Opponents of genetically modified crops will soon face a conundrum.
Rice cultivation is a major producer of methane, which is a gas 20 times more effective in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide in trapping heat.
World estimates say that rice production puts 100 million tons of methane into the air each year. That’s because wet rice paddies, where much of the world’s crop grows, contain microbes that produce the gas.
Now a plant scientist at the U.S. Department of Energy and colleagues report that with the addition of a single gene, rice can be cultivated to emit virtually no methane from its paddies during growth. The modified rice also packs much more of the plant’s desired properties, such as starch for a richer food source and biomass for energy production, according to a study in Nature, as reported by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science.
Researchers created what is called SUSIBA2 rice by introducing a single gene from barley into common rice, resulting in a plant that can better feed its grains, stems and leaves while starving off methane-producing microbes in the soil, said a press release.
The results, scheduled to appear today in the print edition of Nature and online, represent a culmination of more than a decade of work by researchers in three countries, including Christer Jansson, director of plant sciences at the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and the department’s Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory, said the department. Jansson and colleagues hypothesized the concept while at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences and carried out studies at the university and with colleagues at China’s Fujian Academy of Agricultural Sciences and Hunan Agricultural University, the department said.
“The need to increase starch content and lower methane emissions from rice production is widely recognized, but the ability to do both simultaneously has eluded researchers,” Jansson was quoted as saying. “As the world’s population grows, so will rice production. And as the Earth warms, so will rice paddies, resulting in even more methane emissions. It’s an issue that must be addressed.”
There is a strong push for lawmakers in Costa Rica to pass a ban on genetically modified foods. A bill doing that is in the legislature and many cantons in the country already have passed such bans.
Much of the opponents’ wrath centers on Monsanto Co. and its genetically modified crops that are resistant to the company’s herbicides.
Costa Rica, of course, has sought to reduce its carbon footprint because officials say this will reduce global warming. Not much has been said about methane, despite its impact.
Each Costa Rican consumes about 50 kilos of rice on average each year. If the country enacts a ban on modified crops, growers will not be able to take advantage of the new modified strain.