Opening the doors to food security through genomics

June 28, 2018

The development of Green Super Rice, a new breed of stable, climate-smart, high-yielding varieties, opens up the potential of understanding and using genomics of agroecosystems in responding to the increasingly complex challenges the agricultural sector is facing today.

As the global population continues to increase exponentially each day, so does the demand for rice, a major staple food and livelihood for more than 3.5 billion people. Given the current growth rate, it is expected that global population will reach around 10 billion by 2050. Much of this increase will occur in poor, densely populated regions in Asia and Africa that are already highly dependent on rice for food, nutrition, and livelihood.

The article “The Rice Genome Revolution: from an Ancient Grain to Green Super Rice” published in Nature Reviews Genetics discusses how genomes from domesticated and wild rice can be used to improve other breeding programs, making it more responsive to global needs.

IRRI’s first AXA Chair and University of Arizona professor, Rod A. Wing, teamed up with Michael D. Purugganan of New York University, and Qifa Zhang of the Huazhong Agricultural University, in investigating genetic variation among domesticated rice species to develop more stable high-yielding varieties and enhance other breeding programs. Though traditional breeding programs resulted in varieties with better lodging resistance and higher yield vigor, it has been costly in terms of resources most especially with the environment.

In 2008, one year after Professor Zhang first proposed the concept of Green Super Rice (GSR), IRRI and the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences (CAAS), with the support of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, began working together to use genomics to develop GSR varieties. That is, varieties that are higher yielding and more nutritious, while at the same time requiring less water, fertilizers and pesticides and can grow on marginal lands. GSR varieties also hold the potential to help smallholder farmers mitigate the impact of climate change in their livelihoods.

GSR varieties are developed to efficiently use nutrients and have resistance to pests, diseases, and abiotic stresses such as drought, submergence, salinity, cold, and heat. These varieties are able to produce enough food with improved eating quality for the world’s expanding population while using fewer inputs such as water, fertilizer, and pesticide. This reduces greenhouse gas emissions thus decreasing the impact of rice farming on the environment.

Through the use of available gene sequences (see Genomic variation in 3,010 diverse accessions of Asian cultivated rice), breeders could use genetic markers to develop varieties like GSR. As a result, the breeding process becomes more efficient, precise, and more responsive in developing varieties that can help in achieving food security in a complex production environment.

Opening the doors to food security through genomics