After 30 years, is a GM food breakthrough finally here?

Golden rice, a new strain that boosts vitamin A levels and reduces blindness in developing countries, is about to be sown in the Philippines – and is the new battleground crop

 Protesters destroy GM crops.
Protesters destroy GM crops. Photograph: David Hoffman Photo Library / Al/Alamy

Scientists say they have seen the future of genetically modified foods and have concluded that it is orange or, more precisely, golden. In a few months, golden rice – normal rice that has been genetically modified to provide vitamin A to counter blindness and other diseases in children in the developing world – will be given to farmers in the Philippines for planting in paddy fields.

Thirty years after scientists first revealed they had created the world’s first GM crop, hopes that their potential to ease global malnutrition problems may be realised at last. Bangladesh and Indonesia have indicated they are ready to accept golden rice in the wake of the Philippines’ decision, and other nations, including India, have also said that they are considering planting it.

“Vitamin A deficiency is deadly,” said Adrian Dubock, a member of the Golden Rice project. “It affects children’s immune systems and kills around two million every year in developing countries. It is also a major cause of blindness in the third world. Boosting levels of vitamin A in rice provides a simple, straightforward way to put that right.”

Recent tests have revealed that a substantial amount of vitamin A can be obtained by eating only 60g of cooked golden rice. “This has enormous potential,” said Dubock.

But scientists’ satisfaction over the Golden Rice project has been tempered by the fact that it has taken an extraordinarily long time for the GM crop to be approved. Golden rice was first developed in 1999, but its development and cultivation has been opposed vehemently by campaigners who have flatly refused to accept that it could deliver enough vitamin A, and who have also argued that the crop’s introduction in the developing world would make farmers increasingly dependent on western industry. The crop has become the cause célèbre of the anti-GM movement, which sees golden rice as a tool of global capitalism.

This view is rejected by the scientists involved. “We have developed this in conjunction with organisations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as a way of alleviating a real health problem in the developing world,” says Dubock. “No one is going to make money out of it. The companies involved in developing some of the technologies have waived their licences just to get this off the ground.”

This view is shared by Mark Lynas, an environmental campaigner and one of the founders of the anti-GM crop movement. He has publicly apologised for opposing the planting of GM crops in Britain. “The first generation of GM crops were suspect, I believed then, but the case for continued opposition to new generations – which provide life-saving vitamins for starving people – is no longer justifiable. You cannot call yourself a humanitarian and be opposed to GM crops today.”

Golden rice was created by Peter Beyer, professor for cell biology at Freiburg University in Germany, and Ingo Potrykus of the Institute of Plant Sciences in Switzerland, in the late 1990s. They inserted genes for a chemical known as beta-carotene into the DNA of normal rice. In this way they modified the rice genes so that the plants started to make beta-carotene, a rich orange-coloured pigment that is also a key precursor chemical used by the body to make vitamin A.

By 2000 the plant was ready for trials. However, it took another five years before test fields were grown, such was the resistance to the idea of introducing GM plants in many countries. These trials showed golden rice could stimulate vitamin A uptake but at a low level. New research was launched to create varieties that would provide enhanced amounts of the vitamins.

“All the time, opponents to golden rice insisted, year after year, that it would not be able to produce vitamin A in those who ate it,” said Beyer, golden rice’s co-creator. “For example, it was alleged by Greenpeace that people would have to eat several kilograms of the stuff to get any benefit.”

Two studies, both published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, demolished this claim. The first, in 2009, was based on a group of healthy adult volunteers in the US and showed that golden rice’s beta-carotene was easily taken up into the bloodstream. The second trial was carried out by American and Chinese researchers and published last year. It was carried out on Chinese children, aged between six and eight, and showed that a bowl of cooked golden rice, between 100g and 150g, could provide 60% of the recommended intake of vitamin A for young people. The study also revealed that golden rice is better than spinach at providing vitamin A.

“Given that normal rice has no vitamin A to speak of, that shows the importance of what has been achieved,” said Dubock.

