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Plant Biologist: Genetics Crucial for Food Security and Sustainable Agriculture

Josh Falzone
May 14, 2019

Our world faces daunting challenges as the world’s population approaches eight billion people, particularly a looming food crisis. But how can we feed this many mouths while not engaging in unsustainable farming practices that contribute more to climate change?

Plant biologist Pamela Ronald recently told Knowledgeable Magazine that the future of food is dependent on using sustainable agriculture tools, such as crop rotation, and a combination of scientific-based farming practices and genetic strategies. Here is how Dr. Ronald describes it:

Sustainable agriculture has three pillars: social, economic and environmental. It creates food that’s nutritious, it allows farmers to reduce the amount of land and water they use, to foster soil fertility and genetic diversity, and to reduce toxic inputs. And it enhances food security for the very poorest farmers and families in the world. So, for example, if you can breed resistance into a plant, whether through conventional or genetic engineering, and that means you can reduce the amount of sprayed chemicals you use, that’s part of sustainable agriculture.

One example Dr. Ronald gives in her interview is her work on genetically modifying rice, a staple crop for feeding the world, to be flood-resistant. This was needed because if rice leaves are submerged in water for more than three days, the plant will die.

How did Dr. Ronald and her team make a rice plant that was flood-resistant? Through genetics.

First, we carried out the initial work of isolating the flood-tolerance gene, called Sub1a, from the ancient variety. Then we introduced the gene into a model rice plant using genetic engineering. We then grew up those plants and submerged them, in large tanks in our greenhouses for two weeks.

The plants that carried the Sub1a gene were very robust; you could see the difference right away. Plants without Sub1a turned yellow, had very long leaves and soon died. This is because when the leaves try to grow out of the water, they deplete their chlorophyll content and energy reserves. But the plants that carry the Sub1a gene just stay kind of metabolically inert — they don’t grow very fast, they just kind of wait out the flood. And when the flood’s gone, they start to regrow. The Sub1 plants remained green and healthy, indicating we had indeed isolated the correct gene.

The Sub1 rice varieties are now grown by more than five million farmers across the globe, providing a reliable source of income for small farms in areas with high poverty rates. And with climate change creating inclement, unpredictable weather, farmers need a rice plant that can withstand harsh conditions.

However, not everyone is sold on mixing genetic technologies and our food. In her interview with Knowledgeable Magazine, Dr. Ronald gave her take on the issue.

I think part of the issue is that less than 2 percent of people in the US are farmers and are somewhat removed from food production. Many people aren’t familiar with the challenges faced by farmers and may not understand that Bt crops have massively reduced the use of insecticides in the US and globally. The World Health Organization estimates that 200,000 people die every year from misuse or overuse of insecticides, primarily in less developed countries.

The use of genetic technologies has become very politicized like several other issues in science — vaccines, climate change. The major scientific organizations have concluded that the climate is changing, that vaccines can save lives, and that genetically engineered crops are safe to eat and safe for the environment.

The world’s food security is dependent on biotechnology innovations, like gene editing. These innovations are helping the environment, reducing food waste, increasing food’s nutritional value, protecting the vitality of the foods we love, and so much more.

If we embrace the availability of these biology-driven solutions, we can farm smart and sustainably so we can feed the world and protect our environment.