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Howard's End: Millennium Genetic Advances

Just as year 2000 ended there was amazing news reported in the Chinese People's Daily newspaper, that their scientists have successfully genetically altered plants, including wheat, rice and oil crops, so they will grow using saltwater and in saline soil. And it tastes no different. John Howard writes.

In a development which has the potential to open up huge areas of desert across the world to food production, Chinese scientists are irrigating genetically modified crops with saltwater in vast areas of Chinese coastal provinces bothered by land and fresh water shortages.

It is not known whether the process of genetic modification has yet been patented.

Since the early 1990's, and generally unknown to the rest of the world, almost 300,000 hectares of alkaline land and mudflats covering Shangdong, Hebei, Guangdong and Hainan provinces' have been successfully planted with wheat, rice and oil crops.

The success and size of production is said to be unprecedented in the world.

Developing seawater-irrigated agriculture by genetically altering crops was seen as a way to create more farmland and food, lower irrigation costs and open up areas of desert to food production which were previously incapable of producing much of anything.

Professor Xia Guangmin with Shandong University, estimates that another 40 million hectares of cultivated land will be gained when all the alkaline land and beaches across China accommodate the crops.

This would mean an additional 150 million tons of agriculture products could be produced.

Fresh water consumption for agriculture use in China accounts for 70 percent of the nation's total supply, with 60 percent of the cultivable land desperately short of water.

According to Professor Xu Zhibin, of Zhanjiang Oceanic University, as much as 300 billion tons of fresh water could be saved when seawater is used to directly irrigate crops.

Compared to the technique (reverse osmosis) to turn seawater into fresh water, it costs only one-thirtieth of the price to bring seawater directly to the crops through a system of canals.

So, how was it done?

Until now, almost all agriculture plants had to be irrigated using fresh water. But, with crossbreeding, cloning and gene techniques, the Chinese scientists at the Academy of Sciences have used pollen canals in the plants to induce an hereditary element of halophyte's into crops which, apart from the wheat, rice and oil crops, includes eggplant and peppers.

A halophyte garden, with another 80 crop species, has been established in Shandong province with scientists now predicting that the number of plants capable of using seawater to grow will top more than 400.

Halophyte is a term for salt resistant plants. Some thrive by eliminating the salt in their environment through salt-secreting glands in their leaves, while other types store salt in leaves and stems which are shed at the end of the growing season. Still others keep salt from entering their cells by means of semipermeable membranes in their roots.

What the Chinese have done is to successfully introduce halophyte genes into ordinary food crop plants which means they will still grow by using saltwater instead of fresh.

The new technology has huge implications for global food production and starving populations.

Dongying and Binzhou counties, where seawater was first introduced for irrigation, have reported an annual increase of millions of kilograms of agriculture output.

And the sterile alkaline land in Guangrao County is no longer a nightmare for local farmers who are now making net profits upwards of 100,000 yuan per year by planting rice and wheat that is resistant to salt.

Professor Xia says the saltwater irrigated wheat tastes no different from that irrigated with fresh water.

It is likely to have huge impacts on food producing nations like New Zealand.

It now seems that the desert and low rainfall areas of the world, including the Middle East, Africa and central Australia, can be opened up to produce an abundance of various types of food simply by using saltwater irrigation.

A company in Florida had already produced golf and putting green grasses which are resistant to salt.

Modified salt resistant grasses used for animal stock feed are said to be close. That will have implications for New Zealand's dairy, beef and sheep exports?

New Zealand farmers already export dairy cattle breeding stock to China and also teach Chinese farmers how to dairy farm.

While New Zealand dithers over a Royal Commission on genetically modified food, it seems the rest of the world is simply getting on and doing it.

I'm not sure whether I like it or not, but try telling someone starving in sub-Saharan Africa or anywhere else for that matter, that they shouldn't purchase or eat wheat, rice or vegetables which they could now grow themselves using saltwater in their own desert.

Meanwhile, Australian cotton farmers are worried by announcements from the Chinese Department of Statistics that China has increased its cotton yield by 13 percent this year meaning that China will not be importing anywhere near the volumes of cotton that it once did.

Happy New Year!!

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