Climate proof crops

By | Science & Technology
A new strain of GM rice has been developed that can endure extreme conditions credit@ ourworld.unu.edu creative commons

Climatic conditions vary across the globe from year to year. Some areas, like parts of Asia and Africa, are affected more so than others. Consequently, yields from certain crops can fluctuate between harvests. However, thanks to the development of a new strain of genetically altered rice, this may soon be a thing of the past.

The single strain of GM rice is claimed to be able to withstand salty conditions, drought and can be grown successfully without fertiliser. Previous advances have allowed the creation of a crop that can resist one or two of these environmental factors; however, this is first time a strain has shown resistance to all three. The developer of the rice, Eric Rey (president of Arcadia Biosciences in Davis, California) said: “Considering the impact of climate instability on crop yields and food security, trait combinations such as our triple-stack technology will play a critical role in sustaining future generations”.

The new rice was augmented with genes from several other types of plant. By incorporating genetic material from a particular type of barley, the GM rice utilises nitrogen more effectively and can therefore survive in the absence of fertiliser. A type of cress commonly used in plant research, Arabidopsis thaliana, was the source of a gene for salt tolerance. Finally, the ability to withstand drought is the result of bringing in a gene from Agrobacterium tumefaciens, a common soil bacterium.

The combined agricultural cost from drought across South-East Asia is estimated to be around $13 billion, according to the International Rice Research Institute. It affects around 23 million hectares of rice plantations. Salty soils are even more widespread: the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations claims that roughly 800 million hectares are affected. In this respect, the strain of rice from Arcadia Biosciences (with its newly discovered durability) would be a welcome proposition to many farmers, governments and consumers alike.

A comparison between Arcadia’s “super-rice” and a regular variety has been conducted over the last two years. When the company announced their findings last month, they claimed significant statistical advantages with the GM crop. The most notable of which, was an improved yield of 42% compared to the parent rice in certain salty conditions. Yields in low-fertiliser and drought conditions saw improvements in the range of 12 to 18%. These results are in the process of being submitted to a peer reviewed journal, according to Arcadia’s spokesman, Ken Li.

Jonathan Jones of the Sainsbury Laboratory in Norwich, UK, said: “This sounds very promising, it is the first public claim I’ve heard of a stack of three different environmental tolerance traits, though I’m sure other companies are attempting something like it too.” Matthew Paul of Rothamsted Research in Harpenden, UK, said: “This looks good from the press release […] I’d like to see it pass peer review”.

Arcadia is also working with the African Agricultural Technology Foundation in Nairobi, Kenya, to create maize and wheat with genes that could help resist climate stresses, as well as the successful rice strains. “In Africa, rice plants with some of these genes have completed initial trials already,” says Li. This new development, along with some American innovations in drought resistance maize from previous years, are promising for the future of easier-to-grow crops which could help poverty stricken areas to feed themselves.

What other GM crops might be developed in anticipation of a changing climate and how far could they go to help alleviate poverty?

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