Rice’s climate change adaptation: the key may lie in its DNA

More than a hundred international experts and companies met at the 18th International Symposium on Rice Functional Genomics, which focused on the impact of climate change on rice cultivation. The main themes the debate dealt with were the challenges of climate change, the possibilities of the new CRISPR gene editing tools and the European legislative framework.

Round table at the 18th International Symposium on Rice Functional Genomics. Image: CRAGMore than a hundred scientists researching rice DNA have gathered at the International Symposium on Rice Functional Genomics (ISRFG) in the AXA auditorium. More people were interested in attending this meeting, which focused on the impact of climate change on rice cultivation, but mobility restrictions due to Covid-19 in Asian countries forced a large number of scientists to attend virtually.

CSIC research professor at the Centre for Research in Agricultural Genomics (CRAG), Blanca San Segundo, who was in charge of organising the congress, explains the importance of the topic: "Rice, a cereal that is the main food for a large segment of the world’s population, is a crop that, on one hand contributes to climate change, and on the other, is particularly threatened by it.”

In Mediterranean regions, climate change translates into increased soil salinity, a lack of water resources and a higher impact of pests affecting rice cultivation. This makes it necessary to use fertilisers and pesticides to maintain high levels of production in an increasingly competitive market due to pressure from Asian countries. Furthermore, in Spain, rice is grown in areas close to protected natural areas (Ebro Delta and Albufera de Valencia Natural Parks and Doñana National Park) but which are susceptible to suffer from the direct impact of an indiscriminate use of agrochemicals.

"To overcome these difficulties, it is necessary to introduce new strategies to maintain the competitiveness of rice cultivation without affecting these natural areas," says San Segundo.
Some of the strategies referred to by San Segundo are based on exploiting the natural genetic variability of rice. In this sense, the ISRFG2021 presented the results of sequencing studies of the genomes of thousands of cultivated and wild rice varieties, which provided knowledge of the genetics and biology behind relevant agronomic traits such as: the plant's resistance to pyricurialosis (a disease caused by fungus), its tolerance to salinity, or the nutritional quality of the grain. This knowledge can be translated into new, more environmentally sustainable rice varieties, obtained through traditional breeding techniques or biotechnology.

"At the Symposium we were able to see that the use of the CRISPR gene editing tool is absolutely feasible for rice and can bring many advantages: improved varieties in terms of starch and amylose content, make rice more tolerant to salinity, or resistant to some of the most common pathogens," explains San Segundo. "All this must be carried out along with the recovery of varieties that may be better adapted to current environmental conditions and needs," she adds.

Round table with the rice sector

Aware of the importance of innovation in agriculture and food to face the challenges posed by climate change, the Institute of Agrifood Research and Technology (IRTA by its Spanish acronym) and the Department of Climate Action, Food and Rural Agenda of the Government of Catalonia (DACC, by its Spanish acronym) joined forces with the CRAG to transfer the ISRFG2021 scientific meeting to the rice sector. Thus, a round table was held, with a large representation of farmers (Unió de Pagesos, JARC, AVA-ASAJA and the two cooperatives of the Ebro Delta), variety breeders (Copsemar, the Montsià Rice Chamber and SC Castells), and industry (Nomen, Kellogg's, Montsià and Arrocerías Pons), as well as representatives of the DACC and Biovegen. The event was chaired by Elisenda Guillaumes, Director General for Agriculture and Livestock.

Researchers explained that the genetic modifications that could be introduced into crops using the CRISPR tool could be exactly the same as those produced by traditional mutagenesis methods

The round table, moderated by IRTA rice specialist Mar Català, discussed topics as varied as the role of consumers in choosing products with a lower carbon footprint and the problems that subjecting plants with edited genomes, through new techniques such as CRISPR, to the general provisions of European legislation on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) can have for the whole sector.

Josep Ma. Casacuberta, CSIC researcher at CRAG, and expert on the Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) panel of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), explained that the current European legislation on GMOs, adopted in 2001, “does not fit well" with the use of new genome editing tools such as CRISPR and that, in addition, it makes "practically unfeasible, due to the high economic and time costs, to approve genetically edited crops in Europe.”

Researchers explained that the genetic modifications that could be introduced into crops using the CRISPR tool could be exactly the same as those produced by traditional mutagenesis methods, which are paradoxically considered safe by the European Directive itself. The debate on this issue was relevant, as the European Commission had just closed a public consultation on it a few days earlier. At the round table, the consensus was absolute: it is necessary to update the legislation based on current scientific knowledge, and it is necessary to educate consumers so that they understand that plants, like us, also have genes and mutations.

The International Symposium on Rice Functional Genomics (ISRGF) is an annual meeting promoted by researchers in functional rice genetics from all over the world. The 18th edition, in Barcelona, was promoted by the international committee and organised by the CSIC researcher at CRAG Blanca San Segundo. This was the first time it was held in Spain and the third time in Europe.

The Cooperativa de Productoras de Semillas de Arroz-COPSEMAR cooperative and Agriculture Magazine have collaborated in sponsoring the Symposium. The round table was an event associated with the Symposium, promoted and co-funded by IRTA and the Department of Climate Action, Food and Rural Agenda of the Generalitat de Catalunya.