Saturday, October 1, 2011

The IRRI – Conducting Genetic Modification We Can All Support

We've all heard horror stories relating to the use of genetically modified crops. Nearly every time GMOs are brought up in a conversation you'll hear a tale about GM crops cross pollinating with crops in a neighboring field for which the owner of the neighboring field is then sued, or corporations like Monsanto using their political clout to push their Roundup Ready crops through to approval so that they can boost sales of their herbicide.

Tales like these undoubtedly tarnish many people's perceptions of GMOs. I did a quick search for “genetically modified organisms” and pulled up the first page I could find with concerns regarding genetic modification. The following comes from Environmental Commons:

Environmental Commons believes that genetic modication and engineering:

● Constrict farmer seed and variety privileges.
● Confer private ownership of otherwise commonly held life forms.
● Create unanticipated environmental effects.
● Threaten human health.
● Suppress the development and integrity of less intensive, more sustainable farming systems.
● Damage local farming economies.

Where a corporation can get away with using technology to corner the market and promote the use of their own products it will likely make business sense for them to do so, and, lacking necessary oversight, protecting human health and the environment may not be the top of their concerns either. These facts of free-market business are not unique to genetically modified crops, but they are often the face of genetic modification that many people are exposed to. I hope to use this post to give people a glimpse of one of the many ways GM technology is being used to benefit the world, and not just enrich a few individuals.

The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) is a non-profit based in the Philippines with offices in 16 countries. Founded in 1960, the IRRI “develops new rice varieties and rice crop management techniques that help rice farmers improve the yield and quality of their rice in an environmentally sustainable way.” The IRRI mission statement describes a mission that seems to side with every objection that the Environmental Commons raised above regarding genetic modification:

Our mission
To reduce poverty and hunger, improve the health of rice farmers and consumers, and ensure environmental sustainability through collaborative research, partnerships, and the strengthening of national agricultural research and extension systems.
Our goals
● Reduce poverty through improved and diversified rice-based systems.
● Ensure that rice production is sustainable and stable, has minimal negative environmental impact, and can cope with climate change.
● Improve the nutrition and health of poor rice consumers and rice farmers.
● Provide equitable access to information and knowledge on rice and help develop the next generation of rice scientists.
● Provide rice scientists and producers with the genetic information and material they need to develop improved technologies and enhance rice production.

The IRRI has primarily used selective breeding in pursuit of these goals. One of the organization's first successes was with IR8 rice, also known as “miracle rice”.

When grown with irrigation and nitrogen-rich fertilizers, IR8 produced more grains than traditional varieties. IR8 changed the world food situation according to Tom Hargrove, a former communicator at IRRI. Indeed, the looming famines did not materialize since miracle rice was introduced, as well as other food varieties.

IR8, however, while successful at staving off famine in the Phillippines, did come at a cost of increased input and additional environmental impact. Since the original success of IR8 at increasing yield, the IRRI has increased it's emphasis on improved sustainability and minimal inputs. By breeding rice plants to out compete weeds, the IRRI has developed varieties that can thrive without herbicides even amongst fierce competition with only minimal weeding. By combining these with varieties bred for different climates, they have been able to create “drought-tolerant, salinity-tolerant, submergence-tolerant, and high-yielding varieties suitable for irrigated conditions.”

Rice developed at the IRRI is used widely around the world, and undoubtedly has increased output while reducing dependence on chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. Nonetheless, as our knowledge has grown and technology has improved, the IRRI aims to move beyond results they are able to obtain through selective breeding alone. According to their guiding principles in researching GM rice:“IRRI believes that genetic modification and genetically modified rice have the potential to safely deliver unique benefits to rice farmers and consumers that cannot be achieved through other breeding methods.” While no varieties of GM rice are yet grown commercially, several have been approved for commercialization, and many more are being developed by the IRRI.

The use of genetic modification comes with a number of benefits in achieving the goals of the IRRI. Unlike conventional breeding, which requires numerous genes to be exchanged in order to transfer a desired characteristic, and comes with no guarantee a trait will even be incorporated into a given offspring, genetic modification allows a particular trait of interest to be incorporated into a new variety without having to worry about unwanted genes being incorporated as well. Genetic modification also increases the variety that the IRRI is able to achieve, by allowing them to use genes that would have otherwise been difficult or impossible to breed into their variety.

Additionally, the IRRI is using genetic modification to aid their traditional breeding programs. By incorporating or knocking out specific sections of DNA in rice, they are able to better understand the function of each of those sections and can then use that information to see if DNA associated with a desired characteristic has shown up in rice bred using traditional methods. This does not introduce any genetic material that wouldn't have been introduced through traditional breeding, but it does allow them to more quickly and confidently create a variety that can meet a given need.

Currently, the IRRI is, “researching the development and delivery of GM rice with improved
● drought, heat, and salinity tolerance;
● photosynthetic capacity to increase yield and enable it to become more efficient in using water and nitrogen fertilizer (C4 rice); and
● nutritional value of the grain, including higher pro-vitamin A (Golden Rice), improved protein quality, and higher iron.”

Developing crops that are able to better adapt to the environment, that use water and fertilizer more efficiently, and that have greater nutritional value are things everyone should support. Golden Rice in particular, which was genetically modified to produce beta carotine (a source of vitamin A) could potentially prevent hundreds of thousands of children each year from going blind or dying from vitamin A deficiency. Perhaps most importantly, Golden Rice has been licensed for humanitarian use, so that anyone earning less than $10,000 from growing this variety can use and keep the seeds without any need to pay royalties.

Genetic modification is a technology with the potential to save countless lives, and improve the quality of life for countless more, all while minimizing our impact on the environment. Next time you hear someone railing against this innovation, make sure you point out the ways it is already being used to achieve goals everyone ought to support.

For more about genetically modified foods, check out the Skeptical Vegan's post on the subject.


  1. interesting. I was at IRRI a year and a half ago while vacationing in the Philippines. I was blown away by the number of things they are doing to improve rice production. From the breeding, to pest control, to water management.... and yes, biotech.

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