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How researchers at UC Davis developed a new strain of rice to help farmers in Southeast Asia

Villagers attempt to save their rice crops after last month's flooding in Bishan County on Aug. 9, 2007 in Chongqing, China. (China Photos/Getty Images)
Villagers attempt to save their rice crops after last month's flooding in Bishan County on Aug. 9, 2007 in Chongqing, China. (China Photos/Getty Images)

Climate change is impacting a small but mighty and important grain — rice.

Global rice production will likely be hit by the devastating effects of climate change as early as 2030, according to a recent NASA study.

Among those trying to mitigate the losses of rice — the world's second most important cereal crop — is plant geneticist Pamela Ronald. Her lab at the University of California Davis studies genes that control resistance to disease and tolerance of environmental stress in food crops.

For the past few years, her team spent her time working with rice farmers in Southeast Asia, where increased flooding limits crop production in areas that are already dealing with flood-prone land.

"It's estimated that 4 million tons of rice — enough to feed up to 30 million people — is lost every year to flooding," Ronald says.

Her laboratory created a rice disease resistance gene that has reached more than 6 million subsistence farmers in India and Bangladesh.

To achieve this, her team took advantage of an ancient Indian rice, isolated its gene and introduced it into rice varieties using modern technology. Those new varieties can withstand flooding for up to two weeks and have a 60% yield advantage compared with their conventional counterparts. The International Rice Research Institute has released several varieties with the gene trait.

The impact is significant, Ronald says, because it "disportionately benefits the world's very poorest farmers who have had the most flood-prone lands for generations." ​​

Although this method may work for farmers in Southeast Asia, the support isn't widely shared. According to a 2016 survey released by the Drought Tolerant Maize for Africa Seed Scaling (DTMASS), more than 4,000 farmers had common concerns, including the cost, reliability and productivity of genetically engineered (GE) seeds.

While she acknowledges the pushback and concerns over crops that have been modified by human hands in one way or another, Ronald says the real danger comes from misinformation about the techniques used to develop climate resistant crops.

"Scientists are trying to counter that misinformation and I think most of the public does understand the dangers of misinformation," she says. "This will be a continuing challenge to really engage the public in the challenges faced by farmers and the different techniques that scientists are using to develop climate resilient crops."

Genetically engineered crops are just part of the solution to solving crop inequalities around the world. Ronald believes it will require basic research and policymakers supporting farmers in rural communities.

But for the most part, she sees a future — as soon as 2050 — where GE seeds will be integrated in the foods we eat. And these GE crops will be more resilient to climate change, she says.

"I think what we will also see is the ability for these crops to thrive in more stressful environments," she says.

Marcelle Hutchins produced this interview and edited it for broadcast with Peter O’Dowd. Hutchins also adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.