The latter study has since been immersed in controversy after it was claimed in a Greenpeace press release that the parents of the Chinese children had not been informed they were being given GM food and had been used as guinea pigs. An investigation by the Chinese authorities led to the sacking of the three Chinese scientists named by Greenpeace, which described the incident as “another example of big business hustling in on one the world’s most sacred things: our food supply”. For his part, Lynas has described Greenpeace’s actions as “immoral and inhumane” because it deprives “the needy of something that would help them and their children because of the aesthetic preferences of rich people far away”.

The reactions of bureaucracies to golden rice were also described by Beyer as “hard to believe”. “We have had to undergo endless trials and tests and endure endless amounts of bureaucracy. Yet new breeds of standard crops have no such problems, even though they are often created by exposing them to doses of radiation. This is done to create new mutant breeds which you can then grow to see if any have features you like. None of the regulations that we had to meet in creating golden rice were imposed on these plant breeders. Yet this is the standard means by which new crops, including organic crops, are created. It is manifestly unbalanced.”

This point was backed by Dubock. “All the time we have been required to show that there are no risks associated with growing golden rice, but at no point did we get a chance to point out its benefits. Everything is about risk assessment and nothing is about benefits assessment.” Of course, some doubts about the technology still remain, as my colleague John Vidal makes clear here.

Nevertheless, a warning about consequences of imposing regulations on GM crops and not others was provided by Professor Cathie Martin of the John Innes Centre in Norwich. “At institutes like ours, we can prioritise research to bring new consumer health benefits and environmental benefits to market [via GM], as long as the regulatory process is not prohibitively expensive for publicly funded organisations.”

The fate of golden rice is therefore important, as Professor Jonathan Jones of the John Innes Centre points out. “When I started making GM plants 30 years ago I did wonder if there might be unknown unknowns. But the evidence now is clear. GM food and crops are as safe as non-GM food and crops.”

The prospect of further delays preventing future life-saving GM plants going to the field because of carefully orchestrated campaigns of opposition is therefore viewed with concern.

The Golden Rice project has had one beneficial knock-on effect, however. It has triggered a series of similar crop modification programmes that aim to tackle vitamin A deficiency through use of other GM foodstuffs. One example is provided by the golden banana, which has been created by scientists led by Professor James Dale of Queensland University in Australia.

“In Uganda, where the banana is a key source of nutrition, there is considerable vitamin A deficiency and also iron deficiency in diets,” he said. “The former not only causes blindness but leaves children less able to fight disease which, in Africa, is particularly serious. The latter, iron deficiency, causes blood disorders.”

To put this right, Dale and his team have found ways to boost beta-carotene levels in bananas. Now they are working on boosting iron levels as well. The team expects to have developed a golden banana, that will raise both iron and vitamin A levels, by the end of the decade.

“People in Uganda eat up to a kilogram of mashed banana a day, so we don’t need to get a great deal of beta-carotene in our bananas,” said Dale.

The result of the team’s work will be similar to golden rice: peeled, the pale fruit will be carrot-coloured. And if that sounds strange, it is worth noting that carrots were not originally orange. In the 17th century they were mostly yellow or purple, but were bred to be orange by Dutch farmers in tribute to the ruling House of Orange.

Rice 2.0

Of the world’s 50,000 edible plant species, only a few hundred find their way to menus around the globe. Of those, just three — rice, wheat and maize — make up two-thirds of the human food supply. And only rice is responsible for feeding half the world, or more than 3.5 billion people. In other words, rice is important. So important, in fact, that a tweak to the way rice is grown, sold or eaten can send ripples through the world economy. Rice 2.0 is GlobalPost’s look at a tiny grain with a giant footprint.Rice 2.0: Golden rice a golden opportunity?

Genetically modified golden rice could save millions of lives, but in India it may never get into the ground.

November 28, 2011 06:28

Editor’s note: Of the world’s 50,000 edible plant species, only a few hundred find their way to menus around the globe. Of those, just three — rice, wheat and maize — make up two-thirds of the human food supply. And only rice is responsible for feeding half the world, or more than 3.5 billion people.

