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NEWS
Rice Studied As Possible Water Filter
December 24, 2018

Grown on every continent except Antarctica, rice is a staple food crop of 20 percent of the world’s population.

While rice is an important part of our diets, new research shows that rice plants also can be used in a different way — they can provide filtration for runoff from farms before it gets into rivers, lakes, and streams.


A delivery system applies a simulated storm runoff containing pesticides and water to rice and control (bare) systems. Credit: Matt Moore.

This idea came to Matthew T. Moore, Lead Scientist at US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Agricultural Research Service (ARS), because he, himself, comes from a family of farmers. He was trying to figure out a way to address the unintended issue of runoff. As water drains from agricultural fields, the pesticides used on those fields can be carried along. Dr. Moore wanted to stop pesticides from getting into water outside the farm in a way that was easy and cost-efficient for farmers.

“We wanted something that was common, that could be applied in a lot of different places, but something that’s non-invasive,” said Dr. Moore, who works in the USDA-Agricultural Research Service’s Water Ecology and Ecology Research Unit in Oxford, Mississippi.

Researchers planted four fields, two with and two without rice. They then flooded those fields with a mix of three kinds of pesticides plus water that together is a lot like runoff during a storm. They did this for two years in a row.

According to information, they found that the levels of all three pesticides were lower in fields where they’d planted rice. How much it dropped ranged from 85 percent to 97 percent, depending on which pesticide they measured.

Rice can do this through phytoremediation—using plants and their roots to clean up water (though they can also clean soil and air). That’s what researchers say happened here. Instead of those chemicals being in the runoff water, they were captured in the rice plants.

In real life, this pesticide-cleaning ability of rice could be used in a few ways. To start, farmers could plant rice in drainage ditches already on their farms, which would “let rice clean off water that runs off into your field before it runs into a river, lake, or stream,” Dr. Moore said. “Dreaming big, eventually we could get to the point where you could use rice fields as constructed wetlands,” diverting runoff into rice fields so they naturally take those pesticides out of the water.

One big question Dr. Moore hopes additional research can answer is whether or not those chemicals end up in the edible part of the rice plant—the rice grain—itself. If it doesn’t, rice could be that natural water cleaner while also being a food source.

Read more about this research in the Journal of Environmental Quality. The U.S. Department of Agriculture funded this project.


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