Scientists from 10 countries have decoded the rice genome following a seven year project, according to a new report in Nature. The project was a multi-national one led by Japan with teams from the US, the UK, China, India, Thailand, Brazil and France.
The rice genome can be used as a base for genomic studies of other crops: rice is genetically similar to maize, wheat, barley, rye, sorghum and sugarcane. The BBC reports this genetic similarity has already helped researchers identify genes responsible for resistance to powdery mildew and stem rust in barley. And genes that confer certain traits – such as yield - have also been identified.
This is good news because:
The blueprint will speed up the hunt for genes that improve productivity and guard against disease and pests.
In order to avoid shortages, rice yields must increase by 30% over the next 20 years, researchers say.
"Rice is a critically important crop, and this finished sequence represents a major milestone," said Robin Buell of The Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR). "We know the scientific community can use these data to develop new varieties of rice that deliver increased yields and grow in harsher conditions."
Here’s the reason genetically modified foods should continue to be developed and cultivated. The world's population is forecast to rise to 8 billion by 2025. One challenge will be to feed these extra 2 billion people. But that's really only part of the story. The real challenge will be to feed these extra 2 billion people without destroying forests and wildlands to make way for additional farming land. That is the real environmental challenge.
Most usable land is already under cultivation and global urbanization is taking some back. We have to find ways to increase yields further and to use land currently not suitable for farming. The reason is simple: every acre that (say) doubles its yield is one acre of rainforest that does not have to be chopped down, or one acre of wild land that does not have to be cultivated to grow food. The same is true for an acre of unusable land that is recovered for farming. So how do we do that? We must increase global yields, and to do this we must use all available tools, including genetic modification.
The threat is not only to forests and wildlands. We are probably going to have to grow this additional food with less water:
In addition, global warming may mean that rice is required to be more robust in the face of droughts.
Of course, the anti-GM protesters in rich countries like the US won’t be the ones who will go to bed hungry if yields are not increased, so maybe they think they can afford to call for a global moratorium on genetically engineered foods and crops. Ironically they’re missing the real environmental challenge: to preserve the existing wildlands and forests for all of us. For this we need to employ all the tools available.