The Development of Golden Rice

The following is dense reading, but provides a factual overview of the modern agricultural genetic modification
For list of scientific organisations which regard genetic modification as safe click here

The advancement of genetics in agriculture

The soil bacterium named Bacillus thuringiensis produces a natural insecticide.1 Bt, as it is commonly known, is particularly poisonous to the larvae (caterpillars) of moths and butterflies, which are common pests to a number of important agricultural crops. Until the 1920s the European corn borer and the cotton bollworm caused devastating losses for farmers around the world.

170 million hectares (420 million acres) were planted in 2012,
a 10% increase over 2011. (Clive James 2012)

Since the 1920s Bt has been used to control a number of crop pests and has been particularly favored by organic farmers as it is considered a "natural" insecticide. Bt is commonly used as a spray, and thus affects the larvae of all moths and butterflies in the treated fields. In 1984 a Belgian plant breeding company became the first company to introduce a genetically engineered crop — a tobacco plant with the insecticide from Bt bacteria built into the DNA of the plant. Thus began one of the most important advances in the history of agriculture, the ability to move desirable traits from one species to another directly by transferring DNA. It's ironic that the process started with a tobacco plant, one of the most damaging products of farming.

Genetic engineering (or genetic modification, often called GM, the products being genetically modified organisms, or GMOs) is an entirely organic procedure. In this sense it resembles conventional breeding (sexual reproduction) as it does not require chemicals or radiation to produce changes in the DNA of the product. Genetic modification simply involves moving a small piece of organic DNA from one plant or animal to another. It is very precise in that the DNA that is moved is known to be responsible for expressing the desired trait in the species being modified.

Conventional breeding is a slow and imprecise process. It can take many generations and many failed efforts to finally develop an improved variety of food crop in this way. Some traits simply can't be developed through sexual reproduction. For many decades now, plant breeders have used a couple of shortcuts to develop new varieties without going though the laborious breeding procedure. These are referred to as chemical mutagenesis and nuclear mutagenesis. Both techniques are used to induce mutations in the DNA of crop plants in the hope of generating desirable traits. The vast majority of mutations are useless, detrimental, or even fatal. But on occasion a mutation occurs that improves some aspect of the plant's growth, productivity, resistance to disease, or other factors. It is very much a scattergun approach.

Chemical mutagenesis involves exposing seeds or other parts of a plant to a chemical known to cause mutations in the DNA.2The technique was developed in Russia and the U.K. in the 1940s and became popular in many countries, including Sweden and the United States. Many new seed varieties have been produced by this method and many are used in both conventional and organic farming.

Nuclear mutagenesis uses various forms of radiation, including X-rays, to induce mutations in the DNA. Typically the plants and their seeds are exposed to varying levels of radiation. Some receive a high enough dose that it kills most of the plants, others get such a low dose that very few plants are affected and in between, at a medium dose, some are damaged and others appear normal. At all levels from high to low doses, it is possible a mutation will occur that will make the plant better from an agricultural or nutritional point of view. It takes thousands, even millions of replications but when a desirable trait is generated it is like striking gold.

(Interestingly, organic farmers are not prohibited from using seeds that are genetically modified through nuclear and chemical mutagenesis. These methods are clearly not organic in any way; they involve toxic chemicals and radiation. And yet organic farmers have universally rejected genetic modification that uses only the organic genes themselves, transferred from, say, a corn plant into a rice plant to give the rice the ability to produce beta-carotene, which is essential for good eyesight.)

The first field trial of insect-resistant cotton (Bt cotton) was conducted in the United States in 1990. By 1995 there were one million hectares (2.5 million acres) of GM cotton growing in the U.S., and today there are about four million hectares (10 million acres), or about 90 percent of the cotton grown in the country. American farmers are obviously free to buy cottonseed from whomever they wish. They have chosen to pay considerably more for Bt cottonseed over conventional varieties because reduced need for pesticides and increased yield more than make up for the increase in seed cost. In 1996 Australia followed the U.S. and approved GM cotton for planting. It achieved similar positive results. This early success did not pass unnoticed in the other major cotton-growing countries, including China, India, and Brazil. China, which produces nearly one-third of the world's cotton, adopted GM cotton in 1997. Today 7.1 million Chinese farmers use genetically modified cottonseed as a result of which they get higher yields, improving their standard of living. China has become a leader in research and development of GM varieties. In 2002 it became the first country to establish plantations of GM trees (poplar).3

