Waterproof Rice May Help Asia Cope with Flooding In Bangladesh, rice is the daily food for everyone. A genetically engineered strain of the crop is offering hope for surviving the long-lasting floods that are a product of climate change.

Waterproof Rice May Help Asia Cope with Flooding

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Next, we'll find out how a changing climate could affect the food source for billions of people. The food is rice. Most people on Asia depend on it. It grows on wet rice paddies, but too much water can kill it, which is why it's the subject of our latest report for Climate Connections, our series with National Geographic.

Asia's rice crops are in danger from extreme weather associated with climate change. So now people are trying to develop rice that can adapt.

NPR's Jon Hamilton reports.

JON HAMILTON: The weather in Asia this year has been ferocious.

(Soundbite of a thunderstorm)

HAMILTON: Monsoon rains have inundated countries from the Philippines to Nepal.

(Soundbite of a thunderstorm)

HAMILTON: Super typhoons slammed into China and Japan, and heat wave in Pakistan pushed the temperature to 125-degrees Fahrenheit. All of this is bad for rice. And what's bad for rice is especially bad for Bangladesh.

The people of Bangladesh get about two-thirds of their total calories from rice. In the capital Dhaka, food markets are divided into two major areas: one for fish and one for rice.

So we are in the Kawran Bazaar and I'm going to buy some rice as soon as our rice seller gets off the phone.

What type of rice are you selling here?

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

HAMILTON: My salesman is wearing a blue tunic and a white prayer cap. He works his way down a line of burlap sacks overflowing with rice. The cheap stuff is coarse and brown. Upscale rice is fine, white and polished. The man in line behind me is eager to talk.

Mr. SHAMIM AHMED (Customer): Rice is daily food for everyone from poor to rich. It's one of the essential things like salt.

HAMILTON: The man's name is Shamim Ahmed. He says when the rice crop fails, people starve. He still remembers the terrible floods of 1974.

Mr. AHMED: That year, nearly all the places got submerged and that is why there was no rice production and people have no work. So a lot of people died.

HAMILTON: Nearly a million dead. Since then, scientists have been trying to create rice that survives flooding.

(Soundbite of man shouting)

HAMILTON: Two thousand miles away in the Philippines, scores of hungry birds are eyeing plots of experimental rice. A man with a white flag pedals back and forth on a bicycle to scare the birds away.

This is the International Rice Research Institute. Bob Zeigler is the director. He's a plant pathologist who started out in the Peace Corps. To him, rice is a powerful engine that can drive away hunger, malnutrition and poverty, but not if it's under water.

Dr. BOB ZEIGLER (Director, International Rice Research Institute): Even a crop like rice, which grows in standing water, cannot stand to be totally submerged. It'll drown like any other plant.

HAMILTON: Usually in just three or four days. But scientists here have discovered a gene that lets rice essentially hold its breath for up to two weeks. It's called the submergence 1 gene - sub-1 for short.

Dave MacKill led the team that discovered the gene. We follow him along an earthen levy that separates two rice fields, each about the size of a tennis court.

Dr. DAVE MacKILL (Head, Division of Plant Breeding, Genetics, and Biotechnology, International Rice Research Institute): Well, you could see on the left with the paddy with the sub-1 gene, it looks pretty much like a normal crop. This field was under submergence for 12 days.

HAMILTON: It's thick with brilliant emerald stalks that are nearly waist high. The paddy on the right was also submerged for 12 days. The rice here is patchy and stunted. It's the exact same variety but without the sub-1 gene.

Bob Zeigler says that rice plants with the flood-resistance gene have huge potential in places like Bangladesh.

Dr. ZEIGLER: If they produce the way we expect it will, it will be a massive impact in that part of the world. I mean, it will be a spectacular demonstration of the power of science to make a difference in people's lives.

HAMILTON: But only if the new rice does as well in the real world, as it has in the institute's carefully groomed paddies.

(Soundbite of goat)

HAMILTON: It doesn't get any more real than northern Bangladesh, where the vast Brahmaputra River often spills over its banks and into the fields of struggling rice farmers.

(Soundbite of man talking in foreign language)

HAMILTON: A farmer named Gobindra Chandra Rai is working in his field, which had been completely under water just a few weeks earlier.

Mr. GOBINDRA CHANDRA RAI (Farmer, Bangladesh): (Through translator) When it was flood, the whole area was submerged.

HAMILTON: How high?

Mr. CHANDRA RAI: (Through translator) It was high up to the waist.

HAMILTON: Gobindra says the government gave farmers in his village seedlings with the flood-resistance gene. But the monsoon floods came early and he was the only farmer to plant them in time. As the water rose, Gobindra and his neighbors watched his field anxiously.

Mr. CHANDRA RAI: (Through translator) It was under water for about eight days.

HAMILTON: And it with ordinary rice, if it were under water for eight days, what would happen?

Mr. CHANDRA RAI: (Through translator) Usually what would happen is the local brands are under water, that will be damaged from the flood. But this new brand still lives.

HAMILTON: So ordinary rice would have died here.

Mr. CHANDRA RAI: (Through translator) Yes.

HAMILTON: But this rice is thriving.

(Soundbite of water)

HAMILTON: Gobindra wades down a row. If a stalk is leaning, he straightens it. If a leaf is muddy, he squeezes it clean between two wet fingers. Then he strokes the plant as if it were a kitten. Gobindra says his neighbors are amazed by what they have seen in his paddy. We slug our way out of the fields to meet them.

(Soundbite of people talking)

HAMILTON: The whole village turns up to talk about the new rice. They form a semi-circle in front of a shed made of bamboo and corrugated sheet metal. Men upfront, women further back, little boys climbing anything tall to get a better look.

Many of the farmers can't read or write, but when it comes to rice science, they're at the cutting edge.

Who expects to plant the sub-1 variety of all the people here?

Mr. CHANDRA RAI: (Through translator) Everybody.

HAMILTON: Every single farmer raises his hand. The farmers also know something about the power of weather.

Nalitchandra Barman is 70. He remembers living on banana leaves when monsoon rains drowned the rice crop. He worries that the rains are becoming more and more unpredictable.

Mr. NALITCHANDRA BARMAN (Farmer): (Through translator) The current situation is when they expect rain, they don't get rain. And during the drought season, they get rain. So the whole climate had changed totally.

HAMILTON: And flooding isn't the only change associated with global warming. There's also the prospect of more severe droughts. And as the sea levels rise, salt water will leak into the rice fields near the coasts. Scientists in the Philippines are trying to find genes to solve these problems too.

Again and again, the villagers try to explain what all these threats mean to them. Finally, one man tries a few words of English before lapsing back into Bangla.

Unidentified Man #2: Rice is the main food of our country.

HAMILTON: And without rice?

Unidentified Man #2: Without rice, we cannot live and be livable. (Foreign language spoken)

HAMILTON: What he said in Bangla was: we just can't imagine anything else.

Jon Hamilton, NPR News.

INSKEEP: Looking at a photograph here, the brilliant green of a flood-resistant rice field. You can take a look at that photograph and others at npr.org.

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