World’s biggest crop getting biotech treatment

Picture a crop under increasingly intense pressure. Climate change is making yields unpredictable. Water scarcity is making it shrivel. Low prices are keeping its farmers poor. And diversification is making many producers lose interest in it.

A little over a year ago, that crop might have been called corn, or soybeans, or wheat.

Now, it's called rice, the world's biggest crop.

And that's a big problem.

Rice helps feed almost half the world. No one can downplay the role of corn, soybeans or wheat to our economy and to the food supply, domestic and abroad. And sure, climate change could affect those crops, too.

But in Asia, hundreds of millions of people depend on rice as a staple. From a farming perspective, it's a cornerstone for so many smallholders and subsistence farmers. It's a part of the culture. And now, a rice crisis has arrived, with stocks depleting, rice paddy land disappearing, and demand for food continuing to grow.

At a meeting earlier this fall of the Council for Partnerships on Rice Research in Asia, participating nations, including China and India, said they have to work together with the private sector to develop new higher-yielding varieties.

And for the first time that I can remember, they clearly stated biotechnology could be a tool they use.

The exact words from council chair Mangala Rai were these: "We decided that we should actively support the policies of our governments to promote the responsible use of biotechnology to help achieve food security and reduce poverty."

This is huge for biotechnology. It's become a part of other popular crops such as soybeans and corn, and even U.S. wheat growers are getting interested in it. But it's failed to make practical inroads into rice production, even though researchers in Switzerland, the Philippines and elsewhere have been working for years on a genetically enhanced crop called golden rice. It's fortified with beta-carotene and stimulates the production of vitamin A in humans, helping prevent nasty diseases, particularly blindness. It was supposed to have been ready for growers last year, but it's been bogged down by patents and opposed by anti-technology groups who didn't want to see biotechnology a part of the biggest crop in the world.

But now, the council is more concerned about volume than it is about added health features, and that's a switch. It looks like it's ready to forgo opposition to address what it calls a rice crisis.

That likely means it will support features such as disease resistance and drought tolerance, which can be introduced or engineered into rice in the same way North American crops such as corn and soybeans have be outfitted with new traits.

The sticking point with protesters will be the introduction of herbicide resistance, a trait most associated here with multinational companies such as Monsanto, if indeed that's in the cards. It's hard to argue with the addition of health traits, but to the council, that's just not the most immediate need, despite the status quo.

Rice has always been part of my culture, going all the way back to Minute Rice when I was kid, learning to cook. But it's hard to get some North Americans interested, let alone excited, about rice, particularly when we're having major problems of our own in farming, such as the woeful lot of pork and beef producers.

For example, I showed the council's news release to my agricultural communications diploma class, and I actually sensed yawns. It didn't help that whoever wrote the news release methodically buried the biotechnology angle halfway through it, so as not to draw too much attention to it.

But that's naïve. Experience shows that trying to slip biotechnology in through the back door is a losing approach.

Let's hope we don't see the communication mistakes of the past repeated, especially with the food security of so many people in question.

The rice development council is calling for a public-private sector consortium to support rice research and develop young scientists. That approach offers the potential for a lot of dialogue, depending of course on who comprises the consortium. But it beats silence, and it's infinitely better than no action at all.

About The Author

Urban Cowboy

Raising awareness and promoting dialogue about current food and agriculture issues.


Headshot of Owen Roberts

Owen Roberts is a faculty member in the Agricultural Leadership, Education and Communications program at the University of Illinois. As an agricultural journalist, he is the past president of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists and a lifetime achievement award recipient from the Canadian Farm Writers' Federation. His programs and research papers have been recognized nationally and internationally through awards from the Journal of Applied Communications, the National Agri-Marketing Association, the Association for Communications Excellence, and others.