In the U.S., the Department of Agriculture recently has given ArborGen approval to plant up to 250,000 GM trees in the American south-east.4 Farmers in India, the second largest cotton producer, didn't initially enjoy such a supportive government as their counterparts in China. GM crops were effectively banned in India due to anti-GM campaigns led by Vandana Shiva, a Western-educated feminist who claimed to be defending the "traditional agricultural practices" (characterized by poverty and lack of education) of poor rural farmers. Then, in 2001, 10,000 hectares (25,000 acres) of GM cotton were secretly planted by farmers in the state of Gujarat. By mid-summer, nearby farmers noted the GM cotton plants were healthy and green while the surrounding conventional cotton was brown and damaged by the usual plague of cotton bollworms. The state government became aware of the situation and announced the "illegal" GM cotton would be burned. This annoyed the farmers who organized and figuratively "marched on city hall with their pitchforks" to protest the planned burning. This resulted in the government changing its policy and approving GM cotton. It was first planted in 2002. By 2012 GM cotton was grown on 10.8 million hectares (26.7 million acres), where five million farmers chose to buy GM seeds, mainly from varieties developed in India. India's cotton production has more than doubled since GM cotton was introduced, and the country has gone from a cotton importing nation to a nation that exports about 20 percent of the total harvest. More than 70 million people are employed by this single crop. This amounts to nearly 85 percent of the area of cotton under cultivation in India.5 (Clearly, the anti-GM movement's interpretation of this as a failure of GM technology or a refusal on the part of farmers to adopt these new varieties lacks credibility.)

A similar situation emerged in the Philippines, where the government was afraid to give farmers permission to plant insect-resistant GM corn even though they wanted to do so to rid their crops of the devastation caused by the corn borer. In 2002 Greenpeace warned that planting "toxic" GM corn "would result in millions of dead bodies, sick children, cancer clusters and deformities."6 They held a hunger strike for 29 days, finally calling it off on May 22, 2003, when it became clear that the government would allow farmers to plant GM corn because its top scientific advisors had recommended it do so. By 2009 400,000 hectares (one million acres) of land had been planted with GM corn.

In Brazil, Greenpeace succeeded in getting a judgment from a tribunal in 1999 to prevent the sale of GM soybeans. The government hesitated to step in, as it was typically sensitive to the high-profile attacks on GM foods. Meanwhile farmers in Argentina began to grow GM soybeans in 1996. By 1997 there were more than a million hectares (2.5 million acres) dedicated to producing these soybeans. As Brazil and Argentina share a common border it was not long before truckloads of GM soybean seeds were hauled from Argentina to Brazil, where farmers were eager to benefit from their higher yields. Thus began a long battle between farmers, Greenpeace and its allies, the courts and the government over the legality of GM crops.

As of 2009 more than two-thirds of the Brazilian soybean area was planted with GM varieties. In Argentina, 95 percent of the soybean area is GM, while in the U.S. 85 percent is GM. Between them, the U.S., Brazil, and Argentina produce nearly 90 percent of the world's soybeans.

By the end of 2012 there were 25 countries growing GM crops on 170 million hectares (420 million acres), considerably more than the total annual harvested cropland in the United States.7 8 This is an incredible accomplishment given that the first commercial GM crops were established only 15 years ago.

The adoption of GM varieties has been an uphill battle on the part of farmers around the world. The anti-GM folks attempt to depict farmers as gullible dupes, who are forced by Monsanto and other "seed giants" to buy GM seeds, thus destroying their "traditional agricultural practices." This is untrue. Farmers are free to buy seed from whomever they wish. If they wish, they can start their own seed company. In the name of "free choice," activists have worked to deny farmers the choice by campaigning to make GM illegal. They were particularly successful with this approach in Europe, where incidences of mad-cow disease and chemical contamination have sensitized the public to food scares. European agriculture is shaped more by social policy than by economic necessity. Farmers are paid not to grow food, as there is a regional surplus. Those who do grow food receive large subsidies. So European farmers do not have much incentive to improve their yields or profits.

