News / Health

Thousands Blind for Want of GM Rice?

Co-creator of Golden Rice says regulations stall crop that could save sight and lives

The vitamin A precursor beta carotene gives Golden Rice its color.
The vitamin A precursor beta carotene gives Golden Rice its color.

Multimedia

Audio

Excessive regulation of genetically modified crops has delayed release of a variety of rice that could help reduce the leading cause of preventable blindness in children, according to an editorial published in the British journal Nature.

Vitamin A is essential for vision and a healthy immune system. The World Health Organization estimates that at least 250,000 children go blind each year from vitamin A deficiency, and half of them die within a year of losing their sight.

Rice doesn't naturally contain this essential nutrient. That's why vitamin A deficiency is so common in parts of Africa and Southeast Asia, where rice is the mainstay of the diet.

Making rice golden

To tackle the problem, researchers took genes involved in producing beta carotene, a vitamin A precursor, from other plant species and inserted them into rice. It gives the rice grains a yellow-orange color, and their name: Golden Rice.

When the project began in 1990, it was considered unlikely to succeed, says Golden Rice's co-inventor, Ingo Potrykus, a retired professor of plant sciences at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology.

Flowers of a rice plant producing beta carotene
Flowers of a rice plant producing beta carotene

"It was considered far too ambitious because you had to transfer an unknown number of genes — at least six different genes — into rice. At that time people were happy to transfer a single gene."

Potrykus says they had succeeded by 1999, but it will be 2012 at the earliest before Golden Rice is available to people who need it. He blames the delay on excessive regulation. He says an unreasonable amount of testing has been required, without scientific justificiation.

'Death and blindness'

"I therefore hold the regulation of genetic engineering responsible for the death and blindness of thousands of children and young mothers," he writes in the Nature editorial.

Potrykus wants the regulations changed because research institutes around the world are working on other important GM crops besides Golden Rice that could also help feed people in the developing world. However, he says, because bringing them to market takes 10 years longer and costs 10 times as much as a conventional crop, these crops are languishing on the shelves. He says now that some GM crops have been grown successfully for more than a decade, it's time to loosen the restrictions.

"Despite claims of high risk of this material," he says, "there is not a single documented case of harm to any environment or any consumer."

'Scientific garbage'

Doug Gurian-Sherman, with the environmental group the Union of Concerned Scientists, calls that argument "scientific garbage." He says you can't say GM crops are safe because no one's really done a large-scale epidemiological study to see how people's bodies respond to them. He says they may very well be safe. But that won't be clear until they are tested.

"Potrykus' argument is like saying, 'Well, we've got these wonder drugs that could cure AIDS or cure malaria or cure whatever," says Gurian-Sherman, "but let's not do any testing on them because there's people suffering in the meantime.'"

Gurian-Sherman says one reason Golden Rice needs to be tested for safety is because vitamin A and its chemical relatives can be toxic at high levels.

Carrot poisoning

Others don't see that as a convincing argument.

"It's like saying if you ate too many carrots you could get vitamin A poisoning. It just doesn't happen," says Howarth Bouis, director of a project called Harvest Plus, which is working to breed more nutritious crops for the developing world.

Bouis is on the board of the Golden Rice project. But he says Harvest Plus decided to stay away from using GM technology because regulations would slow progress.

"I think we're going to make some good progress with conventional breeding that we couldn't have made with transgenics simply because of the regulatory systems in place."

For example, researchers are developing vitamin A-rich maize using conventional breeding. While regulators require extensive testing on GM Golden Rice, the new fortified maize varieties won't raise an eyebrow.

Doug Gurian-Sherman of the Union of Concerned Scientists says GM technology is inherently more costly and time-consuming than conventional breeding. He would prefer to see more of the limited resources available for agriculture research spent on conventional means of tackling malnutrition.  But if tests show Golden Rice is safe and effective, he says it should be considered.

The question will be, how much testing is enough?

