In A Grain Of Golden Rice, A World Of Controversy Over GMO Foods

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There’s a kind of rice growing in some test plots in the Philippines that’s unlike any rice ever seen before. It’s yellow. Its backers call it “golden rice.” It’s been genetically modified so that it contains beta-carotene, the source of vitamin A.

Millions of people in Asia and Africa don’t get enough of this vital nutrient, so this rice has become the symbol of an idea: that genetically engineered crops can be a tool to improve the lives of the poor.

It’s a statement that rouses emotions and sets off fierce arguments. There’s a raging, global debate about such crops.

But before we get to that debate, and the role that golden rice plays in it, let’s travel back in time to golden rice’s origins.

It began with a conversation in 1984.

The science of biotechnology was in its infancy at this point. There were no genetically engineered crops yet. Scientists were just figuring out how to find genes and move them between different organisms.

Some people at the Rockefeller Foundation thought that these techniques might be useful for giving farmers in poor countries a bigger harvest.

So they set up a meeting at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), in the Philippines, to talk about this.

Gary Toenniessen, who was in charge of the foundation’s biotechnology program at the time, says that a lot of people at this meeting were very skeptical about biotechnology. They were plant breeders, masters of the traditional way to improve crops.

Written By: Dan Charles
continue to source article at npr.org

19 COMMENTS

  1. @link – For instance, consider what happened just a few months ago. Some U.S.-funded researchers published the results of a nutritional study showing that people’s bodies easily absorb the beta-carotene in golden rice. They’d carried out that study among children in China.

    The result seemed like great news. But the environmental group Greenpeace immediately called it a scandal.

    “People are angry, really furious about these tests, using Chinese children as guinea pigs,” says Wang Jing, a campaigner for Greenpeace in China.

    The Chinese government reacted quickly. It punished three Chinese co-authors of the study, removing them from their jobs.

    In a report on the case, Chinese authorities say that the researchers didn’t get all the approvals they needed before carrying out the study. Also, the researchers told the children, and their parents, that this was a special kind of rice high in beta-carotene, but they didn’t always say it was genetically modified.

    “They actually hid the fact that golden rice is a genetically modified crop,” says Wang.

    If proper regulatory supervision was bypassed, the Chinese authorities are right to take action, – as they did with the poison baby-milk scandal.

    But before farmers can get their hands on golden rice, government regulators in each country need to agree that it’s safe.

    Later this year, the network of golden rice researchers will apply for approval in the Philippines. After that, they’ll do the same in Bangladesh.

    Much as the inclusion of this vitamin could be of benefit, proper testing for safety and possible environmental problems need to be carried out and properly evaluated.

    These two countries would not be my first choice as places where governments are noted for top class science and safety records, following what looks like a cowboy operation in China!

    http://gmwatch.org/latest-listing/51-2012/14157-alarm-at-us-backed-gm-food-trial-on-chinese-children

    Greenpeace alarmed at US-backed GE food trial on Chinese children

    Greenpeace International, 29 August 2012

    Beijing – Greenpeace International has expressed alarm at a recent scientific publication (1) that suggests researchers, backed by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) (2), fed genetically engineered (GE) Golden Rice to 24 children (3) in China aged between six and eight years old.

    This study could not have taken place without a serious breach of scientific and medical ethics, and goes against a Chinese government decision to abort plans for the trial. It would be a scandal of international proportions if it is true that this trial, supported by the USDA, exposed children in China to genetically modified rice that had not yet been tested on animals.

    In response to this alarming news, Fang Lifeng, Sustainable Agriculture Campaigner at Greenpeace East Asia, said:

    “It is incredibly disturbing to think that an American research body used Chinese children as guinea pigs for genetically engineered food, despite a clear directive against this very experiment issued by Chinese authorities in 2008.

    “How did these researchers apparently by-pass this emphatic decision? More importantly, did the children’s parents fully understand the potential risks that this trial was exposing their children to?”

    In 2008 Greenpeace East Asia first heard of this experiment and immediately informed the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture. The Ministry confirmed with Greenpeace that no Golden Rice had been imported and the trial had been stopped; however these new findings reveal that not to be the case.

