Could genetically modified rice tackle food shortages?

Posted: 17 January 2023 | | No comments yet

Researchers claim genetically engineered rice with better salt tolerance could be grown in places where crops would usually fail.


Researchers from the University of Sheffield have said that genetically modified rice could be key in tackling food shortages caused by climate change.

They have said that by genetically engineering rice to have better salt tolerance, crops could be grown in places that would otherwise fail.

With sea levels rising as a result of climate change, the researchers note that “more and more places around the world are struggling with seawater inundation”. This is where salt water from the sea is flooding further inland and destroying crops which can’t cope with the increased salinity.

Claiming that rice is the most important carbohydrate on earth and that it is relied on by 3.5 billion people every day, the researchers highlighted that in countries like Vietnam “it is becoming harder and harder to grow due to increasing seawater interference”.

However, findings from the University of Sheffield’s Institute for Sustainable Food have claimed that genetically modifying rice to reduce the number of stomata is has (tiny openings used for water loss) makes it more salt-resistant.

Stomata are openings that most plants have which regulate carbon dioxide uptake for photosynthesis, along with the release of water vapour. Several years ago, Sheffield scientists revealed that reducing the number and size of stomata rice plants have allows them to use up to 60 percent less water, making them hugely beneficial in places prone to drought.

The researchers have said that the aforementioned findings, along with their latest study results, “mean that rice can be adapted to survive in environments that are becoming harsher due to climate change, which will help in tackling food insecurity around the globe”.

Increasing the global rice bowl without harming the planet

However, the researchers also discovered that reducing the number and size of stomata could make rice harder to grow in extremely hot temperatures. As a result, to make sure that rice can grow as effectively as possible in different countries and environments, different modifications would need to be made. For example, rice with fewer, larger stomata, could be better suited to growing in extremely warm temperatures.

“Rice is a hugely important food crop eaten by over half the world’s population on a daily basis. Ensuring that it can survive in harsher conditions caused by climate change will be integral to feeding a growing population that is projected to reach 10 billion in 60 years’ time,” said Dr Robert Caine, Lead Author of the study from the University of Sheffield’s School of Biosciences.

“Our findings reveal how rice can be modified to grow as effectively as possible in different climates and varieties of rice that have less stomata can survive with less water and in places with salt water. Meanwhile, natural rice varieties with fewer, bigger stomata are able to thrive in hotter temperatures.”