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November 17, 2009

Can GM rice fill the world's shortfall?

by Matt Cawood

Genetically modified (GM) crops are not the only answer to Asia’s looming food deficit, but multinational crop technology company Syngenta argues that they must be part of the mix.

Syngenta made the case for GM technology to journalists in Bangkok two weeks ago, as part of a broader effort to open Asian government doors that have so far remained closed to genetically modified food crops.

Among the Asian nations, only India and China and The Philippines have embraced the technology, with India planting around 7.6 million hectares of cotton in 2009.

The Philippines is the only Asian country to date to introduce a GM grain crop, planting about 400,000ha of maize in 2008.

Syngenta believes it is time for the barriers against GM to come down, so that biotechnology companies can confidently invest in GM research ahead of the looming food crisis.

“Given the projected increase in population and with less land and water available, we will need all available agricultural technologies, including biotechnology, to meet the current and projected global demand for food, feed, fiber, and biofuels,” said Peter Pickering, Syngenta’s head of seeds for the Asia Pacific. “GM is not the only solution, but it is an extremely powerful one.”

In Asia, the urgency to grow more food from less land and water makes it likely that GM rice will be eventually grown on a broad scale.

The influential International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) has thrown its weight behind the GM rice push, running its own GM research programs and collaborations with private companies. IRRI expects that the first GM rice, the famous “Golden Rice” engineered to synthesise Vitamin A, could be grown in Bangladesh and the Philippines by 2012.

Vitamin A deficiency is reported to affect about 124 million people in Africa and Asia. It is estimated to cause about one million deaths a year and 500,000 cases of blindness.

Golden Rice carries genes from the daffodil and a soil bacteria which allow it to synthesise beta-carotene, an inactive organic form of Vitamin A. Rice can synthesise beta-carotene in its leaves, but the modification carries that ability through to the rice grain.

Syngenta donated several of its patented technologies to the Golden Rice project for humanitarian purposes, with other biotech companies also making contributions—gestures that have done little to mollify Greenpeace’s concerns that Golden Rice is a Trojan Horse being used to soften resistance to GM.

Outside Golden Rice, production traits like water and nitrogen use efficiency, and tolerance to salinity and flooding, are early targets of GM rice research.

Syngenta is not working on specific rice products, Mr Pickering said, but rather on understanding general traits that protect plants from stress.

“Our early stage research into drought resistance may result in traits that could be utilised in rice,” he said. “Syngenta also has input trait technology such as herbicide and insect resistance which could also be incorporated.”

Improving yield, an all-important outcome if the goal of “more from less” is to be met, is in Mr Pickering’s analysis not simply about increasing grain number or volume but helping the seed to “deliver its genetic potential.”

“We believe that global rice yields could be increased from the current average of around four tonnes per hectare to around six tonnes/ha, using existing technology,” Mr Pickering said.

At Syngenta’s Philippines research facility, yields have sometimes reached four times the global average using existing technology and management.

“This emphasises the point that the key to improving productivity lies in the adoption of existing and new technology, and that biotechnology forms just one part of the complete farmer toolbox.”

IRRI Media Relations manager Sophie Clayton told the Bangkok media workshop that transforming rice from a relatively inefficient C3 plant to a more water efficient, nitrogen efficient C4 plants is also on the IRRI research agenda.

Meanwhile, there are other low-hanging fruit in the quest to deliver an extra 8-10 million tonnes of rice to Asia each year, Ms Clayton said.

Post-harvest losses from inefficient threshing, storage and milling currently accounts for up to 25 per cent physical losses between farm and rice consumer—offering a substantial boost to Asia’s food supply if those losses can be recaptured.

* Matthew Cawood was a guest of Syngenta in Bangkok

Farm Online

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