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How Genetics Can Help Solve World Hunger

March 30, 2015
Forbes' Jessica Dean did a well thought out piece on the accomplishments achieved by Dr. Pamela Ronald, plant pathology professor at the University of California at Davis. Dr. Pamela Ronald is also the Director of the Laboratory for Crop Genetics Innovation at the University of California, Davis and serves as Director of Grass Genetics at the Joint Bioenergy Institute in Emeryville, California.

Dr. Ronald’s is best known for her contribution to engineering rice for resistance to disease and tolerance to flooding, which seriously threaten rice crops in Asia and Africa. Ronald led the isolation of the rice XA21 immune receptor and the rice Sub1A submergence tolerance transcription factor. In 2013, more than 4 million farmers planted Sub1 rice. The New York Times heralded it a new agricultural era. Xa21 has also been used to engineer banana for resistance to Banana Xanthomonas wilt, a serious disease that affects 100 million people in Eastern Africa. In 1996, she established the Genetic Resources Recognition Fund, a mechanism to recognize intellectual property contributions from less developed countries.

In her piece, Jessica Dineen highlights Dr. Ronald's work and how she is "helping to feed a growing population without destroying the environment":

...In some circles, work such as Ronald’s is regarded as nearly heroic. In other circles, plant genetics garners more misgivings than accolades. When “golden rice,” engineered with Vitamin A to prevent starvation and blindness, was field-tested in the Philippines in 2013, protesters ripped up the plants. The New York Times reported that crops with similarly benign aims were being destroyed around the world, such as grapes imbued with anti-viral properties in France.

Ronald contends that the public would be less fearful if the conversation about genetically modified crops remained grounded in science.

“Many people don’t realize almost everything we eat is genetically modified in some way,” she says, explaining that there are many methods of altering food, some used throughout the history of farming. “Almost nothing we eat would survive in nature. It’s a domesticated system.”

Ronald notes that genetically engineered crops are deemed safe by widely respected organizations such as the National Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Genetically engineered crops also get a nod for offering environmental advantages. A report issued last year by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found less insecticide use among farmers planting Bt cotton, genetically engineered for pest resistance.

“In the scientific community,” Ronald asserts, “the conclusion that modern genetic methods are no more risky than conventional methods, is accepted.”

If anyone can help the public navigate the intersection of genetics, food and good health, it’s Pamela Ronald. While scientists worldwide are attempting to move genes from one species to another to confer various beneficial traits, Ronald may be singularly devoted to a holistic brand of sustainable agriculture. She is married to Raoul Adamchak, an organic farmer also working out of UC Davis. In 2010, they co-authored “Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food,” which describes the importance of ecologically based farming practices and genetically improved seed to sustainable agriculture.

If the couple’s own progeny is a harbinger of things to come, the outlook is good for scientific ingenuity. While shopping recently, Ronald and her 13-year-old daughter came across a new kind of frankenfood, a tomato fused with a potato, called a TomTato. Ronald’s daughter exclaimed, “Neat, how do they do that?” Ronald described grafting. Her daughter replied, “That sounds like a lot of work. Let me know when I can get it in the seed.