Grains Of Hope

Rice farmers are struggling to meet Asia’s demand for the staple crop; a genetically modified strain developed in Singapore could provide a solution.

AsianScientist (July 14, 2017) – By Tan Yong Yi – With empty bellies and sticks in hand, thousands of farmers took to the streets of Mindanao, Philippines, to demand rice from the government to feed their impoverished families. Yet, instead of seeing officials driving vans carrying sacks of the life-saving grain, what they saw were vehicles of policemen armed to the teeth with guns and anti-riot equipment. The farmers were then duly fed by the police forces, not rice, but something equally small and rotund.

Bullet rounds.

After the protests turned violent, the men in blue opened fire, killing one and wounding a dozen in April 2016. The gruesome skirmish was a result of El Niño, a weather phenomenon that plagued the Filipino farmers with drought, causing them to collectively lose over US$150 million in rice and corn.

Many farmers around the world face similar problems in agriculture due to unforeseen climate conditions wrought by global warming, ranging from intense droughts to extended monsoon seasons. The supply of rice is especially threatened, given that many farmers who work in the paddy fields struggle to make ends meet. Furthermore, the rice plant itself is susceptible to minute changes in heat and a wide variety of pests that have flourished due to an increasingly warm and humid climate.

It’s no secret that Asians love their rice, with more than 90 percent of the humble grain being produced and eaten in Asia. In fact, in Southeast Asia alone, close to 100 million tons of rice were consumed in 2011, which equates to roughly more than three heaped bowls of rice per person each day!

Thus, rice is one of the main drivers of society in Asia, with governments even rising and falling along with the supply of this beloved staple. Yet, farmers in the paddy fields, such as those in Mindanao, are feeling the heat, literally, as both demand for rice and global temperatures rise steadily each year.

There is a growing concern that in the near future, shrinking supplies will leave Asia unable to curb its insatiable appetite for rice. However, researchers in Singapore have come up with a new breed of rice that might just put these fears to rest.

Hardier, tastier, more productive

This wonder grain was developed at Temasek Life Science Laboratory (TLL) in Singapore by Dr. Yin Zhongchao with a multinational team of scientists. Aptly named Temasek Rice, this new breed of rice is known to be able to stand up against extreme weather conditions such as droughts and floods, and ‘hibernates’ for two weeks when submerged in water.

The rice plant itself is a dwarf amongst its brethren, which is an advantage since the shorter stalk prevents it from bending too much when strong winds blow. It can also fend off bacterial and fungal diseases as well as produce higher yields.

In fact, Temasek Rice produces up to six tons of rice grains per hectare of paddy field, which is nearly four times the yield normal breeds of rice give. This makes Temasek Rice a sturdy powerhouse that can withstand extreme weather fluctuations caused by global warming, and also allows farmers in Southeast Asia to grow rice more sustainably.

Not only does Temasek Rice stack up well practically, it also passes the taste test with flying colors. Yin has described the grain as more aromatic, softer and tastier than most other brown rice varieties, in addition to being nutritious since it possesses a high amount of dietary fiber. After eight years of research and field trials, the rice has landed on supermarket shelves in Singapore and is sold at around S$7 per kilogram.

Genetically-enhanced growth

So, was it just a matter of green thumbs that Yin and his team managed to produce such a hardy grain? Partly, as the research process had involved the traditional technique of cross-pollination, a tedious method many horticulturists swear by, where pollen from a donor plant is transferred to a recipient plant in an attempt to produce offspring that possess traits from both plants.

Yet, if the team had only utilized this method, Temasek Rice surely would not be on our bowls after just eight years of research, since long periods of time are spent cultivating the various breeds of rice in the laboratory. This is where marker-assisted breeding (MAB) comes into play.

Essentially, this technique stems from genomics, and is an indirect selection process in cultivar development. The organism’s DNA is first isolated and analyzed using techniques such as gel electrophoresis or Southern blotting, and its traits of interest are selectively bred based on markers on the organism’s DNA, which, from the analysis, have been found to be linked to the trait itself. These markers are variations in the DNA that include changes in the base pairs or patterns of repeated base pair sequences.

The MAB technique relies on the assumption that such markers are tightly linked to the trait of interest, and that these traits are easily inherited by the offspring. In comparison, the traditional method of phenotypic selection involves selecting the plants for breeding by directly observing or testing for the traits they express.

The advantages of MAB are numerous in comparison to phenotypic selection, as they provide a rapid method for cultivar development, taking at most five years to develop a new cultivar as opposed to 15 years by conventional breeding methods. With MAB, traits that are expressed late in life, such as the nutritional value of fruits produced, can be detected by DNA testing as early as during the plant’s seedling stage.

Furthermore, traits that are difficult or expensive to analyze such as the plant’s resistance against bacterial and fungal infections can also be screened through MAB. In addition, MAB is highly accurate, since the markers which are tightly linked to their respective traits would not be affected by the environment.

Best of all, MAB executes gene pyramiding—a method that allows multiple traits to be accumulated within the same cultivar—with ease and efficiency. Temasek Rice is a prominent example of gene pyramiding, as it is not only resistant to environmental stress and disease, but also nutritious and even palatable as well.

Stabilizing supply, securing livelihoods

Yin and his team have tinkered with the natural defenses of plants on a molecular level for many years, especially with regards to crop productivity. His objective in this is to create a positive impact in the agricultural community, having witnessed a food supply crisis grip Singapore in 2008.

Hence, Yin combined his experience in the field and the wonders of MAB to generate an expansive library of new and improved rice plant varieties with enhanced traits. In fact, Temasek Rice was a ‘golden-ratio’ result of breeding the familiar jasmine rice plant, whose grains many of us wolf down during dinner, and five other rice plant varieties. Yin has since used his results to further benefit the agricultural community in the region, by introducing Temasek Rice as a driver for sustainable farming in Southeast Asia.

He initially collaborated with researchers in Aceh, Indonesia to improve rice varieties in the region after local farmers saw their livelihoods destroyed by a tsunami. Since then, Yin has expanded this project to small-scale planting of Temasek Rice by local farmers in Tasikmalaya, Indonesia.

“Farmers work very hard and their income is very low, so we want to create good rice that allows for stable production and produces grains of good quality so that they can be sold for high prices,” said Yin.

It is no small feat for a country without any paddy fields or rice farmers to go against the grain and create a sizable impact on the region’s rice-growing efforts. Yet, Yin did just that, allowing Singapore to go boldly into agriculture. In fact, Yin’s grains had the honor of being inducted into the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, otherwise dubbed the ‘doomsday vault,’ which contains seeds of over 4,000 plant varieties in case food supplies need to be regenerated after a global catastrophe.

With Temasek Rice slowly making an appearance in paddy fields, it is a relief for the farmers of Mindanao to know that there is still a grain of hope for them to bring a bowl of rice to the table.

This article won first place in the Science Centre Singapore Youth Writing Prize at the Asian Scientist Writing Prize 2017.

Click here to see photos of the the prize presentation ceremony held on July 7, 2017.
Also, look out for the other winning entries to be published in a compilation coming out later this year.


Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Shutterstock.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Asian Scientist Magazine is an award-winning science and technology magazine that highlights R&D news stories from Asia to a global audience. The magazine is published by Singapore-headquartered Wildtype Media Group.

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