In the world of farming, Dr. Pamela Ronald is a standout figure. She’s known for her leadership and research in plant genetics and her dedication to solving global food problems.
Ronald’s life story is a fascinating one and her contributions to our agricultural industry are numerous. I had hoped to talk with Ronald for this piece, but I didn’t hear back prior to its publication date.
Regardless, here’s just a brief look at how she’s making a positive difference by creating a more sustainable food system and how she got to where she is today.
Ronald was born in Berkeley, California, in 1961. She became interested in science when she was young and later went to college at Reed College in Oregon. After that, she got a master’s degree from Stanford University and another master’s from the University of Uppsala, Sweden, and completed her Ph.D. in 1990 at UC Berkeley, where she studied plant genetics. She is now a distinguished professor in the Department of Plant Pathology and the Genome Center at the University of California, Davis, serves as the director of grass genetics at the Joint Bioenergy Institute in Emeryville, California, and as the faculty director of the UC Davis Institute for Food and Agricultural Literacy with a special focus on rice.
One serious threat to rice crops is rice blight, caused by the bacteria Xanthomonas oryzae pv. oryzae, commonly known as Xoo. It’s a devastating, fast-spreading pathogen that can destroy up to 75 percent of a crop that primarily impacts farmers in Asia, the western coast of Africa, Australia, Latin America, and the Caribbean.
Fortunately, Ronald became famous in the 1990s when she found a gene called Xa21 in rice. This gene helps rice plants be more tolerant to flooding and fight off certain diseases, which is a groundbreaking discovery for farming. It means farmers can use fewer potentially harmful chemicals and get better rice crops. Her research facilitated the development of high yielding Sub1 rice varieties grown by more than 6 million subsistence farmers in India and Bangladesh. This work has resulted in a 60 percent yield increase on average.
To quote her from her TED talk: “It wasn’t until the 1990s that scientists finally uncovered the genetic basis of resistance.”
Ronald and her team realized that 70 million rice farmers were having trouble growing rice because the fields were flooded, causing infection and death within the plant. Most rice varieties will die if being submerged in water for more than three days, but their team developed a way for rice survive for weeks, even if flooded. They found the gene!
Using this Xa21 discovery, the researchers created transgenic rice plants that are better at fighting diseases. These rice plants can help prevent crop losses from diseases, which is important for making sure we have enough food to feed a growing population. Ronald believes that decisions about modified crops should be based on science, and she’s been open about her research to make sure it’s safe for the environment and people.
Ronald has worked with plant experts, farmers, and scientists from all across the globe to make better rice plants — similar to Dr. Norman Borlaug in the development of better wheat varieties in the middle of the 20th century. Her way of working together through collaboration within the science community offers bountiful growth for farmers and others who benefit from her research. She has earned many awards and honors from among the top scientific journals all around the world.
With climate change and a growing world population, we need farming that’s better for the planet and can feed more people. Ronald’s work on disease-resistant crops, especially rice, offers hope for making farming more resilient and productive.
In the case of Ronald’s work with genetically modified organisms (GMOs,) she has been clear that GMOs should be used responsibly, with lots of testing and rules to keep them safe. Fortunately, this is the case, and GMOs are the most well-regulated and tested breeding methods in history, and perhaps ironically, her husband is an organic farmer!
Her TED talk does a great example explaining the case for engineering our food. In a world where many want natural foods with fewer pesticides, should GMO stand for “genetically modified organic?” She has written a book on this topic called, Tomorrow’s Table.
In the end, Ronald’s journey from a curious young scientist to a leader in sustainable farming shows that hard work and working together can make a big difference. Her research helps tackle tough global problems and gives us hope for a future with more sustainable and healthy food for everyone. She’s an inspiration for future scientists and advocates looking to make the world’s food system better, more secure and affordable.
Michelle Miller, the “Farm Babe,” is an internationally recognized keynote speaker, writer, and social media influencer and travels full time to advocate for agriculture. She comes from an Iowa-based row crop and livestock farming background and now resides on a timber farm in North Central Florida.