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Climate change: The rice genome to the rescue

The sequencing of the rice genome could help mitigate the impact of climate change on the world’s poor

New evidence is emerging that climate change could reduce not only the world’s ability to produce food but also international efforts to cut poverty. However, the recent sequencing of the rice genome is already providing researchers with some of the tools they need to help poor rice farmers and consumers avoid the worst effects of the problem.

The new knowledge generated by the sequencing effort is allowing scientists to both develop new rice varieties faster and with the specific characteristics needed to deal with climate change, such as tolerance of higher temperatures. However, scientists are calling for more research to fully understand the impact of climate change – especially the extreme weather it may cause – on international efforts to reduce poverty and ensure food security.

A "Climate Change and Rice" planning workshop this month at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines was told that climate change is already affecting Asia’s ability to produce rice, and that this could eventually slow efforts to reduce poverty in the region, where most of the world’s poor live.

The workshop was informed that, to overcome many of the climate change–related problems facing rice production in Asia – and continue to meet the demand for rice in the region – yields will have to double over the next 50 years. Research has confirmed that global warming will make rice crops less productive with increasing temperatures decreasing yields.

"Clearly, climate change is going to have a major impact on our ability to grow rice," Robert S. Zeigler, IRRI director general, said. "We can’t afford to sit back and be complacent about this because rice production feeds almost half the world’s population while providing vital employment to millions as well, with most of them being very poor and vulnerable."

For these reasons, Dr. Zeigler announced at the workshop that IRRI – in an unprecedented move – was ready to put up US$2 million of its own research funds as part of an effort to raise $20–25 million for a major five-year project to mitigate the effects of climate change on rice production. "We need to start developing rice varieties that can tolerate higher temperatures and other aspects of climate change right now," he said.

"Fortunately, the recent sequencing of the rice genome will allow us to do this much faster than we could have in the past," Dr. Zeigler added. "But, in addition to new rice varieties, we must develop other technologies that will help poor rice farmers deal with climate change."

In one of several examples presented to last week’s climate workshop, researchers mentioned El Niño weather phenomena that hit the Philippines in 1996-97 and caused a severe drought, resulting in a sharp drop in national rice production. Other examples focused on the impact of climate change and variability on gross domestic product, generally causing it to slip by several percentage points.

"One of the main problems with climate change is that the effects are felt mostly in poor, underdeveloped countries because of their reliance on agriculture as one of the main drivers for national development," Dr. Zeigler said. "In turn, agriculture is very dependent on climate.

"Another more insidious effect may be more frequent extreme weather events such as typhoons, floods and droughts," Dr. Zeigler warned. "IRRI’s research has shown that even one drought year can push millions of rice farmers back below the poverty line. This affects the whole family for many years after the drought year, as they will have sold their livestock and withdrawn their children from school just to survive."

IRRI’s senior climate change researcher, John Sheehy, told the workshop that poor farmers need help in several challenging new areas. "We need to develop rice varieties tolerant of higher temperatures that can maintain yield and quality when extreme temperatures occur," Dr. Sheehy said. "We also need rice varieties that can take advantage of higher levels of CO2 in the atmosphere, rice that is vigorous enough to recover quickly from extreme weather events and disasters, and very high yielding rice that will provide a supply buffer for poor communities during periods of change.

"We need to be able to protect poor people from the harmful effects of climate change, and rice is especially important because most of the world’s poor depend on it," he added. "We also need to ensure that the world community is not adversely affected by greenhouse gas emissions from rice production systems."

Dr. Sheehy said researchers need to acquire knowledge and develop technologies critical to ensuring that rice production systems are sustainable in the face of climate change and do not adversely contribute to climate change.

Duncan Macintosh | EurekAlert!
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