'Golden Rice' Could Combat Third World Malnutritio
The New Rice, Rich In Vitamin A, Could Sharply Boost The Health Of Poor Nations--Unless Anti-Tech Activists Block It
August 27, 1999
by Dennis T. Avery
CHURCHVILLE, Va.--Two of the world's most persistent sources of human malnutrition may soon be overcome. Swiss researchers and the New York- based Rockefeller Foundation have developed new genetically modified rice plants.
The new plants are engineered to help overcome vitamin A deficiency, which afflicts some 400 million poor rice consumers in developing nations and causes millions of children to go blind.
This means biotechnology will make its first big contribution to human welfare through food production, not through medical research as most observers expected.
The same genetically engineered rice varieties will also provide hefty amounts of iron to combat iron-deficiency anemia, a characteristic shared by many of the world's 4 billion rice consumers.
This means that the world will have to re-evaluate claims by the environmental group Greenpeace that genetic engineering should be banned because of possible harm to health and ecology.
A team at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich led the breakthrough in rice breeding. The research network included Germany's University of Freiburg, Swiss pharmaceutical firm Hoffman-LaRoche and the International Rice Research Institute in Manila, Philippines.
Funding for the research came primarily from the Rockefeller Foundation, with additional support from the European Commission's agricultural research program, FAIR, in Brussels, Belgium.
This is sadly ironic, since European governments are backpedaling from biotechnology in the face of a media campaign by Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund in Washington to convince European consumers that biotechnology is producing "Frankenstein foods."
The anti-biotech campaign has always run the risk of a biotech innovation coming along that would offer the world something obviously wonderful. With the rice success, that moment clearly has arrived.
The success was greeted with full scientific honors at the International Botanical Congress in St. Louis recently, and is being widely reported in the major scientific journals.
In nature, rice contains no vitamin A or beta carotene, which the human body readily converts to vitamin A. The Swiss researchers inserted four enzymes that convert one of the rice molecules into beta-carotene.
Two of the enzymes were cloned from daffodils at the University of Freiburg, while the Swiss lab took the other two from a bacterium. The researchers could tell when the transformation worked, because the beta carotene literally turned the rice grains golden.
Rice normally contains a molecule called phytate that ties up 95 percent of the iron a person consumes. Overcoming iron deficiency in rice diets requires putting three new genes into the rice plants.
One gene codes for an enzyme called phytase, which breaks down phytate. A second gene codes for an iron-storage protein that doubles the iron level in the rice grains. The third gene provides a sulfur-rich protein to help the human digestive system absorb the iron.
The researchers then hybridized the vitamin A rice and the iron- enriching rice to create one "super set" of plants.
The result of this elegant science is a hybrid rice that could counter both vitamin A and iron deficiencies. This ultra-low cost miracle food would reach millions of poor and rural people who could not be helped through factory-fortified food additives.
The Manila-based Rice Research Institute has taken up the task of crossbreeding the new rice strains into field-ready varieties for farmers.
Gurdev Kush, the institute's chief rice breeder, thinks this can be accomplished in two to three years, if regulators welcome the breakthrough and don't find serious health or environmental dangers.
The real aim of the anti-biotech campaign is hostile regulation. If the "Frankenstein foods" label sticks and spreads across Europe, it could delay the benefits of the science for a decade or more.
Biotechnology is surely the most powerful tool ever put in the hands of agricultural and medical research. Nobody can say, of course, that all biotechnology is "safe"--that depends on what the researchers create. A sound regulatory system is thus vital to consumers and industry alike.
Will European environmental activists try to demonize the "golden rice?" Will the European media simply ignore the humanitarian potential of the science?
Or will the world rejoice in its new power to help poor and malnourished people?
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Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.