    The relevance of this study is questionable, as it tested the conversion of pro-Vitamin A from Golden Rice in the bodies of healthy, well-nourished children – not the target population of malnourished children, whose bodies might not in fact react similarly. Nor does high conversion rate solve all the technical, environmental and ethical issues around Golden Rice.

    • In reply to #1 by Alan4discussion:

      These two countries would not be my first choice as places where governments are noted for top class science and safety records, following what looks like a cowboy operation in China!

      Cowboy operation is exactly the term. Their stem cell industry is off the hook. I can basically go there, get injected with stem cells and just see what happens. Maybe I’ll grow a tail, or hemorrhage at the eyes. If it goes bad they just harvest the viable organs and throw the rest in a soylent green vat.

      I take this quaint pretense about ethics as a sign that the crop is finally getting out of the development stage. The way it’s been spoken of I expected its release a decade ago, but of all the GenMod crops so haphazardly released into the environment, this one has taken a long time to hit the market.

      • In reply to #4 by This Is Not A Meme:

        In reply to #1 by Alan4discussion:

        I take this quaint pretense about ethics as a sign that the crop is finally getting out of the development stage. The way it’s been spoken of I expected its release a decade ago, but of all the GenMod crops so haphazardly released into the environment, this one has taken a long time to hit the market.

        You are mistaken. According to the article the first breakthrough genetic insertion was in ’99, which was then enhanced a few years later.

        On average these days, it takes over 10 years and $100M + to get a GM crop “haphazardly released into the environment”.

        Assuming the crop which is seeking approval was the latter mentioned (a few years after ’99) 10 or so years is not so long for this type of approval; a decade ago (~0-4 years after successful modification) would have been ridiculous (even though I believe the approval process which has been made longer and more expensive by lobbyists is too arduous).

        Don’t believe the frankenfood mythconceptions, the world needs to be fed!

        • In reply to #7 by kathol:

          In reply to #4 by This Is Not A Meme:

          In reply to #1 by Alan4discussion:

          I take this quaint pretense about ethics as a sign that the crop is finally getting out of the development stage. The way it’s been spoken of I expected its release a decade ago, but of all the GenMod crops so haphazardly released into the environment, this one has taken a long time to hit the market.

          You are mistaken. According to the article the first breakthrough genetic insertion was in ’99, which was then enhanced a few years later.

          On average these days, it takes over 10 years and $100M + to get a GM crop “haphazardly released into the environment”.

          Assuming the crop which is seeking approval was the latter mentioned (a few years after ’99) 10 or so years is not so long for this type of approval; a decade ago (~0-4 years after successful modification) would have been ridiculous (even though I believe the approval process which has been made longer and more expensive by lobbyists is too arduous).

          Don’t believe the frankenfood mythconceptions, the world needs to be fed!

          When we can gen mod in the basement and plant in our own yard the regs won’t matter. My red peas are coming along nicely.

  2. “There were no genetically engineered crops yet.”
    I beg to differ. Since the dawning of agriculture, there has been genetic modifications to crops. Hell, Mendel’s famous pea pods were genetically modified. Selecting certain plants for specific traits, that would not otherwise likely occur naturally and is therefore genetic modification… I guess I’m arguing over terminology here, but I’m sick of hearing the rich organic food crowd complaining about GM foods while poor people starve worldwide… It’s real easy to whine about GM when your belly is full. Ask “the starving children in Africa” how they feel about GM foods…

    • In reply to #3 by Prime8:

      “There were no genetically engineered crops yet.” I beg to differ. Since the dawning of agriculture, there has been genetic modifications to crops. Hell, Mendel’s famous pea pods were genetically modified. Selecting certain plants for specific traits, that would not otherwise likely occur naturally and is therefore genetic modification… I guess I’m arguing over terminology here, but I’m sick of hearing the rich organic food crowd complaining about GM foods while poor people starve worldwide… It’s real easy to whine about GM when your belly is full. Ask “the starving children in Africa” how they feel about GM foods…

      You are absolutely right in every respect. I’m about to email this article to a number of “organic” food people; who the hell has ever eaten inorganic food?

      Where do people think the money for R and D materializes from?

