Scientists Developing Climate-Adapted GMO Rice

Published March 21, 2016

Genetically engineering a new strain of hyper-efficient, drought-resistant rice, known as C4, is part of a multi-national research effort the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has called one of the “10 Breakthrough Technologies of 2015.”

A team of scientists from eight countries at the International Rice Research Institute in Los Banos, Philippines is genetically modifying certain strains of rice to reduce the amount of water required to grow the rice. Rice is a staple food crop in many countries around the world. Rice crop failures have led to malnutrition, disease, and death for millions of people over the past 10,000 years.

Rice plants grow through a chemical process known as C3 photosynthesis, which wastes a great deal of water and reduces plant’s food-making efficiency. It also makes C3 plants vulnerable to the extremely warm weather often experienced in many rice-growing regions of the world.

Natural C4 plants have a different cell structure in their leaves, enabling a more efficient photosynthesis process. Because they lose less water through transpiration, C4 plants are more likely to produce successful yields during droughts. Rice is a water-intensive crop, so reducing the amount of water lost through transpiration is important in regions that experience frequent or periodic irregular drought.

By genetically engineering rice strains using the C4 process, scientists hope to develop a durable and drought-resistant rice plant that could be used in many areas around the world.

‘Like Putting a Turbocharger in a Car’

In an article published in Newsweek on the C4 rice project, Paul Quick, one of the leading scientists at the International Rice Research Institute, said, “It’s like putting a turbocharger in a car. These plants focus carbon dioxide so that instead of having 400 parts per million, you’ve got 1,000 or 1,500 parts per million.”

“C4 plants grow in hotter, drier areas,” Julian Hibberd, a professor of molecular physiology at Cambridge University, told Newsweek. “They have a better tolerance for periods of low water supply.”

‘Vindication of Genetic Engineering’

Analysts say if scientists achieve the C4 rice breakthrough they are seeking, it will be further proof of the success and significant potential of crops that utilize genetically modified organisms (GMO).

“C4 rice would represent an important breakthrough in sustainable agriculture,” said Gregory Conko, author of numerous articles and books on GMO crops and the biotechnology and executive director of the Competitive Enterprise Institute. “Most of the new varieties being developed—whether with conventional or GMO methods—combat losses due to pests, plant diseases, and weeds, which helps farmers get the best yields from their crops.

“But an improvement like C4 photosynthesis would significantly raise the yield potential for every plant,” Conko said. “That [would, in turn,] mean getting more food from every acre and reducing the need to bring undeveloped land into farming.”

Despite the potential promise of C4 rice, Mischa Popoff, a former U.S. Department of Agriculture organic food inspector and the author of Is it Organic?, warns of the threat to GMO crop development posed by lobbyists working for the organic food industry.

Organic-farming groups have attacked GMO crops for decades, claiming GMOs will inevitably spread beyond the fields they are planted in and interbreed with nearby organic crops, thereby destroying their “organic” nature.

“It’s impossible to destroy the organic integrity of an organic crop through any kind of GMO intermingling or interbreeding,” said Popoff. “While organic farmers are not allowed to make use of GMO seed in their fields, there is no impact whatsoever if an organic crop contacts with or cross-pollinates with a GMO crop. The government still allows it to be labeled ‘organic.’

“Unfortunately, the tax-subsidized, anti-GMO global organic industrial complex dominates the domain of public relations, perpetuating the myth GMOs pose an existential threat to organic crops,” said Popoff. “If GMOs did threaten organic crops, we would already have seen a plethora of legal cases setting precedent to that effect. There have been no such cases. None.

“If anti-GMO organic activists are successful, C4 rice will wind up on the back shelf, alongside a growing stockpile of other drought-resistant GMO crops, such as wheat and barley, scientists were forced to abandon out of fear of a ginned-up public backlash,” Popoff said. 

Bonner R. Cohen, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at the National Center of Public Policy Research.