A Hardier Rice for a Warming World
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
This new variety of rice might save the world from starvation.
By Fiona Zublin
Across Asia, Africa and Latin America, rice is a staple, both culturally and practically. A Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimate found that more than 16 percent of all the calories consumed in the world come from rice. But it’s also deeply susceptible to climate change: Rice doesn’t like higher temperatures, and some estimates have found that crop yields could fall 40 percent by 2100 if nothing is done. Plus, rice yields actually need to increase to offset expected population growth and rapid urbanization of the world, which changes global priorities for land use.
Luckily, Jane Langdale is doing something.
Faced with the destruction climate change is certain to wreak on the world, some of us hide under our beds composing poems about the apocalypse. Others try to make sure that, even if the climate does shift, vulnerable people — and, crucially, their food sources — are protected.
Langdale, a professor of plant development at Oxford University, is the coordinator for the C4 Rice Project, a global push to make sure rice remains a viable crop through a very specific scientific process. Simply put: Plants absorb carbon dioxide. About 95 percent of plant species, including rice, extract the carbon from those molecules via a process known as C3. But about 3 percent of species, including maize and sorghum, do it through a different process known as C4. Plants that use the C4 process are more resistant to extreme heat and drought. So Langdale’s project is attempting to turn rice into one of those plants.
In Europe, there’s still a lot of anti-[genetically modified foods] sentiment. But it’s easy — people here aren’t starving.
“What we’re trying to do, given that crops are going to be growing in the future in conditions with less water and higher temperatures, is to try and convert rice from using the ancestral C3 pathway,” she says. Doing that could double the plant’s water efficiency and yield.
“The headline is that it should contribute in a big way to food security to many of the most vulnerable people on the planet,” explains Julian Hibberd, another scientist working on the C4 rice project.
Rice is a big business — it’s a staple food for half the world — but it’s a small business too. Ninety percent of the world’s rice is grown in Asia by small farmers who would need to use less fertilizer and less rainwater to keep their businesses afloat. The project hopes that a more drought-resistant rice could even become a more important crop, particularly in parts of Africa where it’s not currently a staple due to weather conditions. And some movers and shakers actually believe this might work: The Gates Foundation awarded the project a grant in 2008, then another $15 million last year to continue with Phase 4 of its research. One condition of the money is that the fruits of the research be made affordable to needy people in developing nations.
U.K. native Langdale, 59, has spent her career until now as a biologist with a specialty in leaf development patterns. She began her academic career focused on human genetics, but you can’t do as much hands-on genetic crossbreeding when people are your subjects, so she switched to plants. In 2006, she learned about the C4 rice initiative and got involved. Now she cooks, gardens and walks her Airedale terrier when not trying to revolutionize a staple crop from her lab in Oxford.
Across Asia, small farmers are using many varied types of rice, she explains, and they often have cultural and environmental histories. The goal is to get the C4 mechanism, once it works, into all the different types — though it’s possible that if it’s bred into a few main varieties first, farmers could switch to those. But the project’s implications could go far beyond one grain. “If we succeed in rice, there’s no reason we can’t roll it out to wheat, and then we’ve got a whole different ball game,” Langdale says. The world’s wheat belt is currently predicted to have to move geographically as the climate gets warmer, but C4 wheat wouldn’t need to.
“If it works, it’s a big deal,” says Matthew Reynolds, a senior scientist with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico City. “If it was a straightforward thing to put in … it would certainly make things a lot easier.”
That’s all a long way off, though. Langdale expects getting C4 rice into farmers’ fields will probably take 15 years. Even after the team solves the basic problem — which hasn’t happened yet — there will be periods of trials within a test system, and then they will hand the mechanism over to rice breeders to put it into various rices.
One worry, of course, is lingering prejudice toward genetically modified foods. “The more examples we have that get out there and make a difference to people on the ground, things will start to change,” Langdale says. “In Europe, there’s still a lot of anti-GM sentiment. But it’s easy — people here aren’t starving.”