Transgenic Approaches for Better Foods in a Changing Climate


Aris Hairmansis,

Indonesian Centre for Rice Research & School of Agricultural Food and Wine, the University of Adelaide

In response to the growing population, food production must be continuously increased to meet the world demand. Unfortunately this must be achieved in a situation where agricultural land is continuously decreasing. Moreover, the effect of global climate change exacerbates the situation because we have to grow crops in harsher environments such as less water, increased temperature, and increased soil toxicity. To help alleviate this problem we need breakthrough technology to develop new plants which are better adapted to such harsh environments. One of the potential approaches to help improve crops is through genetic engineering or transgenic approaches.

Why Genetically Modified Crops?

Between 1960 and 2010, world’s rice production in general has been able to meet global demand for rice. However, the ratio of arable land availability to population has been decreasing. It is projected in 2020, the ratio will be a half of the 1960 ratio. About one hectare of productive land is lost every 7.67 seconds.

Food production challenges are mainly due to less productive land, less water, increased temperature, and increased soil toxity eg high salt. Nevertheless, producing more food is not enough. Malnutrition caused by lack of vitamin and mineral in food is also a major concern that mostly affects women and children in developing countries. The problem may cause mental impairment, poor health and productivity or even death. Responding to both production and demand for nutritious food, we need better crops that have higher yield, more tolerant to environmental stress and more nutritious.

There are two main ways to improve our crops. The first method is traditional plant breeding. This approach has been used from early history where genes transferred through pollination. However, it is limited by sexual barrier. The second method is transformation genetic or Genetic Modification (GM). This approach uses modern biotechnology techniques to change the genes of an organism, such as a plant or animal. Plant, animal or other organism that has been changed using GM called Genetically Modified Organism (GMO).

Foreign genes are inserted into plant through two methods. The first method is by using bacteria that naturally infects plant cells or “Agrobacterium”. Another way is to use a biolistics system by shooting the genes into the plants. The effectiveness of each method depends on the plant variety

Some examples of transgenic crops are salinity tolerant rice and golden rice (‘yellow rice’ which has high beta carotene as in carrots). Rice is the most salt sensitive cereal crop. Salt affect 48 Mha potential rice area in South and South East Asia. GM provides a potential way to create salt tolerant rice. University of Adelaide has been successful producing tolerant gene come from moss “Physcomitrella patens”. Moss has some mechanisms to pump out salt ion from cells resulting transgenic rice being developed grows better in saline condition.

While the food supply will become a major problem in this changing climate, the nutritional value of the foods is also crucial. Lack of nutrition in the daily intake can cause a hidden hunger for billion people particularly in developing countries.  By using genetic modification techniques we can use bio-fortification to improve food nutrition. The most popular example of bio-fortification through genetic engineering is the development of golden rice which contains high beta carotene (pro vitamin A) in the grain. This breakthrough technology has the potential to combat vitamin A deficiency which is wide-spread in developing countries.

Vitamin A deficiency causes blindness and other health problems of millions people. It mainly happens in developing countries where the diet is dominated by rice. Golden rice provides high beta carotene (pro vitamin A). It is transformed with gene PSY (from Daffodil or Maize) and CRTI (from bacteria Erwinia uredovora). Recommended doses for vitamin A can be met by consuming 300 grams of rice a day. Unfortunately, it is difficult to plant golden rice in Indonesia. But Indonesian researchers are working on crossing between Indonesian rice varieties with golden rice to produce a new variety of rice with high vitamin A.

Transgenic Research in Indonesia

As genetic engineering is a new technique which requires high capital and resources, the research in this area is mainly conducted in developed countries. What is the position of developing countries such as Indonesia? Even though there are some research institution in Indonesia which conduct transgenic research, none of the transgenic product resulted by those institutions has been released into the field. Moreover, even though the utilization of transgenic product is permitted in Indonesia, no transgenic crops are commercially planted. The only transgenic crop which had been commercially grown in Indonesia was transgenic cotton but it was suspended by the seed company. Considering the beneficial impact of transgenic technology to maintain the sustainability of food production and to improve food quality, utilization of this technology in Indonesia is very important.

Transgenic research in Indonesia has been controlled by strict government regulations. These regulations are mainly to address whether GMO are safe for the environment and human consumption. There have been various research centres in Indonesia conducting transgenic research including LIPI, BPPT, Litbang Deptan, IPB, ITB, UGM, Brawijaya University, Jember University and PTPN. However, most of their research projects are still at laboratory stages and most of the genes that they use are from or the patent are owned by foreign countries. Hence, research in Indonesia tends to focus on transferring the gene as Indonesia is still not able to clone  the gene, a stage which requires the biggest funding.

Despite lack of funding, the development of GMO is challenged by a never ending debate. Issues being covered include the impacts of GMO on human health, environments, traditional practises and economies in less developed countries. Many perceive that it only benefits multinational seed companies.

Where should we stand?

The fact that the impacts of global climate change are evident;  GM crops developed through rigorous with very strong evidence (unlike non-evidence based claims of their negative impacts as campaigned by NGOs); and there have been very strict regulations have been implemented to ensure that GM is safe, should assure the potentials that GM crops can offer. However, he emphasises that the positive impacts of GM products must be continuously campaigned to outweigh the opponents. In addition, investments in research and development must be improved to avoid high reliance on developed countries who own patent for GM technology.

The background paper and information was provided by Aris Hairmansis. He is a PhD candidate at the Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics (ACPFG) the University of Adelaide, currently working on his PhD thesis entitled “Cell-type specific transgene system to improve salinity tolerance of Indonesian rice cultivar” supervised by Dr Stuart Roy, Dr Bettina Berger, Prof Mark Tester. He works for Indonesian Centre for Rice Research. The report is compiled by Risti Permani (University of Adelaide).


1 Comment

Filed under Climate change and environment, Economic development, Food and agriculture, Indonesia, Investment, PPIA academic discussion

One response to “Transgenic Approaches for Better Foods in a Changing Climate

  1. P. T. P. Hutauruk

    I basically agree with the technology development such transgenic technique. But we should carefully mention accordance with a climate change, which is still debatable. We need to provide a strong evidence of the climate change itself.
    By the way unfortunately I missed the seminar because I gave a talk in my group in the same day.

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