WITH a stack of small, brown envelopes in hand, Li Jianyue trudges through a rice field in southern China to gather grain specimens she hopes might one day fight diabetes.
The obesity-linked disease is on a tear in China, and rice — the country’s favourite staple — is showing up in studies as an important contributor. The black kernels Li pinches off mature stalks with her fingers and drops into paper sachets have been bred to avoid causing the high spikes in blood-sugar when eaten that can eventually lead to type-2 diabetes. China tops the world in the number of adults living with diabetes: 109.6 million as of 2015. Another 40 million could join the ranks by 2040 unless preventative steps are taken. Refined white rice is seen as an obvious target because the majority of the nation’s 1.4 billion people consume it at least once a day, and eating it has a similar effect on blood-sugar levels as gorging on white bread.
“The number of people with diabetes is surging,” said Li, a professor of life and environment sciences at Shanghai Normal University, treading between muddy rows of rice in green rubber boots. Still, healthier rice alone won’t tackle the problem — it has to taste good too, she said. “So, we’re also trying to improve the texture.”
The rice experiments Li is working on — under a giant bird net at a plant-breeding site about 20 km from Sanya city, on the southern tip of Hainan island — are part of an international effort to improve the nutritional value of rice.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, for example, is working with rice researchers in the Philippines and Bangladesh on rice enriched with vitamin A to tackle blindness.
Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, or CSIRO, is developing rice with more fibre so that it’s broken down in the lower digestive tract, where it can aid gut health and avoid the glucose-surge that can weaken the body’s response to insulin and eventually lead to type-2 diabetes. A separate programme underway with the Chinese Academy of Sciences is seeking to pack rice with more vitamin B and E, iron, and zinc.
“Middle-class Chinese are now very focused on nutrition,” said Phil Larkin, a chief research scientist with the CSIRO in Canberra. “The rate of increase in type-2 diabetes in China is very frightening.”
A study released in 2013 estimated that China had 114 million people living with diabetes, or 21.6 million more than a study three years earlier.
Li’s experimental rice has a larger germ — the embryonic part of the kernel — than normal rice, she explains. That feature gives it more protein and less carbohydrate, which is converted into glucose during digestion. Her current work involves creating hybrids that combine that property with the taste and texture of the rice varieties popular on China’s populous eastern seaboard.