Monday, November 3, 2014

#IRC2014: Listening in on scientific sessions...

Since my main assignment in this year's International Rice Congress was in the IRRI exhibit, I got to attend only a few sessions in the latest IRC, held in Bangkok. My notes took the form of tweets, resulting from my live-tweeting assignment for the week. Now that I've got some spare time post-conference, I round them up and try to make sense of them. Here goes...

Glutinous rice is a fabric of life in Asia. —PSattaka
When I was a grad student, my research work focused on understanding starch properties of glutinous rice, or what Filipinos call malagkit. This type of rice has a rather small market (~2%, according to the presentation) since it is mostly used as a base for desserts and food for special occasions in the bigger parts of the world. Indeed, it is a food that binds Asians together culturally. But in a relatively small part of the world, mainly in Lao PDR, northern Thailand, and pockets of Indochina, glutinous rice is a staple. Yes, the consumers there eat glutinous rice with meat, fish, and vegetables. At the IRC, research on how to increase the market share of glutinous rice was discussed, noting that to do so requires creativity. Also at the IRC, I learned that glutinous rice originate in many other parts of the world, not just in mainland Southeast Asia, based on the country sources of the collection stored at the International Rice Genebank.

Green Super Rice is like Superman. —MMarcaida III
I've attended participatory varietal selections over the course of the development of Green Super Rice in the last two years. My main role there was to conduct sensory evaluation activities with consumers (in this case, rice farmers). Man, on the other hand, was part of the group that look at how resilient these rice plants (measured particularly by yield, or the amount of rice that can be harvested) are in environmentally challenging conditions: low fertilizer input and water scarcity. Based on his presentation, I got the impression that not all Green Super Rice plants were created equal: some responded better to environmental challenges than the yield benchmark; some performed at subpar levels. I learned, in this presentation, that it is not enough to have the genes for certain characteristics. In the Green Super Rice context, the genes equip them with the capacity to perform. And perform they must, at least as well as the standard... otherwise, they're eliminated. Sounds like a beauty pageant, no?

Even the most extreme anti-climate change activists don't smash thermometers. —MLynas
But those who oppose the development of genetically modified food crops are destroying field plots in which studies about these crops are being made. Here's the thing: if scientific experiments are being destroyed, how can scientists prove (or disprove) and address the food safety concerns being raised by these anti-GM crop people? If these crops turn out to be safe to eat, how can the food reach people who need them the most (probably NOT the anti-GM crop people who can afford to eat balanced diets) if fields are destroyed? During the presentation, I learned that it's not all about the science. There's a bigger world out there beyond the laboratory and this is where the movers and shakers of society influence the type of scientific endeavors people engage in. Powerful people who write off GM crops as unsafe will be difficult to convince, even if the data is staring at them in the face. Media practitioners who are always on the lookout for headliners can cause widespread rejection of these cutting edge crops by sensationalizing failures and not highlighting breakthroughs. Scientists, therefore, have to get out of the lab and see the bigger picture. How can scientists encourage people to not fear GM crops? I think that that's the arena in which scientific communicators can shine very brightly.

If it's more expensive, it cannot be sold. —VSriprasert
That is true, unless a product is specifically designed to be a luxury good. In the case of rice, the goal is to ensure that it is available and affordable for anyone (regardless of social class) who wants to eat it. I remember one of the questions during a long exam in my Biotech class: with all these technical inputs, do you think that genetically modified rice will be more expensive than regular rice? I guess a similar question can be posed for any newly released rice variety as its development most likely required the services of highly educated people and the use of the latest technological platforms. In the presentation, the case of rice grown in highly mechanized fields of the USA was mentioned. The rice harvested there are more expensive than rice grown in labor-intensive fields of Thailand. If both are set side by side on a grocery shelf, which one would a consumer most likely buy? I lost track here: Was the presenter shunning farm mechanization or asking the audience to find means to make this approach a cheaper way of producing rice?

Lots of interesting presentations, indeed. I didn't expect anything less. After all, the IRC is the olympics of rice science.