Rod Wing, director of the Arizona Genomics Institute, has played a major role in mapping the structure and function of the world's primary cereal crops. Rice is the one that needs our immediate attention, he says.
Wing, who will deliver the fourth "Genomics Now" lecture for the University of Arizona's College of Science on Wednesday, wants to solve the "9 Billion Problem" - the question of how to feed a world population expected to grow from 7 billion to 9 billion by 2050.
The alternative to a new agricultural revolution, he said, is famine in vast swaths of the world and political instability that threatens the rest of it.
Rice feeds half the planet, he said. Developing drought-resistant rice varieties could increase yields, allow crops to grow on degraded land and require fewer soil amendments.
A few varieties of wild and cultivated rice have some of those traits. Wing's goal is to develop "green super rice" varieties that combine them and can be adapted to changing climate conditions.
Wing has teamed with Chinese researcher Zhang Qi Fa and other rice experts to push for research centers in six areas of the globe - China, the United States, Africa, India, South America and Europe - each focused on creating the rice varieties that will grow best in their regions.
Their goal is to obtain $9 billion in pledges from government and private sources to fund the effort.
The research targets are ambitious. Wing said the "green" part of the "green super rice" effort is to grow the grain with a lessened environmental footprint, using fewer pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers. The "super" side means "higher yields, two to three times the yields we have now, with more proteins, vitamins, etc."
Some of that improvement can be done with conventional breeding methods. But "genetic engineering has to be part of the solution. It's a tool. We really don't have another choice," he said.
All cultivated grains and other foods are genetically engineered, he said, whether in a lab or in a field.
Much of the criticism of genetic modification of foods has been directed at its current usage, limited to producing varieties of corn, soy and wheat that are immune to a specific herbicide or possess a genetically inserted pesticide.
"So far, it's good at producing traits that work well for a limited set of conditions," said Doug Gurian-Sherman, a senior scientist in the Food & Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
"What would help most is to reduce that yield gap," he said. "It needs to be done in a way that is resilient to changes of climate and extremes of weather."
A 2010 National Research Council report, the work of a panel of scientists assembled by the National Academy of Sciences, came to a similar conclusion.
It found that "genetic engineering could be used in more crops, in novel ways beyond herbicide and insect resistance, and for a greater diversity of purposes. With proper management, genetic-engineering technology could help address food insecurity by reducing yield losses through its introduction into other crops and with the development of other yield protection traits like drought tolerance."
It's not an easy problem, said Wing, but it is imminent.
"This is going to happen unless we have a nuclear war or a pandemic. We really have only 25 years to solve this problem."
IF YOU GO
• What: "Genomics Now," UA College of Science lecture series
• When: 7 p.m. Wednesdays, Jan. 30 to March 6
• Where: Centennial Hall, 1020 W. University Blvd.
• Cost: Free
• Parking: Tyndall Avenue Garage is most convenient. A fee is charged. Note: The intersection of North Park Avenue and East University Boulevard is closed for streetcar construction. Take North Euclid Avenue to the East Fourth Street entrance to the garage.
• Information: 520-621-4090 or cos.arizona.edu/connections/genomics-now
"The 9 Billion-People Question" - Rod Wing, Bud Antle Endowed Chair, School of Plant Sciences, director of the Arizona Genomics Institute.
"Epigenetics: Why DNA Is Not Our Destiny" - Donata Vercelli, M.D.; professor of cellular and molecular medicine; director of the Arizona Center for the Biology of Complex Diseases.
Genomics Tomorrow - A discussion of mankind's role and responsibilities in choosing to "modify" nature, moderated by UA Dean of Science Joaquin Ruiz.
Contact reporter Tom Beal at firstname.lastname@example.org or 573-4158.