Promise of Golden Rice
November 6, 2000
modified foods have received some sour publicity of late. The industry
got some organic egg on its face last month, when GM corn, that
was approved only as animal feed, found its way into some taco shells,
tortillas and snack chips. But what if one genetically-modified
food could save hundreds of thousands of lives a year? That would
change some minds. The World's technology reporter Rebecca Roberts
has our story.
you remember the old wives' tale that eating carrots will help you
see in the dark? Well there's some truth to that. Carrots contain
betacarotene, the building block for Vitamin A. And a lack of vitamin
A can cause blindness in children and night blindness in nursing
Darnton-Hill: Vitamin A deficiency is still the most common preventable
cause of childhood blindness.
Darnton-Hill is with Helen Keller Worldwide, which was founded in
1915 to help World War I veterans who'd been blinded by exposure
to mustard gas. Today, the aid organization focuses on preventable
blindness like Vitamin A deficiency. Each year, up to half a million
children go blind from a lack of Vitamin A; another million die
from diseases like measles, which are thought to be exacerbated
by a lack of Vitamin A. Darnton-Hill says it's partly a legacy of
the Green Revolution, when farmers were encouraged to plant grains
that maximized protein and calories, instead of vitamins.
So, just in the last few years, there's been a recognition that
there's more to plant staples than protein and energy. We should
be looking at the other micronutrients. And I think the genetic
modification is seen as a shortcut way of doing that.
specific genetic modification in question is inserting the gene
to produce Vitamin A into the genetic structure of rice. This "golden
rice," so-called because of its slight yellowish color, was developed
by scientists in Zurich, who took the vitamin A gene from a daffodil.
Gordon Conway is the president of the Rockefeller Foundation, which
funded the research.
We've been involved in agriculture for developing countries for
fifty years or more. We effectively were the creators of the Green
says his foundation's role as creators and ongoing underwriters
of the green revolution has enabled them to see both its benefits
and its shortcomings.
The work on producing golden rice began, I suppose, about 10 years
ago. There was an obvious need to improve the Vitamin A content
of diets, particularly ofAsian children. And there was no way that
anybody had been able to find of getting the genes into rice by
traditional plant breeding.
the help of Rockefeller money, Swiss scientists Peter Beyer and
Ingo Potrykus did it through genetic engineering. But the genetic
structure of rice, for instance, is patented. So are many of the
processes involved in creating golden rice. Ingo Potrykus says none
of that mattered in the lab.
For research you can use patented material without any problem.
But as soon as you want to do something with it, either commercially
or non-commercially, you have to get the permission from those who
have the intellectual property rights on what you are using.
getting the rights to as many as 70 different patents held by numerous
companies and institutions looked like a daunting task. But then
an interesting thing happened; Potrykus says one by one, the patent
holders agreed to donate their intellectual property as long as
the product was used for humanitarian purposes.
I was hoping for it, but you couldn't expect it. And I think it
was possible because the entire technology is under so much pressure
that everybody is interested that there is one case that can be
shown to the public.
biotech proponents often mention golden rice when defending genetically
modified food. Until golden rice came along, most genetic modification
focused on reducing the cost of food production, money-saving advantages
really only felt by farmers in developed countries with plenty of
food. Gordon Conway of the Rockefeller Foundation.
It's quite logical for Europeans who say, well there's no benefit,
why should I risk? Even if the risks are small, why should I risk
this? But when you turn to developing countries, where the potential
benefits are enormous...I mean, let's say that Vitamin A rice saved
500,000 lives a year, or a million lives a year, or whatever it
was...that's a very big benefit. It changes the equation.
is not to say that golden rice doesn't have its opponents. Some
public health groups working on Vitamin A deficiency say GM rice
is a quick fix, and diverts attention from the real issue, which
is poverty. William Blaner is a professor at Columbia University's
Institute of Human Nutrition.
This is certainly high tech, it's a quick fix, it's likely to be
a broad fix. But ultimately, the great majority of Vitamin A deficiency
has a socio-economic basis. And it might really improve the well-being
of kids around the world, peoples around the world. But nevertheless,
for me personally, I think there should be some socio-economic justice,
and I think this would have a tendency to cloud issues of socio-economic
also wonder about the deal struck between the inventors of golden
rice, and Zeneca, a British agrotechnology corporation that eventually
will market Vitamin A rice to western countries as a nutritional
supplement. Adrian Dubock is overseeing the golden rice project
We came to a deal with them where we obtained all of the rights,
all of their rights, and in return granted them back the rights
to make this technology available for this humanitarian purpose,
and we said we'd support them in that.
support includes everything from testing and research to legal advice
and computer support, as developing countries decide how to use
golden rice. In exchange, Zeneca gets all rights to any commercial
application of the technology. And that stands to be very lucrative,
since golden rice has something that's appealing to a growing western
demographic -- aging baby boomers. Again, Zeneca's Adrian Dubock.
The golden rice contains also antioxidants, which are associated
with alleviating a number of diseases associated with aging. In
particular macular degeneration, which is night blindness, and various
cardiovascular problems and some cancers are thought to be benefited
by increased antioxidants.
But before Zeneca sees a
dollar from its deal, golden rice has to be put through its paces.
The genetic modification has to be inserted into local varieties of
rice, and enough of it has to be grown to test for environmental and
allergy risks. Then they have to test the rice on a large scale to
see if it's really effective in combating vitamin A deficiency, or
even if children will eat it, given its unusual golden color. Some
of that testing has already begun, and children in developing countries
may be eating golden rice as soon as 2003. Commercial sales would
For the World, I'm Rebecca Roberts.