Scientists say they have seen the future of genetically modified (GM) 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 realized 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 2 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,” Dubock said.
However, 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 created late last century, but its development and cultivation have 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 celebre 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 organizations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as a way of alleviating a real health problem in the developing world,” Dubock said. “No one is going to make money out of it. The companies involved in developing some of the technologies have waived their licenses just to get this off the ground.”
This view is shared by Mark Lynas, the environmental campaigner and one of the founders of the anti-GM crop movement. He has publicly apologized 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,” he said.
Golden rice was created by Peter Beyer, professor of 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’s genes so that the plants started to make beta-carotene, a rich orange-colored pigment that is also a key precursor chemical that is 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.