In a blog post on Tuesday, Bill Gates detailed how the world’s poorest farmers are going to be the hardest hit by climate change.
“Rising temperatures in the decades ahead will lead to major disruptions in agriculture, particularly in tropical zones,” he says in the post. “Crops won’t grow because of too little rain or too much rain. Pests will thrive in the warmer climate and destroy crops.”
It’s a crucial time, too; Gates reports that by 2050, the global demand for food will increase by 60%.
But some very clever innovations are already helping farmers in poor countries adapt to these changes, like using satellite mapping to pinpoint the most fertile places to plant in or high-impact nonprofit groups like One Acre Fund.
Then there’s the good that some clever genetic modification can do. The Gates Foundation has aided in the distribution of “scuba rice,” which can withstand floods that would otherwise destroy crops.
“The rice farmers I met in Bihar, for instance, are now growing a new variety of flood-tolerant rice — nicknamed ‘scuba’ rice — that can survive two weeks underwater,” Gates says. “If shifts in the weather pattern bring more flooding to their region, they are already prepared for it.”
Today, the scuba rice is grown in over 600,000 hectares worldwide, in countries including India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Laos, the Philippines, and Indonesia.
Gates Foundation deputy director Sara Boettiger explained to Tech Insider what makes it so effective.
“When normal rice varieties are completely submerged by a flood, their stems grow quickly to try to get some leaves out of the water,” she said in an email. “If flood-waters are deep and remain so for a couple of weeks, this kind of growth can exhaust the plants’ energy reserves, killing it. ‘Scuba’ rice differs from normal rice in that it doesn’t elongate, growing tall and spindly and wasting energy when submerged, but rather it goes dormant under the water, waiting out the flood for as long as two weeks or more.”
The resilient variety came into the world thanks to researchers at the University of California, Davis, the University of California, Riverside, and the International Rice Research Institute, headquartered in the Phillipines. They found three genes were responsible for the “elongation” process that caused the rice to exhaust its energy under flood waters.
“During the time it’s under water, ethylene naturally builds up in the plant tissues and that kicks off (through these genes) the plant’s response to try to grow taller and more quickly to get out of the water,” Boettiger said. “In the rice varieties identified as flood-tolerant, though, one of these genes didn’t work. Without that one gene, the plant couldn’t respond to the ethylene build up, and it stayed dormant, waiting out the flood.”
Boettiger says that with funding from the Gates Foundation, the International Rice Research Institute has helped transfer the “scuba” trait into rice varities grown in flood-prone places across Asia and Africa.
Watch Gates explain how climate change affects the poorest farmers below.