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Genetically modified crops are solving food shortages and environmental problems across the globe.

But with concerns growing that agricultural production will not keep pace with the needs of the world’s more than 9 billion people in 2050, the question remains: Will these measures be enough to feed and provide products to a hungry world?

Providing some insight into the dilemma is Pamela Ronald, a plant pathologist and member of the National Academy of Sciences. Ronald will share recent advances in genetic technologies that generate important food crops such as rice that are resilient to climate change, resistant to infection, and better able to sequester carbon.

Ronald will deliver the next Maury Strauss Distinguished Public Lecture, Breeding Crops for Resilience to a Changing Climate, at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 20, at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC in Roanoke.

Her presentation occurs just weeks after the release of the Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences' 2022 Global Agricultural Productivity Report. According to the report, agricultural productivity must increase an average of 1.73 percent annually to produce what’s needed for the world’s population in 2050. From 2011-2020, however, that rate was an average of 1.12 percent.

Ronald is known for developing a form of rice that tolerates prolonged flooding — a problem that wipes out millions of tons of rice annually and that has been in the forefront of recent catastrophic events throughout the world. Rice is a significant part of the diets of more than half of the world’s population.

“Dr. Ronald’s forward-thinking research in crop resilience, including infectious disease biology and environmental stress tolerance, is an elegant example of how fundamental life science research is helping address some of our world’s greatest challenges,” said Michael Friedlander, Virginia Tech’s vice president for health sciences and technology and executive director of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute.

“While most of our Distinguished Public Lecturers directly address issues of health care interventions such as new diagnostics or therapeutics, this lecture in particular takes on a more far-reaching set of challenges to the health of humanity and the very survival of our species – the ability to sustain life by providing essential sustenance in the face of global climate change. We are delighted to host Dr. Ronald and to have her share her perspectives and vision on this important health topic with the entire community.”

In a TED Talk that has seen more than 2 million views, Ronald shows a time-lapse video of the long-submerged rice, which carries the Submergence Tolerance 1 gene she helped isolate from an ancient variety. “It produces three and a half times more grain than the conventional variety. I love this video because it shows the power of plant genetics to help farmers.”

In addition to isolating a gene that helps farmers grow rice that can withstand flooding, her research facilitated the development of high-yielding rice varieties grown by more than 6 million farmers in India and Bangladesh. 

A distinguished professor in the Department of Plant Pathology and the Genome Center at the University of California, Davis, Ronald has helped find ways to modify conventional rice to produce beta carotene to help fight malnutrition, blindness, and death.

The lecture series is named for Maury Strauss, a Roanoke businessman and longtime community benefactor who recognized the importance of bringing scientific thought-leaders to Roanoke. The public lecture will be held in the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at 2 Riverside Circle on Virginia Tech’s Roanoke campus. Attendees are invited to a 5 p.m. reception preceding the talk, which is also available via Zoom.

Ronald is also known for her isolation of the rice Xa21 immune receptor in 1995 and of a novel microbial immunogen in 2015, which revealed a new mechanism with which plants and animals detect and respond to infection.

Ronald graduated from Reed College with a B.A. in biology, from Stanford University with a M.S. in biology, from Uppsala University with a M.S. in physiological botany, and from UC Berkeley with a Ph.D. in molecular and physiological plant biology.

Ronald was named a National Geographic Innovator and one of Grist’s 50 innovators who will lead us toward a more sustainable future. She was named one of the world’s most influential scientific minds by Thomson Reuters and one of the world’s 100 most influential people in biotechnology by Scientific American.

She also is co-author with her husband, organic farmer Raoul Adamchak, of “Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics and the Future of Food.” Bill Gates called the book a “fantastic piece of work“ and “important for anyone that wants to learn about the science of seeds and challenges faced by farmers.”

Tomorrow’s Table, was selected as one of the 25 most powerful and influential books with the power to inspire college readers to change the world. 

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