Pamela Ronald is a noted UC Davis plant pathologist and geneticist. She and her research team have isolated genes from rice that are disease-resistant and can tolerate floods.When inserted into rice plants, these genes enhance existing plants, helping farmers produce “high-yield harvests” in parts of the world where rice is a staple, yet vulnerable, crop. In 2014, it’s estimated that “four million subsistence farmers in seven countries fed millions of people by planting seeds that carry a gene Ronald and her collaborators isolated.”
But Ronald’s success is not only limited to genetic science. She’s also helping to bridge the gap between genetic engineering and organic farming by promoting a kind of sustainable agriculture that draws on both philosophies (and practices). “Only by combining elements of each, she contends, will we have a chance of feeding the world’s swelling population (expected to reach 9.2 billion by 2050) while also protecting the planet’s natural resources and countenancing the effects of climate change.”
Jeremy Berlin reports for National Geographic:
…as Ronald sees it, plant geneticists and organic farmers aren’t enemies. In fact, they can be bedfellows: Her husband, Raoul Adamchak, is an organic farmer and co-author, with Ronald, of Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food. Praised by Bill Gates and Michael Pollan, their book argues for an integrated theory of agriculture in which “organic farming and genetic engineering each will play an increasingly important role,” rather than being unnecessarily pitted against each other.
“All this arguing about what’s genetically modified is a big distraction from the really important goals,” says Ronald. “We need to produce safe and nutritious food that consumers can afford and farmers can make a profit from. And we need agricultural practices that enhance soil fertility and crop biodiversity, use land and water efficiently, reduce use of toxic compounds, reduce erosion, and sequester carbon. I think most everyone agrees on those general principles.”
The work of Ronald’s husband, Raoul Adamchak (he teaches at UC Davis’ certified organic farm, which is operated by the Agricultural Sustainability Institute), is also discussed. His opinion? “And, not or.”
“I think of genetic engineering as an extension of plant breeding,” says Adamchak. “Manipulating genes in a lab is analogous to a mutation that could occur in nature. If the mutation is beneficial, it’s selected by the farmer or the environment. So I view genetic engineering as an intentional mutation.”
This is a fascinating, must-read piece that focuses on Ronald’s work in rice (which in some ways, serves as a case study to explore the history of genetic engineering). Ronald’s experiences as a female pioneer in her field are also revealed in the article. The bonus? An excellent explanation of genetic engineering, a larger context for the application of the science, an introduction to the important work of other people, video links and lavish photography.
Ronald’s work is part of the University of California’s Global Food Initiative, which seeks to address one of the most compelling issues of our time: how to sustainably and nutritiously feed a growing world population.