The genetically modified golden rice that was going to save the world in 2000, has yet to leave Louisiana, where it is being tested.
Despite not having reached the countries it was expected to help, the rice with added vitamin A has been making waves among consumers and scientists alike.
Farmers and research centers in the developing world want to see it, environmental groups are up in arms, and the debate rages as to whether this product will in fact help solve the problem of malnutrition in the developing world.
Five years on, the creator of the controversial rice, Dr Ingo Potrykus has revealed a new generation of the crop in Zurich, with ten times the amount of added vitamin A.
Potrykus, a scientist from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology first developed golden rice in 2000, together with Peter Beyer, from the University of Freiburg.
Golden rice is a genetically modified hybrid of rice, incorporating a gene from the daffodil flower to allow production of a beta-carotene compound, which the body turns into vitamin A.
It was originally created as a way of targeting vitamin A deficiency, which currently affects over 120 million people in the developing world, mainly children. Long term effects of vitamin A deficiency include measles, diarrhea, pneumonia and eventually, irreversible blindness, which currently affects 250,000 people in poorer countries.
In the Philippines, one of the main targets for the new crop, rice is the staple diet, and the number one nutrient deficiency is vitamin A. Seventeen Filipino children become blind every day due to vitamin A deficiency (VAD).
Duncan Macintosh from the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines says the company is looking forward to the fortified crop being developed there. Macintosh believes the crop will be greatly appreciated by farmers:
“In addition to it’s nutritional benefits for consumers, golden rice must also be attractive for farmers by having such qualities as high yield and pest and disease resistance.”
Steve Eury from Syngenta adds that the rice was such a success in field trials in Louisiana that the company is proposing further trials in The Philippines in the future, but he was not able to give a specific date.
Golden rice, yellow in color thanks to the beta-carotine, provides a fraction more vitamin A in the diet. Not enough for a recommended daily amount, but possibly enough to keep blindness at bay.
The new strain of rice uses a gene from the maize plant instead of the daffodil, and could have over ten times the amount of vitamin A as the original. These findings are to be published in the journal Nature later this month.
Golden rice seeds are expected to be given to farmers in the Philippines who make less than US$10,000 a year, to encourage it’s use to help people get vitamin A in their diet. And there are plans for further nutrients to be added to crops, including iron.
Despite claims of increased potency in the new rice, Potrykus has admitted research still needs to be done to determine the effects. According to Greenpeace International, it is still unknown how much vitamin A remains in the rice once it is cooked, how much the body will actually absorb, and whether the crop will be detrimental to human health in the long term. The vitamin A content will always be too small to overdose on, but the effect of genetically modified organisms on the body in the long term is still in question.
The development of golden rice was originally funded by several organizations, including the Rockerfeller Foundation, the European Union and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology.
The multi-national agricultural corporations Monsanto and AstraZeneca have licensed golden rice, and are expected to distribute the seeds free of charge to producers in the developing world. They are also licensing the golden rice genes with no royalties.
Critics warn that this rice is a clever ruse to inject some more publicity, and possibly cash, into the troubled biotech industry. Greenpeace in particular have been very outspoken in their critique of the genetically modified crop, calling it a “trojan horse”, a gift at first, then a lifelong dependence on large corporations for their supply of seeds.
“Greenpeace is concerned by the ways in which multinational companies are having a hand in the livelihoods of the people in the developing world. We feel that the corporations should not be imposing their will on farmers with limited options,” says Christoph Then, of Greenpeace International in Germany.
“This has the opposite effect of helping countries to help themselves,” says Then.
Greenpeace argues that adding vitamin A to rice is merely exacerbating the problem of malnutrition in the developing world.
Then argues that although any extra vitamin A in the diet is an improvement, it’s not the most practical or economic solution.
Greenpeace International has advocated other solutions to VAD, such as vitamin A supplements and increased food diversity, which have almost eliminated the problem in Bangladesh.
Dave Ng is the Director of the Advanced Molecular Biology Laboratory at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver. He has lectured frequently on the golden rice phenomenon and whilst generally in favor of the technology, is concerned with the impact on local farmers in the developing world.
“What people don’t see are the real pressing economic dangers,” Ng says, which he feels deserves more evaluation than even environmental and health repercussions.
“Health risks associated with GM crops are comparatively small,” Ng says. “and tend to be over exaggerated in the media.”
However, economic repercussions can be significant. Ng knows that the use of GM technology in food production can strengthen a farmer’s reliance on large agricultural corporations. Furthermore, any market advantage the farmer might have because of favourable climate and locale, can be effectively removed through the use of modified crops.
Ng also says that while the environmental and, especially, health risks have often been over hyped, so too have the positive effects of these foods in the press – a good example is that the golden rice isn’t the cure-all for VAD, as it was once touted as being.
Three golden rice meals a day for a child, 150g, provide only 10% of the daily requirement of vitamin A. One and a half kilos of the first generation of rice would have to be consumed to get the recommended daily amount.
But judging by Dr Potrykus’ response in a previous interview, featured on the website grain.com, he stands by his product:
“If some people decide that they want blind children and white rice, it’s their choice. I’m offering the possibility of yellow rice and no blind children. But the decision what people want to eat is theirs.”
Shortly after the rice was introduced in 2000, Time Magazine featured Dr Potrykus on the cover, reporting that the new rice could “save a million kids a year.” Five years later, the original crop has not met the much-hyped goals, it’s not even in the ground where it is needed. Will the new version be the hoped-for answer?