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Hope, Not Hype, in the Golden Grains

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Hope, Not Hype, in the Golden Grains

Two years ago, practically no one had ever heard of Ingo Potrykus

Two years ago, practically no one had ever heard of Ingo Potrykus. Today, he’s the darling of the biotechnology industry and the hero of research scientists everywhere. But he’s also public enemy number one for environmental groups like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth.

 

Potrykus is the mild mannered Swiss scientist who co-developed Golden Rice, a variety that is genetically modified to produce beta-carotene in its edible grains. Once fully tested and ready for wide-scale planting, Golden Rice could help address the severe problem of micronutrient deficiencies in developing country diets – a problem that results in half a million cases of childhood blindness, and millions of deaths each year.

 

Even before the first biotech crops were planted commercially in 1994, environmentalists had begun attacking them over concerns that biotech plants could damage ecosystems or be unhealthy for consumers. Worst still, they claimed, biotechnology could never help the poor of the world. Claiming that it might was tantamount to moral depravity. Some of these concerns have to be taken seriously. But the campaign of fear built around “Frankenfoods” is characterized primarily by gross distortions and a few outright falsehoods.

 

Today, Potrykus’ work is single-handedly demolishing a few of those myths. And for that, anti-biotech activists have set out to destroy him and Golden Rice.

 

The Story of Golden Rice

More than a decade ago, Potrykus began to think about using the newly emerging techniques of gene-splicing and other biotechnologies to improve the nutritional quality of the basic staple foods consumed by poor residents of developing countries. The diets of more than three billion people worldwide include inadequate levels of many important micronutrients such as iron and vitamin A. Deficiency in just these two can result in severe anemia, impaired intellectual development, blindness, and even death.

 

Twentieth century advances in conventional breeding techniques generated an explosion in the productivity of cereal crops, including wheat, corn, soy, and rice. And when these Green Revolution techniques spread to the developing world, they helped to prevent hundreds of millions of deaths from hunger and starvation. But while staple grains are good sources of energy, they are poor sources of vitamins and minerals. Despite nearly four decades of outreach work by groups like the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, UNICEF, and others, the problem of poor nutrition has yet to be conquered.

 

This seemingly intractable problem spurred Potrykus, and countless other plant scientists around the world, to think that biotechnology could be used to start a Gene Revolution to address the problems left unconquered by the original Green Revolution. In 1990, Potrykus began working with German scientist Peter Beyer to use gene-splicing techniques to modify rice so that it would produce beta-carotene, which is turned into Vitamin A by the human body. In the Spring of 1999, Potrykus and Beyer finally succeeded in creating this “Golden Rice”–named both for its golden yellow color and its tremendous possibilities.

 

Who Is Deceiving Whom?

Even before Potrykus’ research team published their results in the prestigious science journal, Nature, environmental activists started getting nervous. It had been easy to scare consumers about such products as herbicide tolerant soybeans and corn. But because Golden Rice promised so much tangible benefit to the poorest of the world, it represented a real threat to the anti-biotech campaign–one that could silence critics and win over a skeptical public.

 

Consumers in Europe and North America tend to be well fed, so they have little obvious need for innovative food products or plants. And the biotech varieties now on the market mainly have improved agronomic properties designed for high-output farmers in industrialized countries. Few readily apparent benefits flow to consumers from the products now on the market. Those facts make many consumers question the usefulness of biotechnology, skeptical of the industry, and ripe for an anti-biotech campaign.

 

So when Potrykus and Beyer announced that their Golden Rice experiment had succeeded, the scientific community finally had its holy grail: a product that would force European and American consumers to take notice of biotechnology’s potential. The biotech industry was perhaps more excited than anyone, as the attributes of Golden Rice could be used to counter the public’s negative opinion of its products.

 

But it didn’t take long for critics to argue that biotechnology companies are interested in generating profits, not feeding the poor. How would the product actually get to the poor farmers who need it? Wasn’t this just a stunt dreamed up by the biotech industry to counter negative public opinion? Greenpeace campaigner Von Hernandez called the whole Golden Rice project an “intentional deception.”

 

The biotechnology industry might be rightly cautioned against seeming to represent Golden Rice as an industry development. But it is biotech’s opponents, not supporters, who are more accurately charged with intentional deception.

 

The Truth About Golden Rice

Biotech critics argue that innovations in agricultural biotechnology are profit-driven, not need-driven. In part, at least, Golden Rice shows that to be untrue. The basic research was financed primarily by the New York-based Rockefeller Foundation. It is now being tested in the Philippines by the publicly funded International Rice Research Institute. And both the inventors and the Rockefeller Foundation have promised to make the rice available to developing-world farmers at little or no cost.

