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Rice Research and Biotechnology

By William Padolina - posted Friday, 30 August 2002

Rice, which helps feed almost half the people on the planet, is clearly not only the most important food staple in Asia, but also in the world today. The respected Washington Post recently described rice production as the world's single most important economic activity. Therefore, the present debate in Australia and around the world on the impact of biotechnology in general and on rice production and rice culture is clearly of crucial importance, not just to rice consumers and farmers but also to governments, nations, and societies.

For 40 years, the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) has been committed to evaluating different options and technologies that could help improve the lives of poor rice farmers and consumers via sustainable increases in production, improved management, and fewer problems. Without doubt, biotechnology appears to provide exciting new opportunities in many of these areas.

However, IRRI's role – as a public institution partially supported by Australia - is not to promote biotechnology or genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Its role is to objectively evaluate the new strategies and options that biotechnology may offer the rice industry and work with its partners in the national agricultural research and extension systems (NARES) of rice-producing nations to see if such strategies are appropriate and sustainable in different countries.


Put simply, IRRI seeks the freedom to find factual answers to the very questions posed by the debate on biotechnology, especially in relation to rice. While societies in Europe, North America, and Japan have the freedom to debate the pros and cons of their development and consumption of GMOs, it would be wrong for such debate to impede basic research to study whether such technologies are safe, sustainable, and appropriate for rice-producing nations in the developing world. Such countries must be allowed the right to make their own decisions on biotechnology, which they cannot do if access to such technology is denied to them because of debate elsewhere.

An excellent example of the perils of the biotechnology debate is vitamin-A rice. IRRI considers rice enriched with vitamin A through genetic modification an exciting new option provided by biotechnology. However, years of research are still required to establish whether this so-called Golden Rice will ever make it into the bowls of rice consumers in a safe and appropriate way.

Even before we get to questions on food safety, we must find out if rice enriched with vitamin A will yield well, is safe for the environment, or is susceptible to pests and diseases. Then there are still more important questions to be answered in relation to food safety, consumer acceptability, and biodigestibility.

However, such is the media hype over vitamin-A rice and biotechnology in general that the debate is increasingly focused on whether it should be allowed on consumer tables, when we still have not answered far more basic production and development questions. Unless common sense prevails, vitamin-A rice may be an idea proposed and rejected, even before we know if it is possible.

Food safety is rightly a crucial issue in the biotechnology debate and must be fully addressed and resolved to the satisfaction of all sides. But it is vital that any concerns do not prevent the basic research we will need to answer the very questions such debate will generate. All the questions being raised by the biotechnology debate are far too important for us to guess the answers, or allow them to come from newspaper headlines and Internet campaigns.

All sides in the GMO debate must have the facts and objective evaluations of the new opportunities provided by biotechnology if the millions of poor rice farmers and consumers in the developing world are ever to really benefit from all the promises made so far. Only research and scientific effort can find the facts and the answers needed to ensure that such real results are achieved.


And it is here that perhaps public research can play one of its most important roles. While the private sector – with its far greater resources – does the bulk of the expensive research, a better resourced public research sector could act as an honest broker, ensuring not only that any new technologies are safe and appropriate, but also that they benefit those who really need them most – the poor.

With this in mind, IRRI is continuing research on vitamin-A rice after receiving the first samples of Golden Rice in January 2001. The first tropical rice variety with the vitamin-A trait is now growing in a special greenhouse at IRRI. However, this is only the first step on a long journey that will end only when vitamin-A rice has been found to be safe for people and the environment and, most importantly, to provide some benefit to rice farmers and consumers.

#On 8 August, Dr Padolina will be addressing a free international conference titled "Food for the Future: Opportunities for a Crowded Planet", to be held at Parliament House Canberra to discuss opportunities for conventional breeding technologies, biotechnology, and GM foods to bridge the gap between the future food supply and demand. The keynote speaker is Dr Gordon Conway, President of the Rockefeller Foundation.

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About the Author

Dr William Padolina is Deputy Director General of the Philippines-based International Rice Research Institute.

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