by Lisa Carr
Rice is a huge source of food for nearly half of the world’s population. It is a fundamentally important food crop in the global market and serves as a staple diet constituent for many people in the developing world. However, in the regions where communities depend on rice as a diet staple, climate change has led to drought and crop losses. In developing countries, it can be difficult to store and transport freshwater to irrigate rice fields effectively for good crop growth and people can suffer as a result.
Drought induced crop losses have already been observed in countries with the greatest rice consumption. A body known as the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) state on their website “drought is the most widespread and damaging of all environmental stresses, affecting 23 million hectares of rain-fed rice in South and Southeast Asia. In some states in India, severe drought can cause as much as 40 per cent yield loss, amounting to £570 million.”
Given that large numbers of food insecure people are found in South Asia, which has roughly 300 million undernourished people, solutions are needed to counter these crop losses fast. It is hoped that food security in the form of a new green revolution is on the horizon and scientists around the globe are working tirelessly to find new ways to manage agriculture and produce food that is more nutritious and abundant.
Biotechnology and molecular genetics is the answer. Experts in the field have found ways to manipulate genetic regions in rice species, enhancing the existing ability of the plant to survive drought. This breakthrough has been hailed as the next ‘green revolution’. Using a huge collection of rice varieties that were being stored in the Philippines, scientists sequenced the genome (all of the organism’s DNA) of more than 3000 types of rice. With the data generated from this genome-sequencing project, scientists can produce higher-yielding varieties of rice, and rice that is able to thrive in more adverse conditions.
The genome-sequencing project took four years in total, using leaf samples from the IRRI gene bank. It hopes to speed up existing breeding processes that select for certain traits in rice such as disease resistance or high yield potential. Over the history of agriculture, farmers have cultivated the best traits in crops through crossbreeding, though the changes can take generations to be successful. The introduction of molecular genetics technologies into rice agriculture means that ideal-type rice can be produced in a matter of years.
As well as producing rice that can grow in harsh climatic conditions, rice can be produced that is resistant to certain pests and diseases, to prevent huge swathes of crop being wiped out by one disease. Another major aim is to produce rice that is more packed full of nutrients that can help resolve malnourishment issues in the developing world and lifestyle diseases in the developed world. This very rudimentary crop that we certainly take for granted might not be as basic after all. It might be the answer to our impending food crisis.