In other words, rice is important. So important, in fact, that a tweak to the way rice is grown, sold or eaten can send ripples through the world economy. Earlier this year, government subsidies for rice in Thailand, where 30 percent of the world’s crop originates, did just that. Prices everywhere shot up, though it looks like any looming instability has been offset by other exporters, namely India, steadying the market.

Still, the point is rice in one place affects millions. Tainted crops in China mean two-thirds of the country’s people ingest toxins everyday. In Japan, global warming changed rice and an entire culture. Rice 2.0 is GlobalPost’s look at a tiny grain with a giant footprint.

NEW DELHI, India — When Ingo Potrykus and Peter Beyer unveiled genetically modified golden rice a decade ago, they promised to save millions of lives across India and other developing countries by providing the poor and malnourished a ready source of betacarotene.

But in India, opposition to genetically modified organisms (GMO) may well kill the initiative before it takes off.

“I have no hesitation in saying that we will make all efforts to stop it,” said Devinder Sharma, an agricultural researcher and farmers’ advocate based in the Punjab.

In many respects, golden rice represents the fantastic potential of GM foods. But because of the method used to create it — piggybacking genes from the common daffodil on a kind of bacteria found in the soil to induce the plant to produce betacarotene in the rice kernel — opposition remains fierce.

Environmentalists fear the new variety might spread and overwhelm other native crops. Anti-globalization activists fear that the new technology represents the thin end of the wedge for multinational corporations seeking to make slaves of the small farmer. And advocates of organic farming fear that “tampering with nature” may result in unknown health costs.

“Sensible people should be aware that this [opposition] is not scientifically justified at all,” said Adrian Dubock, executive secretary of the Golden Rice Humanitarian Board and the architect of the project designed to distribute golden rice to the world’s poor.

“The reasons for objections are complicated. Sometimes they’re religious. Sometimes they’re related to fears about globalization.”

And those fears could be costly, according to Dubock. While the vision problems associated with Vitamin A deficiency are better known, it also causes immune system problems that are especially vicious among pregnant women and newborn children.

More Rice 2.0: Happy farmers, hungrier planet?

“The latest WHO figures [from 2005] have shown that between 23 and 34 percent of child mortality could be prevented by having a universal source of vitamin A,” Dubock said. “Similarly, with mothers about 40 percent of maternal mortality could be prevented.”

Proponents of technological solutions to the world’s food and nutrition problems believe golden rice could be the answer.

After some tweaks to the original strain, the latest generation of the genetic modification — known as the r event — promises to provide as much as 50 percent of the recommended daily allowance of Vitamin A for poor people who consume as little as 40 grams of golden rice a day. At least one study of a theoretical plan to give the modified rice to poor farmers claims that it would be 50 percent more efficient than the current efforts to provide dietary supplements.

More Rice 2.0: Toxic rice in China

And the technology’s inventors compelled the owners of the patent, a biotechnology company called Syngenta, to allow poor farmers around the world free access to the new variety as long as they earn less than $10,000 a year — ostensibly eliminating fears about industrialized agriculture that have plagued other GMO crops like Monsanto’s Bt Cotton.

“All the normal arguments don’t apply here,” said Dubock. “This is a gift from the inventors.”

Here in India, however, farmer advocates and environmental activists view that gift as a Trojan Horse.

“They are using the humanitarian window to actually push for GM acceptance. This is a PR exercise, nothing beyond that,” said Sharma. “Once you accept golden rice, you’re accepting all kinds of GM crops. That’s their agenda.”

How paranoid that sounds depends on your faith in the world’s multinational corporations and multilateral aid agencies. According to a Golden Rice Project backgrounder, “If golden rice is successfully introduced, it will additionally facilitate similar projects in the future.”

Funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, research is already underway on genetically modified bananas, cassava and sorghum — as well as another version of golden rice that incorporates iron, zinc, protein and Vitamin E. And Bayer, Mogen, Monsanto, Novartis and Zeneca all waived patents to allow golden rice to be given away free to poor farmers. That was not the case for Bt Brinjal or Bt Cotton.