      Can someone please remind me of the name of the American Geneticist who pioneered this work in the nineteen thirties. He was of German extraction I think, and still fighting to get the products recognized until his death last year in his nineties.

      His daughter is now promoting GM foods I believe.

    • Yes, it does, and there is no need for expensive saffron, so two benefits there right away, not that the poor consumers would worry about the colour too much.

      In reply to #5 by Peter Grant:

      Looks yummy! I’ve been excited about GM food for a while now.

  3. Unfortunately the waters get somewhat muddied by the likes of Monsanto creating GM crops to allow for greater use of hebicides (round up resistant crops) don’t wait between crops just spray it over the crop. etc. Is it possible to have some sort of sterile crops so at least until we can be sure we don’t realise some poorly considered gene combinations into the environment each crop is single generation? This would remove much of the concern over releasing the genes into the environment.

    Having said that I agree with Prime8 all our crops and livestock have been significantly altered by humans and it is hypocrisy to label GM as bad and not do the same for artificial selection. However, cross species hybrids are rare (although notably wheat is a hybrid). GM allows us to swap genes from animal to plant and visa versa, precautionary principle should apply here.

    • In reply to #8 by Reckless Monkey:

      Unfortunately the waters get somewhat muddied by the likes of Monsanto creating GM crops to allow for greater use of hebicides (round up resistant crops) don’t wait between crops just spray it over the crop. etc. Is it possible to have some sort of sterile crops so at least until we can be sure we don’t realise some poorly considered gene combinations into the environment each crop is single generation? This would remove much of the concern over releasing the genes into the environment.

      Monsanto’s Round up Ready and other mods actually allow for the use of LESS chemical herbicides, pesticides and fungicides by making such products more effective and efficient. As i mentioned in a previous post, the approval process is very (imo too) arduous so the likelyhood of releasing poorly considered variants is not very high.. As well many GM crop variants actually do have kill genes in them so they only last 2 generations. A good example of controls in place is GM salmon which are in fact made to be sterile. There are concerns about GM however most are not founded in truth and science, but in hype, lies, propaganda, and fear.

      Having said that I agree with Prime8 all our crops and livestock have been significantly altered by humans and it is hypocrisy to label GM as bad and not do the same for artificial selection. However, cross species hybrids are rare (although notably wheat is a hybrid). GM allows us to swap genes from animal to plant and visa versa, precautionary principle should apply here.

      Plant/animal GM is not practiced. In most cases the gene sequences inserted are from the same species or close relatives (GM salmon inserted genes from Chinook to Atlantic salmon as well as inserting a gene from the ocean pout, a close relative, to turn the Chinook gene on).

      I went to a seminar put on by CFI Canada by Dr. Cami Ryan, who does agricultural research for the U. of Saskatchewan, about a month ago and it really turned me on to the subject. I highly recommend her wordpress page, it is full of great info (by herself and other agg. experts) and debunks a lot of the gross misinformation on GM which seems to prevail in society due to the fear factor which is capitalized on by people wanting to be famous, sell books, claim donations, etc…

  4. .. poorly considered gene combinations…

    That’s one of the key worries of those unenthusiastic about GM, in a nutshell.

    It’s deceptive to equate GM with traditional breeding/hybridization processes. If they were really equivalent there would be no point in doing GM. The point, surely, is to go places where older methods can’t go. And it’s those places where the worry lies.

    Cowboy practices in the trials don’t bode well for the level of “consideration” given at every other step along the way.

    • In reply to #12 by OHooligan:

      .. poorly considered gene combinations…

      That’s one of the key worries of those unenthusiastic about GM, in a nutshell.

      It’s deceptive to equate GM with traditional breeding/hybridization processes. If they were really equivalent there would be no point in doing GM. The point, surely, is to go places where older methods can’t go. And it’s those places where the worry lies.

      Cowboy practices in the trials don’t bode well for the level of “consideration” given at every other step along the way.