The European Union (EU) established a de facto moratorium on GM crops in 1998, citing the precautionary principle and unspecified threats to human health and the environment. This caused many countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America to place bans on growing GM crops for fear their food exports to Europe would be embargoed. In 2005 the EU lifted the moratorium, but many restrictions remain in place and a number of EU countries are defying the decision. The fear of GM crops in Europe, where there is a surplus of food, has serious impacts on developing countries, where food shortages and nutritional deficiencies are common. This is where the campaign against genetic modification has done real harm. Whereas the big money crops have been able to power through the pressure groups and adopt many improved varieties, the traits that would improve nutrition for hundreds of millions of people in the developing countries do not have as much economic muscle behind them.9

 

The Development of Golden Rice

The most serious nutritional problems in the world stem from micronutrient deficiencies. Most people, unless they live in a zone of conflict or disaster, get enough calories (energy) from carbohydrates in the form of sugar, starch, and oils. People suffering from nutrient deficiencies are lacking key minerals, vitamins, and amino acids. Among the main micronutrient deficiencies are iron (especially in women), vitamin A, vitamin E, and certain amino acids that make up proteins. Most of this deficiency occurs in the rice-eating cultures of Asia and Africa because rice has so few nutrients other than starch. The cultures that get their carbohydrates from wheat, potatoes, and corn rarely lack micronutrients because those crops are richer in vitamins and minerals.

About two billion people eat rice as their primary supply of carbohydrates for energy. Most of these people are healthy because they can afford a variety of foods, including greens, fruits, and vegetables that provide them with the necessary vitamins, minerals, and protein. But the World Health Organization estimates that 124 million people suffer from a vitamin A deficiency and one to two million die each year from this deficiency. It is therefore about as deadly as malaria and HIV/AIDS. The deficiency results in 250,000 and 500,000 irreversible cases of blindness annually, mainly in children, half of whom die within a year of becoming blind.10 Most of these people live in urban slums where poverty restricts their diet to a daily ration of rice.

In 1992, as molecular biologists were beginning to succeed with recombinant DNA technology, which would eventually become known as genetic engineering,11 12 two humanitarian scientists set to work in Switzerland. Dr. Ingo Potrykus13 of the Institute of Plant Sciences at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and Dr. Peter Beyer14 of the University of Freiburg were aware of the tragedy of vitamin A deficiency. For eight years they worked in their labs to engineer a rice plant that would solve this problem. In 2000 they published an article in the journal Science that indicated they had created a variety of rice containing beta-carotene, the precursor to vitamin A.15They did this by inserting a gene from corn into the rice's DNA, the gene that gives corn its bright yellow color. The yellow color in daffodils, corn, and mangoes, and the orange color in carrots, yams, and pumpkins are caused by the presence of beta-carotene. The addition of beta-carotene to rice gives it a golden color and provides enough of the nutrient to prevent vitamin A deficiency and blindness.

The invention of Golden Rice was hailed as a great breakthrough in the fight against malnutrition. Time magazine carried a cover photo of Dr. Potrykus posing beside Golden Rice plants with the headline, "This Rice Could Save a Million Kids a Year." The subheading carried the ominous warning: "But protestors believe such genetically modified foods are bad for us and our planet." Thus began the campaign, led by Greenpeace, to discredit both Golden Rice and its inventors. Greenpeace dubbed Golden Rice "fool's gold" and claimed you would have to eat nine kilos of it to get enough Vitamin A to prevent blindness.16 This was untrue, but was picked up by media around the world and a negative tone was soon established. Dr. Potrykus found himself having to defend his invention against these accusations. Greenpeace threatened to "rip the rice from the ground" if anyone dared plant it. They claimed that Golden Rice was a front for multinationals like Monsanto who were using it to gain control the seed industry.17

Dr. Potrykus and his colleagues found it very difficult to win approval for Golden Rice in the countries where vitamin A deficiency was most severe. The anti-GM movement had succeeded in erecting resistance to approval even for field trials. They decided to form an organization, the Humanitarian Golden Rice Project, and to recruit support from key organizations. These include HarvestPlus (which in turn is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the World Bank), the Swiss Development and Collaboration Agency, USAID, and the Syngenta Foundation, together with local research institutes and several nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), including the Rockefeller Foundation and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI).18

The Project set out to obtain rights to the numerous patents involved in creating Golden Rice. It was decided that when the rice became available it would be given free to farmers in developing countries who earned less than US$10,000 per year. Then began the arduous work of steering the rice through the regulatory process in key countries.

