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Checkbiotech: The golden rice controversy: useless science or unfounded criticism?
Posted by: Prof. Dr. M. Raupp (IP Logged)
Date: September 13, 2005 07:36AM ; ;

Earlier this year, scientists disclosed in the journal Nature Biotechnology
the development of a new Golden Rice, a genetically engineered form of the
crop capable of producing 23 times more provitamin A (betacarotene) than a
prototype announced in the year 2000 (Paine et al. 2005). However, rather
than celebrate the potential of this breakthrough to alleviate suffering and
reduce the number of deaths caused by malnutrition-in the millions, many of
them children in developing countries- Greenpeace greeted the development
with claims that Golden Rice is "not effective" and "superfluous"
(Greenpeace 2005; see Maxeiner 2005 for a critical response). Organizations
like Greenpeace rightly see this advance as threatening their
antibiotechnology campaign, which lacks a scientific basis and has relied
mainly on the manipulation of people's perceptions, September 2005 by
Mayer, Jorge E.

For several years, a few countries with intensive agriculture have been
adopting transgenic crops at a rapid pace. More recently, the technology has
also gained significant momentum in developing countries. South Africa's
insect-resistant maize and cotton programs have proved very successful and
are growing steadily. In India, despite reports of one failure-purely
agronomic and not involving any biosafety issues-the adoption and
registration of riew transgenic varieties are strongly on the rise. In
total, in 2004, developing countries accounted for almost 28 million
hectares (ha), or 34 percent, of altland dedicatecl to transgenic crops
(James 2004). Farmers' eagerness to adopt the technology, together with
their success stories, is bad news for those antitechnology campaigners who
base their arguments purely on scaremongering tactics.

Although opposition to genetically modified (GM) crops has been fierce since
they were first released into the environment in the 1980s, the United
States and a few other countries have managed to develop science-based
biosafety regulatory systems. These have allowed the technology to
flourish-as more than 80 million ha planted with transgenic crops worldwide
in 2004 attest-for the benefit of farmers, consumers, and companies.
Meanwhile, strang opposition in Europe managed to push through an extended
de facto moratorium that has only recently begun to thaw.

This process is progressing only under aws seemingly designed to deter the
use of transgenic crops rather than to encourage adoption of the technology.
For example, under the present Gene Technology Act in Germany, farmers
growing GM crops in a region are jointly and severally liable for economic
damage that neighboring farms incur if their crops are contaminated by GM
material, even if the sau ce of the material cannot be identified with
certainty and the GM crop farmers have adhered to all regulatory
requirements. The legal threshold level of admixture is arbitrarily set at
0.9 percent, but if a farmer has signed a contract to deliver produce that
is free of GM material, then neighboring farmers of GM crops are fully
liable for the loss in value caused even by admixture levels below 0.9
percent. In the present situation, German insurers are not prepared to sign
contracts with farmers willing to grow GM crops, because the level of
liability cannot be calculated. This policy creates an insurmountable hurdle
to the spread of GM technology in the country.

One argument brought up by opponents of Golden Rice is that it might
interfere with existing vitamin A supplementation and fortification programs
and campaigns. This argument is used to suggest that we should opt for the
status quo. Such an attitude disregards the potential of Golden Rice to
provide viable, sustainable alternatives. Moreover, in adopting this
position, opponents are ignoring the huge number of individuals-mainly in
remote rural areas-not covered by most outreach activities. In lndia, a
country with ongoing supplementation and fortification programs, 57 percent
of children under six years of age show subclinical vitamin A deficiency,
according to UNICEF. Another pertinent fact, which opponents seem to
deliberately overlook, is that existing programs require millions of dollars
per country every year to keep them going. These programs are not

Initiatives promoting a more varied diet have met with limited success. This
is because fruits and other food sources of provitamin A are not availaDle
throughout the year. Moreover, many of these food sources da not grow in the
areas where they are most badly needed. Most of all, people affected by
vitamin A deficiency usually cannot afford to buy a varied diet. One strang
argument for rice as a staple is that most alternative provitamin A-rich
crops are perishable. Hence, subsistence farmers would be poorly advised to
use up their scarce resources ta grow perishable crops that will not allow
them to feed their families throughout the year.

1 believe Golden Rice will demonstrate that any legitimate concerns 3bout
genetic engineering in any crop will be related to the specific traits being
intr3duced, and not to the technology itseif. Golden Rice and the underlying
technology have been widely discussed ever since Ingo Potrykus and Peter
Beyer came up in 1999 with a rice plant capable of producing provitamin A.
Provitamin A is normally produced in the green tissues of every plant and
converted to vitamin A in the human body. Nobody has been able to come up
with a scenario whereby the provitamin A-enriched grains of Golden Rice
could pose a menace to the environment or to human health. What's left in
the opponents' camp is a perceived risk of the technology as such, rooted in
unfathomable, yet-to-be-articulated dangers. Meanwhile, real threat cloes
exist: it is the threat of widespread micronutrient deficiencies killing
millions of children and adults all over the world.