      People don’t “equate” them, if by that you mean they assume a high or total correlation between the two ideas. It’s an analogy about what the two achieve. It’s just that GM foods and artificially selected stock are the same in at least one particular: both simply come down to genetic mutations. A food item couldn’t care less whether or not a particular gene came about via a copying error in its gamete or via a geneticist putting it there. The gene will just code for a protein regardless, and it’s the differences between it and an allele that matter. GM is certainly different in that direct as opposed to indirect human intervention is involved, but it can be safely called an acceleration of what happens naturally anyway.

      Sure, there are ramifications about how the mutation changes the organism during growth and development, and how the local ecology would be affected by its introduction, but it should attract no more controversy than if someone suddenly found a green carrot in their garden and it was traced back to a mutated gene. Both food stocks should be tested to make sure they’re safe for human consumption, and people should organize the introduction while taking care not to damage local ecosystems with their practices.

      In summary, what’s wrong with GMs is not that they are GMs, but that they will likely be misused by unscrupulous businesses who care more for profits than for safety measures. A GM crop might also encourage further population explosions by creating more food per acre of land to support the increase, which is precisely what we don’t want.

      • In reply to #13 by Zeuglodon:

        Sure, there are ramifications about how the mutation changes the organism during growth and development, and how the local ecology would be affected by its introduction, but it should attract no more controversy than if someone suddenly found a green carrot in their garden and it was traced back to a mutated gene.

        Both food stocks should be tested to make sure they’re safe for human consumption, and people should organize the introduction while taking care not to damage local ecosystems with their practices.

        Genes for beta-carotene. – Funny you should mention carrots! I don’t know if you know their history!

        It is quite interesting anyway!

        http://www.carrotmuseum.co.uk/history3.html

        Nearly all the botanists and writers on gardening, all over Europe, were familiar with the carrot and were describing many kinds, including red and purple kinds in France and yellow and red kinds in England. Daucus came to be the official name in the sixteenth century, and was adopted by Linnaeus in the eighteenth century. It is thought that for the first few hundred years of its managed cultivation, carrot roots were predominantly purple.

        The Orange Carrot Arrives . . . .. Alt Text – Wild Carrot alongside domesticated carrot.

        A tale, probably apocryphal, has it that the orange carrot was bred in the Netherlands in the sixteenth century to honour William of Orange. Though the stabilised orange carrot does date from around this period in the Netherlands, it is unlikely that honouring William of Orange had anything to do with it! It is said, (without much historical reference) that the orange carrot was developed in Holland as a tribute to William I of Orange during the Dutch fight for independence from Spain in the 16th century. The orange carrot, not only had a better taste, did not leech its colour into cookware, but also had beta carotene making it healthier, and so all other carrots stopped being planted. Some astute historian managed to install the myth that the work an unexpected mutation was developed especially to thank William of Orange for achieving independence from Spain.Not true!

        It is considered that Dutch growers developed the vegetable by selective breeding, probably from a natural mutant, to make it less bitter than the yellow varieties, and then it was adopted it as the Royal vegetable in honour of the House of Orange. The King at the time was William of Orange (1533–84), also known as William the Silent who led the revolt to gain independence from Spain.

        • In reply to #14 by Alan4discussion:

          In reply to #13 by Zeuglodon:

          Sure, there are ramifications about how the mutation changes the organism during growth and development, and how the local ecology would be affected by its introduction, but it should attract no more controversy than if someone suddenly found a green carrot in their garden and it was traced back to a mutated gene.

          Both food stocks should be tested to make sure they’re safe for human consumption, and people should organize the introduction while taking care not to damage local ecosystems with their practices.

          Genes for beta-carotene. – Funny you should mention carrots! I don’t know if you know their history!

          It is quite interesting anyway!

          http://www.carrotmuseum.co.uk/history3.html

          Nearly all the botanists and writers on gardening, all over Europe, were familiar with the carrot and were describing many kinds, including red and purple kinds in France and yellow and red kinds in England. Daucus came to be the official name in the sixteenth century, and was adopted by Linnaeus in the eighteenth century. It is thought that for the first few hundred years of its managed cultivation, carrot roots were predominantly purple.

          The Orange Carrot Arrives . . . .. – Wild Carrot alongside domesticated carrot.