Research Trials with Golden Rice

The presence of Beta-carotene - the source of Vitamin A - gives Golden Rice its hue.

It was not until 2004 that the first field trial was conducted in Louisiana, which proved Golden Rice produced sufficient beta-carotene under farm conditions. Then in
2005, with the help of the Syngenta Foundation, a new variety of Golden Rice was produced that contained 23 times as much beta-carotene as the original strain. This, along with studies on human uptake of beta-carotene from Golden Rice, now provides proof Golden Rice will be effective in preventing vitamin A deficiency with a cup of rice per day.19

In 2006, The Food Allergy Resource and Research Program of the University of Nebraska undertook research that showed the proteins from the new genes in Golden Rice did not show any allergenic properties.20

In 2008 the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation chose to support the effort with significant grants to the International Rice research Foundation.

In 2009, research results of a clinical trial of Golden Rice with adult volunteers from the USA, was published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. It concluded that "beta carotene derived from Golden Rice is effectively converted to vitamin A in humans".21 In a summary about the research the American Society for Nutrition suggests the implications of the research are that "Golden Rice could probably supply 50% of the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) of vitamin A from a very modest amount — perhaps a cup — of rice, if consumed daily. This amount is well within the consumption habits of most young children and their mothers".22

In 2012, Joint American and Chinese scientists published new research on Golden Rice in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showing that the beta carotene produced by Golden Rice is as good as beta carotene in oil at providing vitamin A to children.23

A list of significant Golden Rice publications and presentations can be found here. 


Footnotes


1. "Bacillus thuringiensis," Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bacillus_thuringiensis
2. A. T. Natarajan, "Chemical Mutagenesis: From Plants to Humans," Current Science 89, no. 2 (25 July 2005)
3. "Cultivation of Bt Poplars in China: Seeing Once Is Better Than Studying a Thousand Times," GMO Safety, July 6, 2005,
4. "ArborGen Approved to Test GM Trees," Environmental Leader, June 10, 2010,
5. "India's GM Cotton Plantation Seen Rising," Reuters, February 18, 2009,
6. Prakash Sadashivappa, "Bt Cotton in India: Development of Benefits and the Role of Government Seed Price Interventions,"
7. "Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops: 2012." ISAAA, 2013,
8. Marlow Vesterby, Kenneth S. Krupa, Ruben N. Lubowski, "Estimating U.S. Cropland Area," Amber Waves, July 2006,
9. Pamela C. Ronald and James E. McWilliams, "Genetically Engineered Distortions," New York Times, May 14, 2010
10. J. H. Humphrey, K. P. West Jr, and A. Sommer, "Vitamin A Deficiency and Attributable Mortality...," WHO Bulletin 70, no. 2, (1992)
11. "Genetic Engineering,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genetic_engineering
12. The term genetic engineering was first used by Jack Williamson in the science fiction novel, two years before the discovery of DNA.
13."Prof Ingo Potrykus,” goldenrice.org
14."Prof Peter Beyer,” goldenrice.org
15."Beta-Carotene," Wikipedia
16. "Golden Rice: All Glitter, No Gold,” Greenpeace International, March 15, 2005
17. Michael Fumento, "Golden Rice: A Golden Chance for the Underdeveloped World,” American Outlook, July–August 2001
18. "Golden Rice Is Part of the Solution," goldenrice.org
19. "Almost Everything You Wanted to Know About Golden Rice,"goldenrice.org
20. Bioinformatic analysis of proteins in Golden Rice 2 to assess potential allergenic cross-reactivity. Preliminary Report, U. Nebraska
21. Golden Rice is an effective source of vitamin A, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2009;89:1776–83.
22. American Society of Nutrition: Researchers Determine That Golden Rice Is an Effective Source of Vitamin A
23. Beta carotene in Golden Rice is as good as beta carotene in oil at providing vitamin A to children, Tufts University