Combating obesity with new Okinawan rice

In recent years, Okinawa has recorded the dubious distinction of having the highest obesity rate in Japan. Preventing obesity-related diseases is an urgent issue. Professor Hidetoshi Saze of the OIST Plant Epigenetics Unit is leading a new research project to develop a new strain of rice that produces digestion-resistant starch to prevent these diseases. The project, fostered by the Okinawan government, involves three activities by the medical, agricultural, and food industries: development of the new rice strain, nutritional and physiological analyses, and processing and sales.Nanshoka-Mai, or rice with digestion-resistant starch is a new breed of rice rich in starch that does not as readily break down into glucose. This rice strain was first developed by a research team at Kyushu University 30 years ago. The starch from most grains, which consist largely of an unbranched glucose polymer known as amylose, is normally broken down into glucose during the digestive process and serves as our primary energy source. However, excessive consumption of sugars (simple carbohydrates) can cause life-style-related diseases, such as obesity and diabetes. This new strain of rice is expected to serve as an alternative preventative measure. In addition to its anti-obesity effect, gathering evidence suggests that the rice with digestion-resistant starch may also provide other benefits, such as lower blood sugar levels, reduced neutral fat, and harmful cholesterol levels, and prevention of lipid accumulation in the liver.Despite its great promise, when researchers planted the original strain of resistant-starch rice in Okinawa, the yield per hectare was about half that achieved in mainland Japan. Prof. …

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China’s clean-water program benefits people and the environment

Sep. 5, 2013 — Rice farming near Beijing has contaminated and tapped the city’s drinking water supply. For the past four years, China has been paying farmers to grow corn instead of rice, an effort that Stanford research shows is paying off for people and the environment.Rice farming is more lucrative than corn for Chinese farmers, but flooded paddies contribute to decreased water quality and quantity.The brown, smog-filled skies that engulf Beijing have earned China a poor reputation for environmental stewardship. But despite China’s dirty skies, a study led by Stanford environmental scientists has found that a government-run clean water program is providing substantial benefit to millions of people in the nation’s capital.The Miyun reservoir, 100 miles north of Beijing, is the main water source for the city’s more than 20 million inhabitants. Greater agricultural demands and a decline in precipitation, among other factors, have cut the reservoir’s output by two-thirds since the 1960s. The water has also become increasingly polluted by fertilizer and sediment run-off, and poses a significant health risk.Similar conditions shut down Beijing’s second largest reservoir in 1997; shortly after, officials began implementing a plan to prevent the same from happening to the Miyun reservoir.The system follows the successful model established by New York City, in which the government and wealthier downstream consumers provide payouts to upstream farmers, who in turn modify their agricultural practices to improve water conditions.In the case of China’s Paddy Land-to-Dry Land (PLDL) program, farmers are paid to convert their croplands from rice to corn, a solution that reduces both water consumption and pollution. Rice paddies are constantly flooded and are often situated on steep slopes, leading to significant fertilizer and sediment runoff. Corn, meanwhile, requires much less water, and fertilizer is more likely to stay in the soil.Improving rural lifeThe program is indicative of China’s recent efforts to improve living conditions for its rural citizens.”At the top, China sees environmental protection and poverty alleviation as vital to national security,” said Gretchen Daily, a biology professor at Stanford and senior co-author on the study. “The challenge is in implementing change. It’s amazing that in four short years, the government got everyone growing rice in this area to switch to corn, which greatly improved both water quality and the quantity that reaches city residents downstream.”Farmers earn almost six times more money growing rice than corn, so the government compensated farmers with funds that more than made up the difference. …

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