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Checkbiotech: Golden Rice: Problem or solution?
Posted by: DR. RAUPP ; madora (IP Logged)
Date: May 11, 2005 07:34AM ; ;

Debate over Genetically Engineered rice's effectiveness in eliminating
Vitamin A Deficiency (VAD) is still raging. Environmental groups put their
beliefs on available sources. Scientists though, assert Golden Rice is the
most viable solution. Here are the most heard voices in Bangalore on this
debate, May 2005 by L Subramani.

It has been hailed as the miracle of science: the wonder grain capable of
providing a solution for the Vitamin A Deficiency in the world. If
distributed in all countries, scientists are strident that no child on earth
would go blind or die due to lack of vitamin A. While our hearts leap in joy
to hear of an edible crop that would virtually be the medicine for the most
common problem in the developing world, voices of dissent bring a hurried
halt to celebrations.

Golden Rice, after all, is not meant to be golden yellow in colour. Critics
say that in itself is a technical aberration, a puzzle posed by nature that
remains unclear to the very scientists who created it. And, the issues don't
quite end there. According to the environmental group Greenpeace, several
questions about the Genetically Engineered crop remains unanswered. To begin
with, Greenpeace questions the wisdom of embarking on an expensive technical
solution that could put human health and the environment to severe risk.
They claim alternative solutions such as consumption of leafy vegetables,
drugs with vitamin A and the available rice varieties with higher
pro-vitamin A (Beta-Carotene) have to be explored.

Technical issues
Greenpeace calls Golden Rice "a technical failure," the project that stands
between effective solutions and the miseries of the developing world. They
argue certain technical details were hidden from public scrutiny and the
amount of pro-vitamin A beta-carotene present in Golden Rice could be
significantly overstated.

Campaigners insist allowing the project to continue will be detrimental,
while scientists themselves still don't quite understand how the GE crop
makes pro-vitamin beta-carotene. They also maintain if planted in farms,
Golden Rice would pollinate with other weed relatives and cause severe
agronomical and environmental problems.

Greenpeace also insists uptake and absorption of Beta-Carotene is much more
complex than what scientists say. While a significant amount of it can be
wasted in food processing, such as cleaning the grains in water. The uptake
and conversion of Beta-Carotene can't happen in isolation or without the
presence of other nutrients.

Scientists can't explain certain strange characteristics of Golden Rice,
such as its colour, which was expected to be red due to the presence of
Lycopene. They also cannot explain why GE rice plants appear shorter or dark
stay-green in colour, as against a normal plant or why there were late
flowering or fewer seeds.

Quoting scientific reports, Greenpeace also claims the rice contains
compounds such as lutein and zeaxanthin. Scientific knowledge cannot predict
if there're any other compounds lurking in the rice that may cause
allergenic or toxic effects on humans. Though Syngenta -the company that
researches on Golden Rice-announced new lines of Golden Rice found during
its field trial in 2004 has 10 times more Beta-Carotene content, Greenpeace
alleges full report on the field trials weren't released.

It says access to multi nutrient and vitamin and mineral rich food should be
the key to solve VAD and not the wonder grain. Home gardening, providing
Vitamin A as a medical supplement and education on a balanced diet with
micro nutrients should be pursued aggressively. Golden Rice, they claim,
would exacerbate mal nutrition by providing a single staple food focused on
one nutrient.

They also say Syngenta has been hiding its real commercial intentions. While
it plays up its free distribution of the Rice to small farmers in developing
countries, the fact according to Greenpeace, is Syngenta has applied for
patents in several parts of the world, so that it can still charge big
farmers and breeders for using the rice.

The latest wave of campaign by Greenpeace follows the announcement by
Syngenta in late March that the new improved variety of Golden Rice has 20
times more content of Beta-Carotene. Greenpeace believes the frenzy for
wonder grain has distorted the nutrition issue. But, it says awareness on
the issue can still make a difference, before things go well and truly out
of hand.

