Engineering the Future of Food

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Professor Pamela Ronald studies the genes that control resistance to disease and tolerance to environmental stress in plants, with the goal of improving food security globally. With enough rice to feed 30 million people lost to flooding every year, together with her collaborators, she has been instrumental in the development of rice that is both disease-resistant and flood-tolerant.

In this episode of the Create the Future podcast, we speak to Pamela about the 10,000-year-old history of modifying plants, from the early domestication of crops to recent developments in genomic editing. We explore why genetic modifications against environmental stressors will become more important as the climate changes, hear why engineered plants will help contribute towards chemical-free farming, and discuss the exciting future of perennial plants in biofuel production.

Episode Highlights:

  • “Our goal is to produce food without destroying the environment. We view farming from the framework of sustainable agriculture. We hope to provide adequate food and nutrition for everybody in the world. Sustainable agriculture also means reducing chemical inputs and conserving land and water.”
  • “Much of the arable land around the world is already in use. So, if we farm efficiently, we can use less water without clearing additional land.”
  • “There's an array of tools for engineering plants. The process of taking a gene from one organism and putting it into another was devised by a naturally occurring soil bacterium called Agrobacterium. It was that observation by Mary-Dell Chilton and others that really launched modern genetic engineering about 35 years ago.”
  • “One project that I've been fortunate to be involved in is developing a flood tolerant rice. It's estimated that 4 million tonnes of rice, enough to feed 30 million people, is lost every year to flooding. […] About 50 years ago, scientists found an ancient rice variety that could withstand two weeks of flooding. We were able to find that gene—so, those new varieties confer a 60% yield advantage over the older varieties after flooding. Last year, more than 6 million farmers grew this tolerant rice.”
  • “When I started my work it cost $70 million to sequence the Arabidopsis genome. Today, that same project can be carried out in about two days for $1,000. We also have the sequence of 3000 rice genomes and each of those genomes brings a wealth of genetic diversity that scientists can mine for useful traits.”
  • “Farmers in Bangladesh have been growing Bt Eggplant, which virtually eliminates the need for chemical insecticides.”
  • “There's a lot of interest in genome editing, which can be useful against environmental stresses. There's also a renewed interest in editing ancient plant varieties that we don't currently eat, because 70% of the calories consumed in the world come from just five crops that have been domesticated over 10,000 years.”
  • On developing bio energy: “There's tremendous interest in reducing our reliance on fossil fuels. And perennial crops produce sugars which can be used to help develop new fuels. They're very tolerant of stress and have considerable biomass.”
  • “We need young people to find out what they're interested in and use that to try and address some of the greatest challenges of today, which is to feed the growing population and reduce negative impacts on the climate and the environment. […] If you have many people working on this, all those small actions add up to really making the world a better place.”

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