Agriculture, Climate Change, CSR and Sustainability, NGOs, Stakeholders, Supply Chain

Will GMO rice help fight climate change?

We don’t know. Yet.

I wouldn’t claim enough knowledge about GMOs and the latest tests to know. The LA Times reports today that:

“Growing rice emits methane, a potent greenhouse gas — to the tune of 25 million to 100 million metric tons of methane every year, a notable contribution to human-caused greenhouse gas emissions…

…By transferring a barley gene into a rice plant, scientists have created a new variety of rice that produces less methane while still making highly starchy, productive seeds. The development of the new rice strain is described this week in the journal Nature.

…the genetically engineered rice grew smaller root systems and starchier grains than conventional rice. Far fewer methane-producing bacteria hugged the roots of the new rice. And the new rice variety emitted less than 10% of the methane of conventional rice, they reported…

…The genetically modified rice variety provides “a tremendous opportunity for more-sustainable rice cultivation,” Paul Bodelier, a microbial ecologist at the Netherlands Institute of Ecology, wrote in an essay that accompanied that research article.”

Sounds promising. But we’ve been here before on GMOs. For decades now.

The challenge is well described at the end of the piece:

GMO_rice“Even if the new rice variety does prove to reduce methane emissions on a larger scale, there are still barriers to it being grown and sold. Genetically engineered rice isn’t commercially cultivated anywhere in the world, in part because of ethical and biological concerns about the spread of engineered rice pollen, experts said.”

So the ever-present question around GMOs in food remains. In non-food crops of course, like cotton, it’s already everywhere.

In food, the jury is still out, particularly in Europe and where Europe has influence on the use of GMOs in food crops.

The GMO industry has historically done a poor job on stakeholder relations. They completely underestimated the ability of Euroean NGOs to demonise them, rightly or wrongly, many years ago.

The US is a different story of course. But this all matters world-wide due to trade rules and incentives for nations doing agri-business with the EU and US.

At a conference we held back in April in Washington, D.C., we held a debate on the use of GMOs in forestry, with FuturaGene and Friends of the Earth. It was a fascinating, no-holds-barred discussion. But the key questions remained, for me, largely unresolved. One was about long term utility of GMOs in forestry, the other about the potential, control and impacts of gene pollution.

It strikes me that whilst GMOs may well have a role to play – significant or otherwise – on mitigating climate change via reduced dangerous emissions such as methane and CO2, the industry is going to have to work a lot harder on convincing us that we all, not just they, are comfortable that these questions have been answered to the point where the EU is happy with GM rice.

We don’t yet know what GMOs can do for global sustainability.

One of the problems right now, is that we don’t yet know when we’ll be able to find out.

That will have to change but it can only happen if the GMO companies start to experience a bit less ownership and shareholder volatility and get a lot better at stakeholder engagement.

We may be waiting a while, given current progress.

(I’ll be exploring this further in further posts. Given the name of my company, Innovation Forum, and what we do – bring together stakeholders to discuss difficult issues, and publish what we can about the debate – I feel we can, and ought to, look at this area more)


1 Comment

  1. Hi Toby,

    You are right: “The GMO industry has historically done a poor job on stakeholder relations. They completely underestimated the ability of Euroean NGOs to demonise them.”

    Working for an NGO (Oxfam) ça ne se fait pas to recommend articles like this one, but it’s a must-read and so might interest your readers: The deeper you dig, the more fraud you find in the case against GMOs.


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