In a rare vote of confidence, Nara University officials plan to adopt one of the last unmodified protein plants in the world — a part of the plant traditionally used to manufacture the decorative plastic grocery bags favored by Japanese people and big brands.
Nara University officials envision allowing the rice cloth plant “doi” to sell its processed seeds to companies that will use it to produce wrappers for packaging eco-friendly foods and beverages. Such processing could ultimately help the endangered Nara deer, an animal often used to dress the bags as well as adorn roadside wooden signposts on Nara’s main island.
“The rice cloth plant has a fascinating genetic heritage: with its cultivation, it is the only naturally modified plant of its type in the world,” said Masayuki Yoshimoto, an associate professor at Nara University in Japan, in a news release.
In an age when non-indigenous plants have become increasingly scarce, Yoshimoto described “doi” as the “last remaining living plant for use in making synthetic products such as chemical fertilizers, paper, polymers, yarn, and etc.”
When it takes root in the ground, the material turns into rope and then a mineral-like substance that people around the world rely on for use in carpets, carpets, wooden racks, chitosan beads, and special dishes such as Japanese soybean kudos (samesuragi) and koshudu (rice paper).
Such a move, Yoshimoto explained, would help save the endangered Nara deer, a species created after a catastrophic natural eruption of Mount Iwo Jima unleashed an explosion of dust, ash and lava onto the neighboring Japanese island of Nara in 1652.
Today, about 6,000 deer remain on Nara’s 1,000-square-mile island, according to the Japanese government. Fewer than 2,000 deer are believed to be living on the island of Amami in the same year, while others are thought to be living in cultivation areas in Ananiwa and Kamishima islands in the West Pacific.
The fate of the deer is of particular concern in Nara, where they have a role in countless ceremonies, from cooking the mojarame (milk) of the deer to decorating shopping carts.
“And now that a resource that is used to protect the deer is being use to produce cups,” Yoshimoto said, “we believe that protecting the deer is the goal of protecting resources.”
If all goes according to plan, Nara University plans to apply to the agricultural ministry for authorization to license its use for producing the plant food. In the meantime, other universities in Japan and abroad are interested in acquiring the rice cloth plant “nasu no teraba kudo,” or “flower field plant,” as a source of raw materials for their own uses.