Miracle rice to the rescue, again?

Do we need genetically modified crops to survive global warming?

By Andrew Leonard
March 30, 2006 11:57PM (UTC)
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Here's a question for the 21st century: Can science save us from ourselves? Last week, attendees at a "Climate Change and Rice" planning workshop in the Philippines were told that global warming is already affecting rice yields in Asia. Robert Zeigler, director general of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), the organizers of the workshop, said, "We need to start developing rice varieties that can tolerate higher temperatures and other aspects of climate change right now."

Researchers at IRRI have previously demonstrated that a one-degree rise in average temperatures directly lowers rice yields. The same is true for soybeans and corn. It hardly needs emphasizing how big this problem could be for the world, and in particular for poor farmers in the developing countries that are likely to feel the first impacts of climate change. So my first impulse, on learning this news, was to cheer on the researchers who are trying to develop new plant strains that will "tolerate warmer temperatures and extreme weather events, and can make use of higher levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to produce greater yields."


But there's a back story here. No institution is more closely affiliated with the Green Revolution that dramatically boosted crop yields throughout the world in the '60s and '70s than IRRI. The vast majority of rice currently cultivated in Asia is based on strains developed at IRRI. For many scientists IRRI's successes are one of the great contributions to human welfare made by science in the 20th century. Gurdev Khush, IRRI's lead plant breeder for some 30 years, is widely regarded in the developing world as a hero.

Or a corporate stooge. There is, of course, an alternative view of the Green Revolution, one that views its so-called successes as a trap that hooked millions of poor farmers on monocultural crops dependent on expensive fertilizer inputs and pesticides. IRRI, say the critics, is partially funded by the multinational corporations that produce those fertilizers and pesticides, such as Monsanto and Dupont. And now, IRRI wants to compound its previous errors by introducing new, genetically modified strains of rice that could present even greater dangers.

Perhaps because of negative public relations considerations, the words "genetically modified" were never mentioned in IRRI's press release -- although there is a reference to how the cracking of the rice genome in 2001 will aid researchers in creating new strains. And there's no doubt that IRRI has been heavily involved in testing G.M. rice strains. And why not? Viewed optimistically, G.M. rice is the next logical evolutionary step, a way to redress the drawbacks of the Green Revolution. Rice that uses less fertilizer and water, is resistant to pesticides, thrives in hot temperatures, and eats carbon dioxide would be a welcome miracle indeed. And isn't that how science is supposed to work? You learn from your mistakes, and deliver an improved version?


Or you create a Frankenstein monster, and are murdered by your own creation. Or progress is just a myth. Science and technology have helped to get us in the mess we're in now, 6 and a half billion people on a planet headed for devastating climate change and a potentially catastrophic energy crunch. In our rush to redesign nature so as to survive the damage we've already wreaked upon nature, will we be able to keep all the balls smoothly juggling, or will we crash?

For my part, I'm a great believer in the potential of science to alleviate misery and improve living standards. How the World Works believes in progress. I'm not at all sure I trust Monsanto or Syngenta with the responsibility of saving us from ourselves, but private sector investment and research is going to have to be part of the solution. If there is one.

On an even more personal note, I've mentioned here before that my grandfather worked for the Rockefeller Foundation in the 1960s, traveling around the world distributing funds. The Rockefeller Foundation was one of the original founders of IRRI. I learned from my mother a few weeks ago that all my grandfather's daily journals of that time are stored in a basement in a house in New Hampshire. I have been thinking for months that I would have loved it if my grandfather (who passed away 20 years ago) could have had the chance to comment on and critique this blog. Today, I'm certain that in those journals some of the same questions asked here have already been mulled. Stay tuned for future reports, from the past.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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