Toshiharu Ota, a rice farmer in Miyagi Prefecture in northeastern Japan, survived theearthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster last year. But his fields were devastated by the saltdeposits left behind when the tsunami’s floodwaters receded. China Daily reports.
Salt damage can cut the yield of a rice crop in half.
Now, to help farmers like Mr. Ota, a research team is working to develop a salt-tolerant variety ofrice.
“With the rice variety we’re developing we should see the yield only drop by 20 percent,” saidTomoko Abe at Riken, a research organization. “We should also see less fragmented rice.”
The tsunami’s waves, up to 40 meters high, engulfed the coastline around Ishinomaki City, whereMr. Ota lives, devastating hundreds of thousands of lives and washing away whole sections oftowns and farmland. Miyagi Prefecture estimated the cost of damage to agricultural land andfacilities at $4.6 billion, making it one of the prefectures hardest hit economically by the disaster.
Rice has traditionally been a leading crop in northeastern Japan. Miyagi Prefecture’s 2010 harvestfetched $818 million. But last year the harvested rice acreage fell short of target by 4,600 hectares.In total, 11 percent of the prefecture’s farmland was damaged.
Mr. Ota, who farmed 11 hectares of rice paddies, said nearly half were flooded. Local workershave labored hard to remove salt from the soil in the past year.
“Even with desalination, the yield has dropped,” said Mr. Ota, 56.
Once dissolved into the soil, salt is hard to remove. It tends to stick to other elements and comesout only when plant roots emit an acid that breaks away minerals, including sodium chloride, to beabsorbed by the plant, he said.
The salt-tolerant rice project involves heavy ion beam technology developed by Riken.
Mainly used in nuclear physics and also in medical applications like cancer treatment, heavy ionbeam technology was first applied by Riken to speed up mutations in plants in 1989. Ms. Abe,research group director of accelerator applications at Riken, helped to develop the world’s first salt-tolerant rice variety, based on the Nipponbare rice strain, in 2006.
For the current project, grains of two popular rice varieties, Hitomebore and Manamusume, havebeen exposed to heavy ion beams generated by a particle accelerator.
“We’ve had success in developing one variety of salt-resistant rice, although this variety doesn’ttaste that great,” said Ms. Abe.
There are only six ion beam accelerator facilities for plant breeding in the world, and four of themare in Japan.
In the year since the tsunami, about 5,250 hectares of farmland in Miyagi Prefecture have beendesalinated, including rice paddies. The prefecture aims to clean up an additional 4,100 hectaresthis year and a final 3,650 hectares in 2013.
Salt-tolerant rice varieties could also help the region cope with land subsidence. Miyagi andsurrounding coastal farmlands now face a higher risk of saltwater damage, experts say, becausethe earthquake’s seismic shift caused large parts of northeastern Japan to sink.
Mr. Ota’s farmland has sunk by about 80 centimeters. Closer to the epicenter, the subsidence isgreater. Oshika Peninsula, just a short drive away, was the closest place to the epicenter of theoffshore quake. Land there sank by 1.2 meters and slid horizontally eastward by 5.3 meters,according to the Geospatial Information Authority of Japan.
“We’re not dealing with just seawater but also flooding from storms,” Mr. Ota said. “We have asharp increase in drainage water that lingers on our farmland.”
Being able to grow a sodium-tolerant variety of rice may determine whether some farmers cancontinue to stay in agriculture, said Kazuhisa Matsunaga, who works for Zen-noh Miyagi, anagricultural cooperative.
Some coastal farmlands have dropped almost to sea level. “It would make a difference for them tobe able to continue farming using a variety that would be forgiving to soil that has some sodiumleft,” Mr. Matsunaga said.
Takashi Endo, a researcher in Miyagi Prefecture, said it could take two years to develop a salt-resistant variety and another two years to grow enough seeds to bring it to commercial scale.
“We hope that our research results will be a bright spot for farmers affected by the disaster,” Mr.Endo said.
- Japan Is Now Testing Nuclear-Powered Crops (businessinsider.com)
- Salt-tolerant rice: Nuclear-powered crops (economist.com)
- Japan uses Nuclear Accelerator to Mutate Rice for Salt Tolerance (nextbigfuture.com)
- National › Emperor, empress visit Sendai (japantoday.com)
- U.S. volunteers repairing tsunami-hit buildings in Miyagi Pref. (english.kyodonews.jp)