Sowing the seeds of survival

Scientists at De Montfort University are engaged in a race against time. They are pioneering techniques to improve rice yields in an attempt to save millions from starvation.

It is all too tempting for academics to overplay the importance of their research to the outside world. But it is hard to counter claims from scientists at De Montfort University that their pioneering work has truly global significance. Its aim is to save millions of people from starvation.

Scientists at the university's North Borlaug Institute for Plant Science Research are dedicated to boosting crop yields, helping to feed the world and minimise environmental damage caused by intensive agribusiness.

Professor Malcolm Elliott, founding director of the Institute, warns of the urgent need to act. "We are confronting the statistics of disaster. Fifteen million people die of starvation each year - one every 2.1 seconds, while the world's population increases by around 100 million people a year." The tool researchers are using to help address the growing problem of feeding the world is the genetic manipulation of crops.

The institute provides a framework for international co-operation. It has three other centres in China, the Czech Republic and Bulgaria, providing centres of excellence in crop biotechnology. Professor Elliott is in overall charge of the basic, strategic and applied research on crop improvement by gene manipulation. Its mission is to develop high quality strains of crops that can give high yields and minimise environmental damage inflicted through the over-use of pesticides, insecticides and fungicides that are slowly poisoning the planet.

Pioneering research into improving rice yields through gene manipulation at De Montfort has already attracted more than pounds 500,000 of funding from the Department for International Development (formerly the Overseas Development Administration). The institute looks set to play a key role in shaping a response to the impending world food crisis by the exploitation of rice biotechnology.

At the moment world rice production stands at 525 million tonnes a year and feeds some three billion people who live mainly in Asia. The population in the region is expected to increase by some 1.7 billion by the year 2020. Rice yields will have to increase by 70 per cent to feed those who depend on rice as their main source of nutrition. Gene manipulation can be used to introduce resistance to pests and diseases which attack both growing crops and stored grain, enhancing yields by more than 30 per cent.

Professor Elliott's team at De Montfort is working with the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines whose "re-designed" New Plant Type rice - selected from existing plant breeding stock, using conventional techniques - promises to be 25 per cent more productive than current standard varieties. The technology developed at Leicester holds out the prospect of still greater yields.

At the moment some 40 per cent of the grains in New Plant Type rice - already christened "miracle rice" by science popularisers - do not fill completely with food reserves. Gene manipulation technology developed by the Norman Borlaug Institute can be harnessed to release latent potential. This will cause grains to swell, providing more food for more people and making a vital contribution to the enhancement of world rice yields, by saving millions from starvation. The gene manipulation strategy promises an additional benefit. It will reduce the crop's need for nitrogenous fertiliser that is both costly and environmentally damaging.

No one could dispute that these aims are laudable. But boosting crop yields by gene manipulation has provoked attacks from people who fear humans are playing God. Tampering with genetic material sounds scary - there are concerns that the full implications cannot be gauged. The Prince of Wales, a passionate advocate of organic farming, has voiced his deep apprehension over the "brave new world" of genetically manipulated crops, criticising the "confidence bordering on arrogance" with which they are promoted.

But the world has a desperate need for crops that combine low input and low environmental impact with high yield and high quality. Those who believe that genetic manipulation must be used to help plant breeders produce them are launching a counter-offensive in the propaganda war. The genetic manipulation of crops should be seen, they argue, as the second wave of the green revolution pioneered by Dr Norman Borlaug.

Dr Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his work on plant breeding which led to a boom in food production in the sixties - and can claim to have saved more lives than any other person who has lived. Last month he travelled to De Montfort University to pick up an honorary degree. He used the occasion to highlight the "debilitating debate between agriculturists and environmentalists about what constitutes so-called `sustainable' agriculture in the Third World."

It had, he warned, "confused - if not paralysed - policy makers in the international community who, afraid of antagonising powerful lobbying groups, have turned away from supporting science-based agricultural modernisation projects so urgently needed in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Latin America."

Professor Elliott sees "pure" organic farming as "an ornament of rich countries agricultural systems" - it cannot be a workable strategy for solving global food shortages. "We must counter the irrational "green" movement assaults on gene manipulation crops so that we can feed the world's growing populations without poisoning them".

Professor Elliott cites another chilling statistic to underline the scale of the problem. "Every minute across the world 247 children are born and 97 people die - leaving us with an extra 177 mouths to feed."

He has a warning for those who think we may never have to worry about food shortages, cosseted as we are in a culture where people eat too much, the EC has food mountains, and farmers are paid to set aside land. We should not allow ourselves to be lulled into a false sense of "food security". Climate changes could cause further imbalances between populations and food production. "In future unless action is taken, starvation could come closer to home within the lifetime of our children." Even those whose instinctive reaction to the words "gene manipulation" is one of recoil should perhaps be grateful that leading edge research developed in Leicester could result in boosting the planet's food stocks. For those whose stomachs are empty, demonising gene technology must seem a luxury reserved for people in the affluent developed world

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Sport
Wembley Stadium
footballNews follows deal with Germany
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Voices
voicesApple continually kill off smaller app developers, and that's no good for anyone
Sport
A 'Sir Alex Feguson' tattoo
football

Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear
tv

Thriller is set in the secret world of British espionage

Life and Style
life

News
ScienceGallery: Otherwise known as 'the best damn photos of space you'll see till 2015'
Life and Style
fashion

Bomber jacket worn by Mary Berry sells out within an hour

Life and Style
tech
Sport
Andros Townsend is challenged by Vladimir Volkov
football
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Head of Marketing - London

£60000 - £85000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Interim Head of Marketing / Marketin...

IT Application Support Engineer - Immediate Start

£28000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Software Application Support Analyst - Imm...

Digital Project Manager

£25 - 30k: Guru Careers: A Digital Project Manager is needed to join an exciti...

Paid Search Analyst / PPC Analyst

£24 - 28k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Paid Search Analyst / PPC...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week