Researchers in the Philippines are optimistic that they will submit all the necessary safety information to the government as early as 2013 and many believe that the introduction of golden rice as a staple crop will follow in short order.

But in India — where the problem of Vitamin A deficiency is much larger in scale — it promises to take much longer.

India has already introduced the golden rice gene into locally grown varieties in isolated greenhouses, as mandated by law. But before it can be distributed to farmers, researchers must conduct additional trials in real-world conditions in isolated fields and satisfy additional safety regulations.

Assuming that goes well, then planners must work out a strategy for introducing the crop without damaging India’s lucrative export trade in Basmati rice — since contamination of a single shipment with a few grains of GMO rice could scare off importers in the European Union, where consumer anxiety over GM food is high.

“Currently we can say we are in the product development phase,” said S.R. Rao, who in his former role as director of India’s Department of Biotechnology first pushed for introducing golden rice in India.

“The future of golden rice will depend on how we address regulatory concerns, how we communicate to the public and how we generate public acceptance. That is the challenge.”

In India, opposition to GMOs has never been stronger. Despite three years of research that cleared a GM variety of eggplant as safe for cultivation and consumption, last year activists succeeded in blocking the introduction of Bt Brinjal — a pesticide-resistant strain developed by Monsanto and Maharastra-based Mahyco.

Opposition to Bt Cotton — which now accounts for more than 40 percent of the cotton grown in India — has also gathered steam as activists link corporate control over seeds to debt-related farmer suicides that have killed upwards of 5,000 farmers in the cotton-growing region of Maharashtra since 2005, though researchers have attributed the problem to various other causes as well.

As New York Times columnist David Rieff argued recently, advocates of organic farming are gaining sway over the technology-friendly agriculturalists bred by the green revolution with the ascendency of India’s right to food movement.

“Because of the Bt Brinjal fiasco, there is a lot of demoralization in the scientific community,” said Rao. “While the regulatory system is working to an extent and the guidelines are getting slowly, slowly built up, at the end of the tunnel there is no light.”

For golden rice, that leaves a complex web of opposition that goes beyond health and safety concerns that GMO proponents argue have no foundation in science.

For example, initially Indian opponents of GMOs used some cocktail-napkin math to claim poor women would have to eat seven to nine kilograms of rice per day to get the benefits that golden rice advocates promised. When researchers created new varieties to deliver more betacarotene, their opponents moved the goalposts, introducing the problem of too much Vitamin A — which can reach toxic levels through supplements, but not from the body’s conversion of betacarotene.

Simultaneously, critics question whether the poor people targeted by the program have the reserves of body fat needed to absorb and process a micronutrient like betacarotene into Vitamin A. Moreover, they argue that pushing a “monoculture” that would reduce the biodiversity of rice might put India at risk of an ecological disaster like the Irish potato famine — in which a potato blight killed around a million people dependent on a single staple crop for food.

“We are faced with what happened during the potato famine at any time,” said Sharma, in a characteristic example of the activist reaction to technology-based solutions. “It can happen in the case of rice. The narrower the genetic base, the greater the problems you are facing.”

That’s an alarmist view. Despite decades of industrialized agriculture around the world, there has been no event similar to the potato famine since the 19th century.

However, some farmers and health workers in India and other countries have noted detrimental effects from the so-called monocultures brought about by the introduction of high-yield hybrids — particularly during India’s green revolution.

In the Garwhal region of the Himalayas, for instance, activists from Beej Bachao Andolan (Seed Savers) re-introduced indigenous strains of rice after a drought decimated the green revolution’s high-yield hybrids. And in the breadbasket region of Haryana and Punjab, environmental groups allege that high rates of certain cancers are the result of the massive doses of chemical fertilizers and pesticides required for green revolution crops.

That means that, at least in India, golden rice could face a long wait.

“It’s still in the advanced research stage,” said Rao. “We want to determine by the end of the year whether we are ready to enter the regulatory approval phase, through field trials. So we are scheduled for a major review in the next month.”