said Shi Guozhao, a manager with the group.

"Farmers harvest the rice by hand, no machines are used. Fertilizer and pesticides are banned, so the yields of the land are quite small. The only thing farmers do is to plant the rice and harvest. They do not spend much time in the fields," he said.

"Some of grains are kept for R&D into new rice types, and the rest is sold," he said.

"The most important thing is to keep the genes of the crops intact," he said.


Shao Yanlin, 63, lives in Heqiao and has been a rice farmer since he was young. He owns a piece of land on the flatter plains where it is easier to plant and harvest.

His family also have a piece of land in the mountains, near the protected rice fields. Shao hardly spends any time in the mountains. "It is colder and wetter in the mountains than on the plains. There is also less sunshine. On the plains, we harvest twice a year, but only once on the mountain," he said.

"Our paddy field on the mountains yields only enough rice for our personal use," Shao said.

Shao's conviction began to change last year. A businessman named Luo Huimin rented 66 hectares of rice paddy fields on the hills to develop green farming.

"Chinese people now value quality. They are happy to buy good rice, free of fertilizers, even if it costs substantially more," Luo said.

Luo's rice costs 10 times more than ordinary rice, and he hopes his rice to be organically certified by the end of this year.

"It is now possible to promote environmentally-friendly farming while catering to the needs of the market," said Luo, adding that he plans to explore eco-tourism at Wannian.

"People love to see the old rice-planting tradition. I bet a child would love to get into the paddy field and try their hands at planting rice," he said.

Wannian has 42,000 hectares of crops, five percent of which is green or organic rice fields. "We plan to expand high-quality rice growing in Wannian," said Chen Zhangxin, head of the local agriculture bureau.