 

Of course, the first generation of biotech products had been targeted for farmers in industrialized countries like the United States, Canada, and Australia. This was only natural, as genetic research is costly. But thisdynamic is not unique to biotechnology.

 

Wealthy consumers are usually first to benefit from innovations–from automobiles to antibiotics. Today, those once exorbitantly priced luxury items can be found across the globe and in use by many of modest means. The reason is that costs tend to fall over time due to economies of large-scale production, and once R&D expenditures are recouped.

 

The Product Pipeline

Focusing solely on the products now on the market misses a much bigger and more nuanced picture. Once developed and commercialized, the technological knowledge used by for-profit endeavors is easily applied to far less profitable products. Many patented genetic discoveries are already being used to create extraordinarily promising plants solely for use in developing countries.

 

For example, corporations like DuPont and Monsanto cooperated with Mexican scientists to develop biotech potato and tomato varieties that are grown on large farms in Mexico for export to the United States. During the research effort, however, those corporations gave the Mexican public sector scientists access to much of the patented genetic material used in the project, which they are now free to use more liberally.

 

“So far, in Mexico, we have only been able to grow varieties for export,” says Dr. Ariel Alvarez-Morales, a microbiologist at the Center for Research and Advanced Studies in Irapuato, Mexico. “But now that we have the technology, we can transfer the useful genes into the landrace varieties that are grown by small farmers.”

 

Other scientists have now identified genes for resistance to tropical plant diseases and viruses common in developing nations, for salinity and drought tolerance, and for resistance to tropical insect pests and weeds. In many cases, these genes have been successfully transferred into crop plants. Some varieties are already in the commercial pipeline. And once they do become commercially available, farmers in developing countries, where the soils are poor and the climates harsh, can be expected to achieve dramatic productivity gains.

 

In addition, biotechnology offers realistic hope of improving the nutritional benefits of many foods. Golden Rice is just one example. Researchers at Royal Holloway College of the University of London have boosted the beta-carotene level in tomatoes. Similar work is also underway in France with peppers. And a second rice variety developed in Potrykus’ lab has boosted iron levels.

 

Scientists at other publicly funded or charitable research centers are developing such products as sweet potatoes with enhanced dietary protein, cassava and papaya with built-in resistance to common plant viruses, and rice that can more efficiently convert sunlight and carbon-dioxide for faster growth. Researchers at Cornell University in the U.S. have even modified potatoes to produce vaccines for hepatitis B and bananas that produce vaccines against cholera. The examples go on and on. All of these products are being created specifically or primarily for use in developing countries.

 

Why Modify?

Forty thousand people die each day of malnutrition, one-half of them children. Regardless of the cause, ensuring food security in a world of eight or nine billion–a conservative population estimate for the year 2050–will require substantial increases in productivity.

 

As population rises, farmers must be able to grow more and more nutritious food on less land. Without such gains in productivity and nutrition, the escalating need for food will require plowing under millions of hectares of pristine wilderness–an environmental tragedy surely worse than those envisioned by biotechnology’s critics. Furthermore, improved living standards begin with a stable and reliable source of nutrition.

 

Even biotechnology advocates cannot claim that biotechnology alone will solve developing world problems. Nor do advocates suggest that other programs be rejected. But biotechnology does represent an important, low-input way to help farmers substantially increase productivity. Refusing to investigate its potential would be a gross injustice.

 

In a report published in July 2000, the Royal Society of London, the National Academies of Science from Brazil, China, India, Mexico and the US, and the Third World Academy of Science, embraced genetic modification (GM), arguing that it can advance both the productivity and income elements of food security while promoting sustainable agriculture. “It is critical,” argue the science academies, “that the potential benefits of GM technology become available to developing countries.”

 

Biotechnology’s opponents have condemned Golden Rice for everything from having too much beta-carotene (vitamin A is toxic and carcinogenic at very high doses) to having so little of the micronutrient as to be functionally useless. It is also criticized for not yet being made available to poor farmers. About three to four years of breeding experiments, environmental safety studies, and nutritional assessments are required before commercialization is feasible. Of course, if the product were put on the market with no testing, their criticisms would be greater still.

 

There just doesn’t seem to be a way to win with these opponents, and perhaps that’s the point. Biotechnology’s critics are bent on discrediting the science, its practitioners, and the entire biotechnology revolution.

 

A healthy skepticism of all new developments can be beneficial. But if our real goal is to advance the public well being, we need to weigh the evidence and make a reasoned evaluation, not point to hypothetical problems and say no.

 

Gregory Conko (conko@cei.org) is director of food safety policy at CEI.