Brice: Rice, global warming and GMOs as a solution


Rice is the single most important grain worldwide for human nutrition.  Rice accounts for one- fifth of all calories consumed.  As a hippie child I learned the macro-biotic diet was the healthiest way to eat; as a result I hated brown rice and veggies for a long time.  At middle age I now prefer brown rice and struggle to eat a mostly plant-based diet.  I have watched most of the food documentaries about how meat and dairy are causing multiple environmental and health problems.  Great, a diet of rice and veggies is the answer. As a vegan eating a plant-based diet I will not harm the environment.  But after researching causes of global warming I discovered I was WRONG.
Rice causes over 10% of anthropogenic (human-made) methane production, or 1.5% of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas.  Methane is 20 times worse for the environment than carbon-dioxide.   Global rice production uses about one-third of the earth’s fresh water.  Surprised?  So was I.
So what can be done and why isn’t anyone talking about this?   Eliminating rice is the not the answer.  Living in China, I have seen that a huge part of the population eats rice three times per day.  This must continue or people will starve.  China and India account for almost half of global rice production.  China has cut methane production by 70% since the mid- ’80s by draining the rice paddies in the middle of the growing season.  This practice has increased rice yields and saves water—a win-win for the farmers and the environment and a viable solution to rice methane production.
But an even more effective solution to the problem is “Brice” (my word for rice that has been genetically modified by adding a barley gene).  Researchers in China have inserted a barley gene into rice, creating a GMO hybrid that decreases methane production by up to 97% and increases the rice production by 43%.  Imagine the implications.  Land use and water use for rice could be cut by over 40% and methane emissions almost eliminated using this GMO Brice at current rice production levels.  Problem solved?
GMOs are called “Frankenstein Food” by some.  The consensus on the science supports the idea that GMOs are not harmful to humans or animals used for food.  This science is debated by proponents of organic food, some of whom financially benefit from increased organic food sales just as some GMO proponents benefit financially from the increased sales of GMOs.  Much of the opposition to GMOs is centered on pesticide- and herbicide-resistant strains of corn and soybeans.  Brice is not that type of GMO.
Traditional hybrids, which have been around for centuries, are GMOs; the genes of corn plants have been greatly “modified” from the ancient native maize.  If a GMO like Brice can reduce human made global warming emissions by over 1%, reduce water and land use, then I am all for it.
The solutions to global warming are out there but we all need to talk rationally about the problems and the many causes of global warming.  This should not be a polarizing political issue.  The fact is that rice is responsible for 1.5% of human-made greenhouse gas emissions.  While we are debating whether or not global warming exists we are wasting time that could be spent in finding and implementing real solutions.  Global warming is a human-made problem with human-made solutions. Brice is a real solution, and one we could adapt today.
The Dalai Lama, Pope Francis and Bernie Sanders are bringing light to the issue of global warming. In his encyclical and in his recent visit to the U.S., Pope Francis calls for urgent action on global warming.  Bernie Sanders, in the recent democratic debate, called global warming the biggest national security threat and has previously said that it is “the single greatest threat facing the planet.”  Most recently (10/20/15), the Dalai Lama called for action on climate change: “Those problems which human beings created, logically we human beings have the responsibility to reduce this problem and finally to eliminate this problem … This is our only home.” I agree. And there are solutions ready to be further developed and commercialized if we have the will. Brice is a step in the right direction.

One Comment:

  1. Interesting perspective, Kari. (Hi, by the way!) I have been following GMO research in China but haven’t heard of this new rice variety, so I would love a reference to more information.

    A few comments:

    1. It’s misleading to claim that traditional hybrids and GMOs are the same, since new varieties like “Brice” introduce genes from one species into another, which doesn’t happen in traditional plant breeding.

    2. I am also disappointed that you characterize opposition to GMOs as either irrational or financially motivated. Many rational questions have been raised (by scientists, farmers and consumers) about the technology and the industrial farming system of which it is a part. People may have economic or political interests in arguing one side or the other, but as long as those are out in the open, that shouldn’t disqualify them from participating in the debate.(Full Disclosure: I lived in China at the same time as Kari. I worked for the World Wildlife Fund and she worked for Cargill. We also both went to MPLS Central: Pioneer Power!)

    3. One relevant concern is that there is a danger that when a GMO variety is grown in a place where its wild relatives occur, genetic material from the GMO could “flow” into those wild relatives. If herbicide resistance or other traits were to “leak” into these wild relatives, the consequences would be disastrous. This has already been documented in “weedy” rice relatives in China. If the “Brice” gene makes rice plants more hardy, then it could improve the fitness of weedy rice as well.

    4. The reason I asked about where I could learn more about Brice is that lack of access and transparency is another serious problem of GMOs. Many are “owned” by one of a small handful of huge seed/pesticide companies, and they place tight restrictions on researchers who want to study them, including reserving the right to prevent publication of results. It would be interesting to know how Brice was developed, and on what terms it will be available for outside research and testing. (There are many brilliant researchers in China, but transparency and biosafety are not words that come to mind when I think of GMOs in China, where I lived and worked for 16 years.)

    5. Related to this is the question of farmer choice and control. I have never met a conventional farmer who was enthusiastic about paying a huge fee to Monsanto or Syngenta for the use of their seeds, or about the virtual monopoly those companies have in many markets. So it’s not just about developing a super-seed, but how it gets marketed, and who controls the technology.

    6. I personally believe that publicly-developed and owned GMOs, subject to rigorous and transparent testing, including Brice, may be able to play a small role in addressing certain problems of agriculture. But we should not oversell them. Since GMOs came on the scene in the 1990s, they have been hyped as the solution to every conceivable food production-related problem, but the majority have merely conveyed herbicide resistance, and that resistance is now breaking down as weeds adapt. The idea that we can solve problems by simply plugging good traits into seeds is appealing, but ignores the complexities of how genes actually work, as well as the biological, social and economic environment in which plants grow.

    7. Finally, as I’m sure vegan readers of Southside Pride will point out, the greenhouse gas emissions from industrial meat (and feed) production are so much higher than those from rice cultivation that reducing meat consumption remains a key step towards addressing climate change. So don’t give up on the rice and beans!

    Jim Harkness

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