Genetic engineering and ecologically responsible growing practices, such as organic, needn’t be strange bedfellows, said plant geneticist Pamela Ronald in an article “Sowing seeds for more abundant rice crops” authored by Jennifer Weeks. The article, which is part of a recent series on “Women in Science,” is posted on the website futurefood2050.com—a publishing venture from IFT that offers solutions for sustainably feeding an estimated 9+ billion people by 2050.

Future Food“In a way, the organic vs. genetic engineering debate is a false fight. They both have the same goal, which is ecologically based agriculture,” explained Ronald, who is married to an organic farmer. “Organic agriculture has been an important advocate for more sustainable practices, but it also has limitations. There are pests and diseases that organic farming practices can’t control.”

Ronald, a professor in the Department of Plant Pathology and the Genome Center at the University of California–Davis, believes that you can’t generalize about an approach or a seed that will solve all of our problems.

She is widely known for her work that makes it easier to grow rice, one of the world’s most important staple foods. The role that genes play in a plant’s response to the environment is the focus of Ronald’s research at the university.

“Our laboratory has isolated and characterized the Xa21 gene, which confers resistance to a common rice pathogen,” stated Ronald. “We also have identified a gene called Sub1 that helps rice plants resist flooding, which ruins 4 million tons of rice every year in Bangladesh and India. My collaborators at the International Rice Research Institute introduced the Sub1 gene into varieties that are favored by farmers in India, Bangladesh, and other flood-prone countries. As farmers in that region have adopted the new rice varieties carrying the Sub1 flood-tolerant gene, they have been able to produce more rice because Sub1 rice produces threefold to fourfold more grain compared to conventional varieties when flooded. Last year 4 million farmers grew this type of rice.”

Ronald explained that her research is very important for farmers in less-developed countries, such as eastern India and Bangladesh. Many of them live on less than $1 per day, and in Bangladesh two-thirds of daily calories come from rice. Thus, it’s critical for families to achieve good yields.

Unlike many other genetically modified crops, the rice with the Sub1 flood-tolerant gene has not met resistance from the general public or consumer activists. “Sub1 rice was developed by marker-assisted breeding, which is not a target for activists,” noted Ronald. “About 50 years ago scientists identified a very unusual rice plant that could withstand two weeks of flooding. My collaborators and I isolated that gene, and it has been introduced into several varieties that farmers in Asia raise.”

What does Ronald believe are the best ways to support more sustainable agriculture efforts? “From an agricultural and scientific point of view, it’s clear that we need to use every tool to enhance sustainable agriculture,” said Ronald. “We need to enhance local food security and reduce environmental impacts, such as overuse of expensive and toxic inputs [pesticides and fertilizers]. We need to grow more food using less land and less water, and we want to be sure that farmers can afford to grow food and consumers can afford to buy it. These are the goals of sustainable agriculture for the future.

“Many important ideas from organic agriculture are being applied to conventional farms, including integrated pest management, crop diversity, and crop rotation. Organic farmers aren’t allowed to use genetically engineered crops now, so they don’t have access to some modern technologies, and I think that will limit our ability to expand organic farming. But the other 99% of agriculture does have access to new seed varieties, and we can see that using modern seed varieties with ecologically based farming techniques will be the most powerful approach.”

When it comes to the future of women in science, Ronald believes that there will be more opportunities. “When I was young, most of the speakers at meetings were men, but that is changing,” declared Ronald. “I think science is more interesting, exciting and fun when women are involved. Men and women have similar approaches to science, and we’re trained in the same way, so I don’t think you can make any generalizations about how women do science. But there certainly are cultural issues. If you don’t have very many women in science, it’s hard to recruit others because people tend to recruit others who are a lot like them–usually unconsciously.

“Achieving a 50/50 ratio of women and men as professors should solve many problems because it won’t seem like such a challenge for young women to succeed in science. They will have more role models and more people to talk to. We need to do a lot of work on recruiting men and women equally.”