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The Promise of Golden Rice
by Rebecca Roberts
November 6, 2000


Genetically 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.


Do 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 mothers.

Ian Darnton-Hill: Vitamin A deficiency is still the most common preventable cause of childhood blindness.

Ian 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.

Darnton-Hill: 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.

The 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.

Conway: We've been involved in agriculture for developing countries for fifty years or more. We effectively were the creators of the Green Revolution.

Conway 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.

Conway: 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.

With 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.

Potrykus: 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.

And 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.

Potrykus: 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.

Indeed, 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.

Conway: 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.

Which 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.

Blaner: 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 justice.

Skeptics 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 for Zeneca.

Dubock: 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.

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.

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 soon follow.

For the World, I'm Rebecca Roberts.


copyright Exploratorium 2001