Golden rice, red tape
Posted by: Prof. Dr. M. Raupp
Date: October 27, 2008 04:47PM
By Henry Miller
Biotechnology applied to crafting nutritional improvements in rice is on the
verge of offering the kinds of public health benefits to Asia we haven't
seen since the 20th-century's green revolution improved the nutrition and
longevity of billions of people.
Last month, the Swedish Academy of Agriculture and Forestry bestowed the
prestigious Bertebos prize on Swiss plant biologist Ingo Potrykus. He is the
co-inventor of "golden rice", a collection of new rice varieties
biofortified, or enriched, by the introduction of genes that express
beta-carotene, the precursor of vitamin A. (It is converted in the body, as
needed, to the active form.)
Why was this achievement important? After all, most physicians in North
America and Europe never see a single case of vitamin A deficiency in their
professional lifetimes. The situation is very different in poor developing
countries, however. Vitamin A deficiency is epidemic among the poor, whose
diet is heavily dominated by rice (which contains neither beta-carotene nor
vitamin A) or other carbohydrate-rich, vitamin-poor sources of calories.
In developing countries, 200-300 million children of preschool age are at
risk of vitamin A deficiency, which can be devastating and even fatal. It
increases susceptibility to common childhood infections such as measles and
diarrhoeal diseases and is the single most important cause of childhood
blindness in developing countries. Every year, about 500,000 children become
blind as a result of vitamin A deficiency, and 70% die within a year of
losing their sight.
Why not simply supplement children's diets with vitamin A in capsules or add
it to some staple foodstuff, the way that we add iodine to table salt to
prevent hypothyroidism and goiter? A good idea in theory, except that
neither the resources ? hundreds of millions of dollars annually ? nor the
infrastructure for distribution are available.
Enter a better, cheaper, more feasible solution: golden rice, which actually
incorporates beta-carotene into the genetically altered rice grains. The
concept is simple: Although rice plants do not normally synthesise
beta-carotene in the endosperm (seeds) because of the absence of two
necessary enzymes of the biosynthetic pathway, they do make it in the green
portions of the plant. By using recombinant DNA, or gene-splicing,
techniques to introduce the two genes that express these enzymes, the
pathway is restored and the rice grains accumulate therapeutic amounts of
Golden rice offers the potential to make contributions to human health and
welfare as monumental as the discovery and distribution of the Salk polio
vaccine. With wide use, it could save hundreds of thousands of lives a year
and enhance the quality of life for millions more.
But one aspect of this shining story is tarnished. Intransigent opposition
by anti-science, anti-technology activists - primarily Greenpeace, Friends
of the Earth and a few other groups ? has spurred already risk-averse
regulators to adopt an overly precautionary approach that has stalled
There is nothing about golden rice that should require endless case-by-case
reviews and delays. As the British scientific journal Nature editorialised
in 1992, a broad scientific consensus holds that "the same physical and
biological laws govern the response of organisms modified by modern
molecular and cellular methods and those produced by classical methods. ...
[Therefore] no conceptual distinction exists between genetic modification of
plants and microorganisms by classical methods or by molecular techniques
that modify DNA and transfer genes."
Putting it another way, government regulation of field research with plants
should focus on the traits that may be related to risk - invasiveness,
weediness, toxicity, and so forth - rather than on whether one or another
technique of genetic manipulation was used.
In spite of its vast potential to benefit humanity ? and negligible
likelihood of harm to human health or the environment ? nine years after its
creation, golden rice remains hung up in regulatory red tape with no end in
sight. By contrast, plants constructed with less precise techniques such as
hybridisation or mutagenesis are subject to no government scrutiny or
requirements (or opposition from activists) at all. And that applies even to
the numerous new plant varieties that have resulted from "wide crosses",
hybridisations that move genes from one species or genus to another ? across
what used to be thought of as natural breeding boundaries.
In an April editorial in the journal Science, Nina Fedoroff, an eminent
plant geneticist at Penn State who is currently serving as senior scientific
adviser to Condoleezza Rice, wrote: "A new Green Revolution demands a global
commitment to creating a modern agricultural infrastructure everywhere,
adequate investment in training and modern laboratory facilities and
progress toward simplified regulatory approaches that are responsive to
accumulating evidence of safety. Do we have the will and the wisdom to make
The golden rice story suggests that the answer is, not yet.