Opposition to GM crops is often based on the apparently reasonable argument
that the public has a right to know and to decide. This argument remains
simplistic at best if the decisionmaking process is not knowledge based but
rather corisists of a summary rejection with a political undertone. This
position has led tc politically motivated moratoria and the construction of
insurmountable regulatcry hurdles. These hurdles have not only hit large
corporations but also seriously affected developments coming from the public
sector, leading to the loss of investments and opportunities. While
development of a transgenic plant in the laboratory might cost a few hundred
thousand dollars, fulfillment of regulatory requirements has amounted to
several million dollars in same documented Gases. And this process must be
repeated in every country where regulatory approval is sought. The lost
opportunities are being felt especially in developing countries, where
agricultural production could profit immensely from new resistance and
adaptation traits in many crop plants (Cohen 2005).

In some Gases, opposition has led to the development of policies that
exclude agricultural biotechnology in national research and development
funding strategies. These days, more funds seem to go into biosafety
research than into product development, with the result that few product
development projects capture the public interest. For example, further
development and deployment of Golden Rice have suffered severely because of
lack of support from the European Union. The introduction of Golden Rice
into target countries has been seriously delayed by the lengthy processes
necessary to obtain permits to deploy seed for field testing. The main cause
of these drawn-out procedures is that receiving countries have been
influenced by the technology-rejecting position of several countries, most
of them in Europe. The European position reverberates in distant nations:
Zambia, tor example, rejected US donations of genetically modified maize,
despite the severe grain shortage caused by a devastating drought in central
and southern Arica; other nearby countries hit by the grain shortage also
rejected the US-approved transgenic product.

A driving farce in establishing bureaucratic barriers is the fear of losing
export markets tor agricultural produce because of potential
"contamination"-a misnomer for the adventitious presence of transgenic
crops-of export commodities. Socioeconomic studies are showing not only that
the feared potential losses have been exaggerated but that huge advantages
have been ignored. In a study of Asian countries published by the World
Bank, the authors concluded that-in terms of health and direct economic
improvements-export losses could amount to as little as one-half percent of
potential gains. Total economic gains from Golden Rice could be in the range
of several billions of US dollars for countries in Southeast Asia (Anderson
et al. 2004). This kind of insight is slowly turning the tide, and is
further under-pinned by scentific data that do not foresee any deleterious
effects tc) mankind or to the environnient from the use of nutritionally
enhanced rice (Lu and Snow 2005).

Some arguments by opponents of GM technology demonstrate a lack of basic
knowledge of plant breeding. One such argument suggests that transgenes
promote the use of monocultures. Transgenes, as opposed to many
conventionally obtained traits, are mostly monogenic and are easy to breed
into any locally adapted variety. The Golden Rice trait, for example, can be
introduced into any local variety within two years, thus making it easy to
preserve the cultivation of traditional varieties with added value (i.e.,
containing beta-carotene and thus having health-promoting characteristics).

Golden Rice has often been criticized for being a technical fix that does
not address the real needs of farmers and their living conditions. Critics
of Golden Rice go on to give their unqualified support to existing
supplementation and fortification programs and to the growing of
nontraditional vegetables in farmers' fields. Whle low-tech approaches are
successful to a certain degree, these lifestyle-modifying interventions are
often unsustainable. The genetic engineering step required to generate
Golden Rice, on the other hand, involves a technological intervention. lts
beauty is that it makes it possible to deliver a traditional crop plant with
an added trait. A new variety of seed that can be grown, harvested, and
replanted is the most down-to-earth and familiar solution known to any
farmer. The only difference is that this new variety could, besides
delivering daily calories, help solve a life-threatening problem. lt is a
solution that, apart from initial outreach activities, will require no
additional inputs. Golden Rice is a sustainable solution.

References cited

Anderson K, Jackson LA, Pohl Nielsen C. 2004. Genetically Modified Rice
Adoption: Implications for Welfare and Poverty Alleviation. Washington (DC):
World Bank. Cohen JI. 2005. Poorer nations turn to publicly developed GM
crops. Nature Biotechnology 23: 27-33.

Greenpeace. 2005. Genmanipulierter Reis: Nicht wirksam und überflüssig (3
August 2005)

James C. 2004. Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops: 2004. New
York: International Service for the Acquisiticn of Agribiotech Applications.
ISAAA Briefs no. 32. (2 August 2005;

Lu B-R, Snow AA. 2005. Gene flow from genetically modified rice and its
environmental consequences. BioScience 55: 669-678.


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