How UC Davis researchers developed a new strain of rice to help farmers in Southeast Asia

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Climate change is impacting a small but powerful and important cereal: rice.

Global rice production is likely to be affected by the devastating effects of climate change as early as 2030, according to a recent study by NASA.

Among those trying to alleviate the loss of rice – the second most important grain crop in the world – is plant breeder Pamela Ronald. His laboratory at the University of California Davis studies the genes that control disease resistance and tolerance to environmental stress in food crops.

In recent years, his team has spent their time working with rice farmers in Southeast Asia, where increased flooding is limiting agricultural production in areas already facing flood-prone land.

“It is estimated that 4 million tonnes of rice – enough to feed up to 30 million people – are lost each year due to flooding,” says Ronald.

On the left, conventional rice. Right, ice designed with the submersion tolerance gene (Sub1A). The plants were grown for 2 weeks, submerged for 2 weeks and then left to recover for 2 weeks in the greenhouse. (Pamela Ronald’s laboratory)

His lab created a disease resistance gene in rice that has affected more than 6 million subsistence farmers in India and Bangladesh.

To achieve this, his team took advantage of an ancient Indian rice, isolated its gene, and introduced it into varieties of rice using modern technology. These new varieties can withstand flooding for up to two weeks and have a 60% yield advantage over their conventional counterparts. The International Rice Research Institute has published several varieties with the genetic trait.

The impact is significant, says Ronald, because it “disproportionately benefits the world’s poorest farmers who have had the most flood-prone land for generations.”

While this method may work for farmers in Southeast Asia, support is not widely shared. According to a 2016 survey published by the Drought Tolerant Maize for Africa Seed Scaling (DTMASS), more than 4,000 farmers had common concerns, including the cost, reliability and productivity of genetically modified (GE) seeds.

While she acknowledges the hindsight and concerns about crops that have been altered by human hands in one way or another, Ronald says the real danger comes from the misinformation about the techniques used to grow resistant crops. to the climate.

“Scientists are trying to counter this misinformation and I think most of the public understands the dangers of misinformation,” she says. “It will be an ongoing challenge to truly engage the public in the challenges that farmers face and the different techniques that scientists use to grow climate resilient crops. “

Genetically modified crops are only part of the solution to solving crop inequalities around the world. Ronald believes this will require basic research and policy makers to support farmers in rural communities.

But for the most part, she sees a future – as early as 2050 – where genetically modified seeds will be incorporated into the foods we eat. And those GM crops will be more resilient to climate change, she says.

“I think we’ll also see the ability of these crops to thrive in more stressful environments,” she says.


Marcelle Hutchins produced this interview and edited it for broadcast with Peter O’Dowd. Hutchins has also adapted it for the web.


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