023_G19_FoodSecurity

Global

Global Insight Food Security For sure, we’ll face disasters; wars; refugees; disputes over fundamental resources, such as water. Given all this, the best, and only, option for food security is for mankind – currently there are an estimated 6.8 billion of us – to ask the big questions and put brains to use in trying to figure out the best for the greatest number. Changes are needed in levels of food production that only scientific breakthroughs can bring about – above all, the genetic make-up of crops must be better understood, so that they can be improved to withstand hostile environments and provide greater yields. Rice, the staple food for half the world’s population, and wheat are continually being studied in this way. One estimate is that by 2030 rice production must increase by at least 25 per cent to keep up with population growth and demand. Genetic improvements are needed rapidly to offset the effects of climate change and loss of arable land. This is being tackled around the world, notably in the Far East. It’s now more than three years since the UK’s Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) joined forces on rice genomics research with the Ministry of Science and Technology in Vietnam. The aim is to improve flood, drought, salt and pest tolerance in the world’s most important staple food. Vast quantities of rice come from low-lying or delta regions in countries such as Vietnam and Bangladesh – areas at risk of inundation by salt water as sea levels rise. Yet simply cross-breeding from varieties that appear to be productive and versatile is far from infallible. Unknown genetic interactions can block, modify or alter the development of the selected physical characteristics when two strains are bred. Trial and error and multiple successive breeding stages are often required. The key is to understand genetic make-up in minute detail. BBSRC part-funded a project to sequence the genomes of 36 rice One estimate is that by 2030 rice production must increase by at least 25 per cent to keep up with population growth and demand varieties selected for high quality and yield potential, tolerance to submergence, salinity, drought, and resistance to pests and diseases. The aim is to build up a knowledge bank that can be used to breed better rice varieties. According to BBSRC, Vietnam is blessed with an “unrivalled collection” of rice varieties. Unlike wheat, rice has a relatively small and simple genome, making it easier to sequence. Even so, this demands long, complex computer analysis – and that is just www.global global four th quar ter 2014 -br ief ing.org l 23 


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