Tue, Feb 05, 2013 - Page 9 News List

New GM rice crop aims to ease global malnutrition

Controversy has been raging around genetic modification of food for three decades, but the arguments could finally be over as Philippine farmers prepare to sow a colorful new crop

By Robin McKie  /  The Guardian

“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,” Beyer said. “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 US 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 of cooked golden rice, between 100g and 150g, could provide 60 percent 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,” Dubock said.

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 of 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,” Beyer said.

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,” he said.

Of course, some doubts about the technology still remain. Nevertheless, a warning about the consequences of imposing regulations on GM crops and not others was provided by Cathie Martin of the John Innes Centre in Norwich, England.

“At institutes like ours, we can prioritize research to bring new consumer health benefits and environmental benefits to market, as long as the regulatory process is not prohibitively expensive for publicly funded organizations,” she said.

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