The dry, arid deserts of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) may soon be covered in lush, wet rice paddies. This may sound like an impossible transformation, but if Chinese scientists and an Emirati Sheikh are to be believed, it is a very conceivable future.
The plan is to use a recently developed saltwater-resistant rice strain to plant the crop on large swathes of the Middle Eastern desert, and then irrigate the land with diluted seawater. This would allow the region to dramatically increase the amount of food it can produce and at the same time help to protect its valuable freshwater reserves.
The possibility of this ambitious plan has only been realized due to the creation of a new strain of rice by Chinese scientists that's been bred to grow in saltwater. It has actually taken four decades to get to this point, after a researcher found a wild species of rice growing near mangrove forests, which only tend to live in brackish coastal waters.
Realizing the significance of this, the researcher then set out to cross-breed this wild, saltwater-tolerant species of rice with other rice species that would enable large-scale farming. Over time, they managed to create up to eight different strains of salt-tolerant rice, but none of them produced a yield high enough to make them an economically viable crop.
It was not until last year that it was reported scientists had made a breakthrough and managed to double the yield of the newly developed rice. It has already been grown and sold in parts of China, with a long-term goal to boost the nation’s rice production by up to 20 percent and plant the crop on an extra 1 million square kilometers (386,000 square miles) of land that has been under-utilized due to the high amount of salinity in the soil.
Now, the researchers have teamed up with Sheikh Saeed Bin Ahmed Al Maktoum from the ruling family of Dubai. Their long-term aim is cover 10 percent of the UAE – which has an area of roughly 83,600 square kilometers (32,300 square miles) – with rice paddies, helping to maintain food security within the region.
The idea isn’t to stop there though, as the Sheikh hopes to promote seawater rice farming not only in the UAE but across the Middle East, using desalination plants to dilute the pure seawater and green larger portions of the desert.