Salt tolerant rice rescues Kenyan farmers

A super salt tolerant rice variety that can expel salty water from the from the soil to the air through glands on its leaves has been unveiled, opening new farming opportunities to coastal farmers who cant farm rice due to the high salty content in the waters.

The variety launched by Philippine based International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) is especially targeted at Sub Saharan Africa which the scientists say has huge potential for rice farming due to the favourable climate but is limited by salty waters in especially the coastal areas. The new rice variety was bred by successfully crossing two different rice parents, the exotic wild rice species Oryza coarctata and rice variety IR56 of the cultivated rice species O. sativa according to the scientists from IRRI.

The wild rice species Oryza coarctata grows in salty water, making it tolerant to water with high salinity concentration. However, this variety is unsuitable for edible rice production.Unlike regular rice, the new salt resistant rice line can expel salt it takes from the soil into the air through salt glands on its leaves. IRRI team successfully rescued three embryos out of 34,000 crosses. Out of these three, one plant survived to give scientists enough material to back-cross and make sure that only the desired trait, double salt-tolerance, is acquired from the wild species.

“Saline-stricken rice farms are usually abandoned by coastal farmers because the encroaching seawater has rendered the soil useless. That means livelihood lost for these communities,” said IRRI lead scientist Dr. Kshirod Jena the lead researcher in the IRRI project. Scientists worldwide have been trying to cross the salt-tolerant species with edible rice species since the mid-1990’s but it was only now that they achieved a promising outcome.

The institute hopes to make available the super salt-tolerant rice to farmers within 4 to 5 years. Scientists and rice farmers in Kenya have welcomed the new variety arguing that it will go along way in increasing and diversifying production of rice from the traditional rice growing zones.  Farmers in Kilifi area of Coastal Kenya who have tried rice farming have been forced to abandon it as salty water conditions stand in their way.

I would definitely consider planting it. I have always believed rice has huge potential in this area but the growing conditions have been unfavourable to us. Again everyone has concentrated on maize and horticulture so a change would be good especially for the markets,”said Athana Juma a  farmer in Kilifi. Dr. Philip Wasya a scientist in Nairobi agrees with Juma. “Mwea produces 70 percent of all rice consumed in Kenya. Now an over concentration in production in one area is so dangerous because this means in case of an attack, by pests and diseases the damages to consumption and food security would be catastrophic,”said Dr. Wasya.

Rice is Kenya’s third staple food after maize and wheat. Its rate of consumption has been growing rapidly and it is likely to overtake wheat overtime.  Local production is estimated at between 35, 000 -50,000 metric tones while consumption is estimated to be between 180,000 and 250,000 metric tones.