          A tale, probably apocryphal, has it that the orange carrot was bred in the Netherlands in the sixteenth century to honour William of Orange. Though the stabilised orange carrot does date from around this period in the Netherlands, it is unlikely that honouring William of Orange had anything to do with it! It is said, (without much historical reference) that the orange carrot was developed in Holland as a tribute to William I of Orange during the Dutch fight for independence from Spain in the 16th century. The orange carrot, not only had a better taste, did not leech its colour into cookware, but also had beta carotene making it healthier, and so all other carrots stopped being planted. Some astute historian managed to install the myth that the work an unexpected mutation was developed especially to thank William of Orange for achieving independence from Spain.Not true!

          It is considered that Dutch growers developed the vegetable by selective breeding, probably from a natural mutant, to make it less bitter than the yellow varieties, and then it was adopted it as the Royal vegetable in honour of the House of Orange. The King at the time was William of Orange (1533–84), also known as William the Silent who led the revolt to gain independence from Spain.

          Yes, I’ve come across the tale before. When I first encountered it, I admit I was more surprised than I should have been to learn that carrots weren’t always orange.

          Admittedly, I picked the carrot partly as an allusion to that story, because that orange carrot would almost certainly have been a genetic mutant. As far as I can tell, no one was screaming about the evils of orange carrots or destroying crops because they thought orange carrots were “unnatural”. The main reason I put up the hypothetical green carrot – apart from green being a nauseating colour that would make most people think twice before eating it – was because if I’d said “orange” carrot, some people wouldn’t know the reference.

      • In reply to #13 by Zeuglodon:

        what’s wrong with GMs is not that they are GMs

        Agreed. As has been noted elsewhere, it doesn’t require GM to unleash unintended damage to the environment. For examples, consider rabbits and cane toads in Australia, gorse and possums in New Zealand, grey squirrels in England.

  5. This seems once again an example of unscientific hysteria on the part of the anti-GMO crowd. The Chinese parents weren’t told about the “risks” of the beta-carotene rice? What risks might those be? That is about as risky as giving the kids a carrot or a beet, vegetables also containing beta-cartene. And then the Greenpeace article complains the modified rice in the study was fed to rich kids, not poor ones. They are arguing out of both sides of their mouths. The GM rice is “risky” but it should have been fed to poor kids to really test whether it’s any good. Amazing.

    • In reply to #17 by prietenul:

      This seems once again an example of unscientific hysteria on the part of the anti-GMO crowd. The Chinese parents weren’t told about the “risks” of the beta-carotene rice? What risks might those be?

      They are not talking about adding beta-carotene to some culinary recipe! They are talking about adding genes to a living plant, which can have all sorts of other undesirable health and environmental effects. Added genes have multiple roles and do not just code for someone’s pet chosen beneficial properties.

      That is about as risky as giving the kids a carrot or a beet, vegetables also containing beta-cartene.

      .. But only in the unscientific minds of those who do not know cookery from genetic engineering!

      And then the Greenpeace article complains the modified rice in the study was fed to rich kids, not poor ones.

      You really should have read the article. Greenpeace said it should have been tested on animals first, that medical ethics and legal requirements should have been followed, and that the parents should have been asked for INFORMED CONSENT at an appropriate stage in the testing AFTER animal tests had shown it to be safe for a trial on humans.

      They are arguing out of both sides of their mouths. The GM rice is “risky” but it should have been fed to poor kids to really test whether it’s any good. Amazing.

      They did not say it should be fed to poor kids at this stage. They said the conclusions were suspect because the tests had not compared like with like.

      Nobody is suggesting that GM or new drugs are undesirable, but the sort of cowboy operations which brought us Thalidomide * etc should not be allowed.

      *Thalidomide – http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/broughttolife/themes/controversies/thalidomide.aspx

      The thalidomide disaster is one of the darkest episodes in pharmaceutical research history. The drug was marketed as a mild sleeping pill safe even for pregnant women. However, it caused thousands of babies worldwide to be born with malformed limbs. The damage was revealed in 1962.

      Before then, every new drug was seen as beneficial.

      Now there was suspicion and rigorous testing.

      There are many lessons to be learned from history, and the proper testing for safety of food and medical products is on the list in civilised countries!

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