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Yuan Longping is seen in his office in August, 2018. The 88-year-old scientist has been an icon of rice research in China.Nathan VanderKlippe/Globe and Mail

For more than 40 years, Yuan Longping has been lauded as the “father of hybrid rice,” a man whose work made rice fields more plentiful, helping to ease hunger across China.

And now at 88, one of China’s most celebrated scientists finds himself back in the spotlight, this time for another marvel of science: breeding a kind of rice that can produce high yields in salty waters. It’s an innovation that has once again made him a unique figure in China, a scientist endowed with political usefulness, even as an octogenarian.

Indeed, China’s modern-day leadership has rediscovered his value as it uses “rice diplomacy” both to further its ambitious international goals and ease its domestic food needs. Mr. Yuan has met with President Xi Jinping five times. And saltwater rice is emerging as a novel element in China’s sweeping One Belt, One Road initiative, which aims to dramatically extend the reach of Chinese companies and capital by building new networks of roads, rail lines and power plants.

The rice is a genetic advance that promises to transform vast areas of uncultivable land into productive fields.

Belt and Road funds have already been used to build an experimental plot in a desert on the outskirts of Dubai. Chinese state media called it a “national gift,” saying Mr. “Yuan’s research team always adhered to the spirit of the Belt and Road initiative.”

Planning is already under way for additional saltwater rice tests in Southeast Asia, Africa and other parts of the Middle East. “We plan to promote it in many countries starting in 2019,” says Zhang Guodong, executive vice-director of the Qingdao Saline-Alkali Tolerant Rice Research and Development Centre, which has led testing of the saltwater rice.

He likens Chinese agricultural technology to the country’s road-and-rail-building savvy in developing regions.

“To develop local infrastructure, these countries will surely need more investment, and Chinese businesses as a result will get further investment opportunities,” he says. “And we all know that under the One Belt, One Road strategy, promoting China’s technology and products abroad to help One Belt, One Road countries is among the top priorities."

In some ways, it’s a revival of a longstanding Chinese practice. In the mid-1990s, a Chinese firm built a 5,000-hectare rice farm in Cuba that appeared to prepare the ground “for a much larger [US]$150-million hotel investment in the country and a Cuban-themed hotel in Shanghai,” wrote Elizabeth Gooch and Fred Gale in China’s Foreign Agriculture Investments, a recent publication of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Indeed, “China uses its technical prowess in rice as a goodwill-building tool overseas.”

Scientists have long sought ways to grow rice in salty areas, but the Chinese effort began in earnest in 2012, when scientists working for the Qingdao centre, co-founded by Mr. Yuan, began gathering more than 100 samples of rice capable of growing in saline conditions. Such naturally occurring breeds typically produce too little rice to be commercially viable.

Then, using hybrid technology that Mr. Yuan helped pioneer – he won the World Food Prize in 2004 – they began a breeding process. Last year, they planted 187 different types of saltwater rice. Four produced yields high enough to be promising. Commercial production trials are slated for next year.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that more than 800 million hectares of land worldwide are either saline or alkaline. That is an area approaching the size of Canada “and, according to our calculation, nearly 20 per cent of it has huge potential to be made into arable land where we could plant saltwater rice,” Mr. Zhang says.

Though the rice has been billed as “seawater rice,” it has been grown in water with a saline concentration of 0.6 per cent, roughly a fifth of what is found in the ocean.

“Based on the current findings, planting rice in seawater with normal rates of salinity is definitely impossible. And I don’t think it can be realized any time soon,” says Huang Shiwen, a scholar at the China National Rice Research Institute.

But that’s not the point, Mr. Yuan says. The goal is to grow rice in over-irrigated soil fouled by salinization or in coastal regions that might otherwise be considered impossible to cultivate. In typhoon-prone areas, a storm can wash up seawater. “Being soaked in saltwater will cause ordinary rice to die. But the saltwater rice will survive this tough environment. So when the waters recede, it will grow as normal,” Mr. Yuan says.

China has long restricted exports of certain seeds. But “once this succeeds, I think China will be willing to share it with many countries, especially coastal nations like Bangladesh, India, the Philippines, Indonesia and the like,” says Prof. Huang. “I think they are all potential beneficiaries.”

For China, a country with 20 per cent of the world’s population and 7 per cent of its arable land, the development of saltwater rice comes amid a greater need to secure food supplies from abroad. Chinese scientists have predicted a decline in food self-sufficiency from 94.5 per cent in 2015 to roughly 91 per cent by 2025, necessitating an increased reliance on imports. (China produces 30 per cent of the world’s rice, but its production is expected to decline this year.)

“What that means, effectively, is that boosting food security beyond China’s borders is increasingly in China’s strategic interests,” says Even Pay, a senior analyst with an expertise in agriculture at strategic advisory firm China Policy.

It’s valuable inside China, too, and not solely for its ability to feed millions. Mr. Yuan’s role has long extended far beyond the achievements of his science, and saltwater rice has once again allowed him to fit the mould of what Sigrid Schmalzer, a historian at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, calls an “ideal hero” for Communist Party leadership.

”I can’t retire now," Mr. Yuan says. "The country wouldn’t let me, even if I wanted to.”

His modern success has provided a link to past glory at a time when Mr. Xi has sought to reinforce old socialist values “in an effort to emphasize the revolutionary roots of today’s prosperity and to strengthen party legitimacy and power during this period of increasing neoliberalism and global expansion,” says Prof. Schmalzer, the author of Red Revolution, Green Revolution: Scientific Farming in Socialist China.

Even so, Mr. Yuan remains modest about the prospects for saltwater rice. “It’s still unclear if we will be able to make progress,” he says. “We’ll see.”

With reporting by Alexandra Li