Despite a firestorm of vocal and popular criticism staged by environmental
groups, scientists like to stand by the strength of reason. Dr Kameswara
Rao, retired professor of Botany and a field biologist for over 40 years,
examines the points raised by Greenpeace and others patiently. "Scientists
are no novices to make claims without proper in-depth research," Dr Rao
says, staring hard at the "so-called," facts from the critics of Golden

"The public would certainly accept the technology, if you present the facts
undistorted. I think calling any technology 'risky' in itself is absurd,
because there can't be any technology without risks. For that matter, you
must be thinking several times before boarding a train or a flight."

The scientist's take
Dr Rao admits there are "Teething problems" in Agro Bio Technology, but
believes the team of scientists, breeders and bio-chemists who have long
years of experience in agriculture are no less wiser in dealing with them.
"The so-called alternatives suggested by Greenpeace and others are
inadequate in solving VAD," he claims.

Golden Rice's colour, according to Dr Rao, is certainly due to the presence
of Beta-Carotene, like the tomato's red is due to Lycopene. He points out
that plant foods contain 20 Carotenoids in what is called a "Carotenoid
pool." Of which just, three of them -- the alpha-carotene, beta-carotene and
beta-cryptoxanthine-can be converted by human body into Vitamin A.

Among the three, Beta-Carotene is metabolically more efficient, as one
Beta-Carotene molecule becomes two Vitamin A molecules (retinol) in the
body, while the other two can produce just one. "Though there are 160
varieties of plants in India with Carotenoids, not all of them can address
VAD. Of course, the fact is most Carotenoids are antioxidants capable of
preventing heart diseases and certain types of cancer," Dr Rao says.

While sufficient availability of the three Carotenoids in the plant's
Carotenoid pool is doubtful, their bio availability factor barely gets a
mention. Pro-vitamin A substance in foods like leafy vegetables may not be
available to the body, as other substances in them like phytic acid prevent
their uptake. "It's for this reason scientists decided to provide
Beta-Carotene through staple food," Dr Rao maintains.

Dr Rao also mentions the Golden Rice plant's shorter stature and dark green
colour or presence of lutein and zeaxanthin are not alarming or dangerous
aberrations, as Greenpeace portrays. He points to efforts in the 1960's to
create Dwarf varieties of rice and wheat that also looked shorter and dark
green. "Calling lutein and zeaxanthin, which are non-pro-vitamin A
Carotenoids, anti-nutritional, allergenic or toxic is scientifically
untenable. As I mentioned, they are antioxidants and are good for the human
body," Dr Rao says.

In 2000, out of eight GE varieties short listed for further trials, the one
with two micro grams of Beta-Carotene per gram of rice was finally selected.
"The procedures they adopt to select the rice variety is very stringent.
After all, the scientists know pretty well what they are up to and have been
very responsible in the research," Dr Rao says.

The pollination question
Dr Rao affirms rice is a self-pollinating crop and the viability of its
pollens is just five minutes. Therefore the distance to which winds can
carry it is rather immaterial. "All species are reproductively isolated. A
factor vital for maintaining so many species in the first place. The only
difference is it contains Beta-Carotene genes in rice endosperm, the part we

He insists there's very remote, almost non-existent possibility of rice
mixing with wild varieties which are very sparse. He says as pampered crops
for thousands of years, rice is unlikely to be grown anywhere but in a
field. "Golden Rice Humanitarian Board is set up principally to transfer the
technology free of cost to developed countries like India without patent
encumbrances. Countries may have to pay technology cost, only if Golden Rice
is priced higher than comparable varieties," he clarifies.

Though no responsible person can say Golden Rice is a silver bullet that
would clear the world's VAD problem in one stroke, Dr Rao says the newly
developed Golden Rice, published last month, contains 46 micro grams of
Beta-Carotene, sufficient for a day. "Certainly, we must encourage people to
take balanced diet, which can be done with Golden Rice as well. Also, the
rice is still in research stage and it wouldn't be available across the
counter this decade. So, trying to stop it's development is like
infanticide," he says.

Dr Kameswara Rao is also the executive secretary of Foundation for Bio
Technology Awareness and Education (FBAE) that conducts awareness programmes
for students, teachers and farmers. He also has close associations with
leading agricultural scientists.

All the information found in the article are from a detailed material on
Golden Rice given by Greenpeace office in Bangalore to Deccan Herald.

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