Tuesday, July 23, 2024
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The Hong Kong team plants seeds to protect ancient grains

Far from the towering skyscrapers synonymous with Hong Kong, scientists and farmers are working in a rice field on the outskirts of the city to revive dormant rice varieties that once emerged from local soil.

Although agriculture accounts for less than 0.1% of the financial center’s GDP, researchers say homegrown grains could one day provide important food security insurance in the face of climate change – and boost the country’s pride at the same time city ​​of birth on history, culture and identity.

Researcher Mercury Wong pointed to the clearly marked crops and said the seeds came from the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines – where the Hong Kong government once deposited them – and from the US Department of Agriculture.

“They are the only 20 Hong Kong rice varieties we have left,” he said, sitting on land reclaimed from wild ginger flower fields in the city’s New Territories region.

More than fifty years ago, green curves of rice crops meandered through the hilly landscape of Hong Kong.

By the 1960s, authorities had turned to Southeast Asia for food supplies, encouraging local farmers to focus on more profitable agricultural projects such as vegetables.

Wong said the Hong Kong grain, sourced from the Philippine and American seed banks, was among tens of thousands of registered varieties and was therefore considered “insignificant.”

“But for us, because they used to grow in Hong Kong, they mean something completely different,” he said.

Wong, along with other researchers from Gift From Land, a small group dedicated to revitalizing dormant varieties, have been working on this mission since 2019, which has yielded some surprising results.

AFP-JIJI

In January, the team announced the discovery of two new varieties of ‘See Mew’ – one of the most popular non-glutinous rice varieties grown in southern China.

“It is an important part of our history that we have lost in urban development… we think we can find part of our identity in this indigenous rice variety,” Wong said.

Seeds from the past

A major unanswered question about “Hong Kong rice” is whether there actually was a variety that originated in the city.

Gift From Land researchers noted that some varieties grown in Hong Kong decades ago had the same name as those from the neighboring Pearl River Delta, but had different characteristics.

The search for an answer is also hampered by the lack of official data on rice farming in Hong Kong, and by the deaths of residents who had memories to share.

According to urban legend, some of the ‘See Mew’ rice from Yuen Long, a border area in northwestern Hong Kong, was given as a tribute to the Chinese emperors.

But Wong said they could find no reliable historical evidence to support this.

The question remains: how can a breed unique to Hong Kong be identified?

Wong, a former university research assistant in biology, confessed that the research was not just a science project for him.

“I think it’s a process of looking for Hong Kong – or looking for myself,” he mused.

He is not alone in the quest to identify the genetic traits of Hong Kong rice: the city’s agriculture department has been funding a seed technology and education center, SeedTEC, at a local university since 2020.

“Agriculture is an important part of our history and culture,” SeedTEC leader Lam Hon-ming said at the time.

In 2022, the laboratory reintroduced ‘Fa Yiu Tsai’ – one of the varieties the department had sent to IRRI in the 1960s – to the market, encouraging local farmers to grow and sell the historic grain.

Seeds for the future

However, a more contemporary concern revolves around Hong Kong’s food security, especially as climate change increasingly brings extreme weather events.

The city’s 7.5 million residents consume about 330,000 tons of rice annually, but in 2022, locally produced grains amounted to only 390 tons.

With reduced grain yields becoming a global problem, Wong says the situation could be particularly “dangerous” when combined with Hong Kong’s fluctuating climate.

Pollination will be affected if it is too hot, while extreme rainfall – like the once-in-a-century rainstorm that hit the city last year – is a huge source of “headache and panic for us”, he said.

Siu-yuk, a part-time farmer at the project, said a resilient food supply comes from a “diversity of sources – some from here, some from mainland China, and some from overseas.”

“If one of them breaks, you can rely on others.”

Although their one-hectare crop is small-scale, she felt it made sense to keep the seeds in Hong Kong, and the plot could grow into something that could be used for wider production – even outside the city.

“But you can’t get it going without a seed from Hong Kong,” Siu-yuk said. “There is no future possibility without a seed being saved.”

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