Superstrains of Rice That Will Feed a Changing World

Superstrains of Rice That Will Feed a Changing World

By Daniel Malloy


Because this is a mission to make sure a 10 billion-strong globe has enough food on its plate.

By Daniel Malloy

“I’m Swamp Girl,” says Indrastuti Rumanti, a bubbly scientist with the Indonesian Center for Rice Research. She’s just ducked out of a lengthy meeting with her fellow rice-heads here in Bogor, but the conference room is not Rumanti’s preferred habitat: She’d rather be mucking about in experimental rice paddies. “Farmers in those areas are more traditional, still very pure and have a big dedication to their land,” she says. “I would like to help them.” Her other goal? Feeding Asia.

How those small farmers harvest their swamps will have a global ripple effect. Rumanti and other scientists are at the forefront of a new revolution in rice, developing breeds designed to feed an ever-hungrier population that’s expected to hit 10 billion by 2060. They are the intellectual heirs of scientists in the first Green Revolution, which began in the 1960s and relied on fertilizers, pesticides and high-yield varieties to triple yields in Asia, outpacing the continent’s population growth. In recent years, though, those gains have stalled, and the current crop of rice researchers is fighting a new enemy: climate change. The warming planet brings not just heat and drought, but also floods, salinity, disease and toxic soils. The weapon of choice in Green Revolution 2.0? Gene splicing and selective breeding.

Rumanti and other scientists breed better rice plants, generation by generation.

Rice is the most important staple on the planet, providing more calories than any other food, including wheat, sugar and corn. And nowhere is rice more crucial to the human diet than in Asia, where 520 million people get more than half their daily calories from the grain. It’s not a lucrative crop, though, like biofuel-friendly corn or sugar cane, so corporations don’t plow big money into research. The renowned International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines — crucible of the Green Revolution — was established as a nonprofit in 1960s by the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations. These days it’s funded primarily by national governments as well as philanthropic organizations like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. IRRI’s director general, Matthew Morell, is at work on a dizzying array of projects to study the impacts of rice while developing new technologies.

Take Bangladesh, for example, the rice-reliant nation of 156 million on the northeastern shoulder of India. Every year cyclones sweep across the Bay of Bengal and poison the country’s low-lying rice fields with intruding saltwater. Sea levels elevated by global warming are making the problem worse, so the IRRI is hard at work trying to develop a rice strain that can withstand increased salinity. Elsewhere, researchers are encouraging Indonesian palm oil farmers to plant rice alongside their trees for the first three years until the shade kills off the cereal understory. In Africa, the IRRI has introduced 15 hybrid strains of rice that are specially designed to withstand the withering heat of Kenya and Tanzania.

Morell is quick to note that the IRRI’s innovations come from traditional crossbreeding, not genetic modification. Genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, have been around since the 1990s and are planted on 11 percent of the globe’s croplands, including half of America’s. Nevertheless, concerns over their safety and environmental impact have blocked their use in Europe and Africa. Instead, Rumanti and other scientists breed better rice plants, generation by generation. “We’re looking for natural variation, which gives resistance or tolerance to high levels of salinity,” Morell says, “but also looking at ways we can combine salinity tolerance with drought tolerance, with flood tolerance, with disease tolerance.”

Some experts claim that biotech is not needed to win the race between food production and population growth. Jonathan Foley, executive director of the California Academy of Scientists and a global ecologist, notes that humans consume only 35 out of every 100 calories we grow. The rest is wasted, lost to spoilage or goes to biofuels and animals. Reducing inefficiencies in the food supply chain may not be a “sexy” solution, as he calls it, but it might be enough to stave off hunger. “We don’t need GMOs or a lot of fancy tech” to feed the world, Foley maintains. “That’s just misdirection. We already grow enough food to feed nine or 10 billion people.”

In fact, for many developing nations, the problem is not a lack of calories — it’s the kind of calories that are being consumed. According to UNICEF, nearly a quarter of the world’s children under the age of 5 have stunted growth due to poor diets. Here, rice actually can be a culprit, with white rice targeted as a potential cause of diabetes. Papua New Guinea and other developing nations increasingly fortify rice with vitamins and minerals to address the malnutrition issue.

As climate scientists and world leaders work on reducing heat-trapping carbon emissions, Rumanti and her fellow travelers in the rice-improvement movement keep their hands in the earth and their feet in the swamps, fine-tuning a humble but vital grain. “We can’t control the climate,” Rumanti says. “We can’t control the soil condition. We just try to deal with them.”