Can an Heirloom Rice with a 12,000-Year History Help Feed the World?
Called Wuyuanzao by locals, the heirloom rice is grown on only 50 acres of land in Wannian county in the Chinese province of Jiangxi. It’s a species of rice that has been cultivated for more than 12,000 years, but this is the only place in the world today that it can thrive.
As reported in China Daily, it is “the combination of cold spring water, special soil conditions and microclimate that are particular” to the county’s two villages of Heqiao and Longgang that enables the rice to grow there. The water provides irrigation and surrounding forests play a key role in soil and water conservation.
The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations named the site in Wannian County one of the world’s Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (GIAHS). GIAHS are “remarkable land use systems and landscapes which are rich in globally significant biological diversity evolving from the co-adaptation of community with its environment and its needs and aspirations for sustainable development.” To elaborate,
A GIAHS is a living, evolving system of human communities in an intricate relationship with their territory, cultural or agricultural landscape or biophysical and wider social environment. The humans and their livelihood activities have continually adapted to the potentials and constraints of the environment and also shaped the landscape and the biological environment to different degrees. This has led to an accumulation of experience over generations, an increasing range and depth of their knowledge systems and generally, but not necessarily, a complex and diverse range of livelihood activities, often closely integrated.
The Wuyuanzao or Wannian rice and the system that has evolved for growing it were recognized as a GIAHS in 2010. The rice itself has also recently been noted by scientists for its advantages over conventional rice species. It can grow to a height of 1.8 meters versus 1 meter. It can be cultivated without pesticides or chemical fertilizers, being naturally resistant to insects and having adapted to low soil fertility over centuries. Wannian rice also delivers richer nutrition, with higher levels of protein and vitamin B.
The one drawback, scientists say, is that it has a longer growing period – 160 to 175 days versus the 130-day period required to grow conventional rice varieties. China Daily reports, “scientists hope that cross-breeding the ancient rice with varieties that grow faster and adapt to more climates can produce a commercially viable hybrid rice that can feed many more people.”
That’s all well and good. But in our haste to engineer our way to solutions, it’s important not to lose sight of what makes a food like Wannian rice (or other traditional foods) special, what makes it globally important. It contributes to agricultural biodiversity, which is under threat worldwide from the adaptation of modernized farming methods and values. It is also the product of an intricate relationship that evolved over centuries between a community and its surrounding environment. In time, Wannian rice came to be a nourishing, staple food for a people who took time to cultivate it by hand while conserving natural resources. It’s no wonder that the FAO is working to preserve such GIAHS sites around the world.
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