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Endangered Indigenous Rice Re-established in North China

18 October 2013

CHINA - A rare indigenous rice species, which almost became extinct in the 1970s due to low yields, is being revived in north China's Hebei Province.

The variety, known as "kermes rice" for its red color, similar to the dyestuff of the same name, has a history extending over 300 years and was once offered to the imperial court as tribute during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

"It has not been easy but I have developed more than 80 mu (5.3 hectares) of the crop since I got a handful of about 300 seeds from my friend Li Ming in Tangshan City, seven years ago, " said Zheng Hehai, head of Tangshan Daoxiang Rice Co., Ltd.

In the 1970s, farmers turned to other crops for their superior output and stopped planting kermes rice completely when it was banned by the local government. Li Ming's father secretly hid some spikes of the rice in his home. In 1984, Li happened upon the spikes and sowed the few dozen seeds that remained. The harvest became the seed source for current crops of kermes rice.

One of 140,000 rice varieties in the world, kermes is indigenous to eastern Hebei. The plant is 30 cm taller than most rice species and is vulnerable to stalk leaning. Its output is about 90 kg per mu, compared with more than 400 kg for general rice, according to Zheng.

All that has changed since the rare rice caught the attention of the Rice Research Institute of Hebei Agriculture and Forestry Academy.

New, improved kermes rice, which will be planted next year in Zheng's farm, has had its height reduced from 150 cm to 120 cm and its awns shortened. Its growth period has been extended by 15 days. These have made kermes more economical to farm while maintaining its delicious taste.

And there are good reasons for perseverance, according to the strain's enthusiasts.

"Kermes rice has low yield and is difficult to cultivate, so why should we plant more?" asked Zheng. "First, it has special nutritional value. Second, it would be regrettable if we lost something that has existed for several hundreds of years."

The amino acid content of kermes is 2.5 times that of general rice and can increase levels of hemoglobin in the blood. It also has beauty maintenance functions, explained Chen Hongcun, an agricultural official in Tangshan.

"Unlike genetically modified rice, kermes is an original species left by our ancestors with no food safety concerns," Chen added.

"We will work with agricultural authorities to make the plant shorter and increase its output," said Zheng. No pesticides and only organic fertilizer is used in Zheng's farm.

Currently, kermes rice is planted in Fengnan, Caofeidian and Yutian in Tangshan City. The total cultivation area is no more than 400 mu, according to the Tangshan Agricultural Bureau.

In Yutian County, a kermes cooperative was set up in 2010.

"I bought 150 kg of seeds from Fengnan and 20 farmers have joined the cooperative and planted more than 100 mu," said Zhao Wenguang, a member of the cooperative.

Output has increased to 200 kg per mu this year from 50 kg three years ago and sold for 200 yuan (32.5 U.S.dollars) per kg in 2012, said Wang Huichuan, a farmer and member of the cooperative in Liangjiadian Township. One kilogram of general rice sells for 4 to 6 yuan in Chinese markets.

Even after material and labor costs, each mu of kermes rice can reap 30,000 yuan, several times more than other quality rice, according to Wang, who estimates the price will remain stable this year.

For Zheng, he plans to sell about 500 kg this year and keep the rest for further research and planting next year.

Zheng currently enjoys a government subsidy of 200 yuan per mu, and is confident that the special rice will soon be on the tables of more citizens.

TheCropSite News Desk

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