You May Like

China’s Influence Grows With New Infrastructure Bank

Multibillion-dollar China-backed and BRICS-supported Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank seen as possible challenger to such lenders as IMF, World Bank More

Video Rabbi Hits Road to Heal Jewish-Muslim Relations in France

Rabbi Michel Serfaty makes the rounds in his friendship bus to encourage dialogue and break down barriers between the two groups More

Post-deal Iran Leaders Need 'Economic Momentum' to Solidify Power Base

Economists say deal could inject more than $100 billion into coffers - not enough to entirely rescue ailing economy - but maybe adequate to create 'economic momentum' More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
US Gay Marriage Ruling Yields Real-life Impacti
X
Michael Bowman
June 28, 2015 10:05 PM
Friday’s landmark Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage throughout the United States is an outcome few thought possible just years ago, and shows a nation that increasingly tolerates and even celebrates the hopes and aspirations of gay people. VOA’s Michael Bowman spoke to a same-sex couple that will benefit from the high court ruling, and to a Christian scholar who is apprehensive about its potential consequences for America’s faith community.
Video

Video US Gay Marriage Ruling Yields Real-life Impact

Friday’s landmark Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage throughout the United States is an outcome few thought possible just years ago, and shows a nation that increasingly tolerates and even celebrates the hopes and aspirations of gay people. VOA’s Michael Bowman spoke to a same-sex couple that will benefit from the high court ruling, and to a Christian scholar who is apprehensive about its potential consequences for America’s faith community.
Video

Video Syrians Flee IS Advance in Hasaka

The Syrian government said Monday it has taken back one of several districts in Hasaka overrun by Islamic State militants. But continued fighting elsewhere in the northern city has forced thousands of civilians from their homes. In this report narrated by Bill Rodgers, VOA Kurdish Service reporter Zana Omer describes the scene in Amouda, where some of the displaced are taking refuge.
Video

Video Rabbi Hits Road to Heal Jewish-Muslim Relations in France

France is on high alert after last week's terrorist attack near the city Lyon, just six months after deadly Paris shootings. The attack have added new tensions to relations between French Jews and Muslims. France’s Jewish and Muslim communities also share a common heritage, though, and as far as one French rabbi is concerned, they are destined to be friends. From the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, Lisa Bryant reports about Rabbi Michel Serfaty and his friendship bus.
Video

Video S. Korea Christians Protest Gay Rights Festival

The U.S. Supreme Court decision mandating marriage equality nationwide has energized gay rights supporters around the world. Gay rights remain a highly contentious issue in a key U.S. ally, South Korea, where police did a deft job Sunday of preventing potential clashes between Christian protesters and gay activists. Kurt Achin reports from Seoul.
Video

Video Saudi Leaks Expose ‘Checkbook Diplomacy’ In Battle With Iran

Saudi Arabia’s willingness to wield its oil money on the global diplomatic stage appears to have been laid bare, after the website WikiLeaks published tens of thousands of leaked cables from Riyadh’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Nubians in Kenya Face Land Challenges

East Africa's ethnic Nubians have a rich cultural history that dates back thousands of years, but in Kenya they are facing hardships, including the loss of lands they have lived on for generations. They say the government has reneged on its pledge to award them title deeds for the plots. VOA's Lenny Ruvaga reports.
Video

Video Syrian Refugees Return to Tal Abyad

Syrian refugees in Turkey confirm they left their hometown of Tal Abyad because of intense fighting and coalition airstrikes, not because Kurdish fighters were engaged in ethnic cleansing, as some Turkish officials charged. VOA Kurdish Service reporter Zana Omer, in Tal Abyad, finds that civilians coming back to the town agree, as we hear in this report narrated by Roger Wilkison.
Video

Video Military Experts Question New Russian Tank Capabilities

Russia has been showing off its new tank design – the Armata T-14. Designers claim it is 20 years ahead of current Western designs - and driving it feels like playing a computer game. But military analysts question those assertions, and warn the cost could be too heavy a burden for Russia’s struggling economy. Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video In Kenya, Police Said to Shoot First, Ask Questions Later

An organization that documents torture and extrajudicial killings says Kenyan police were responsible for 1,252 shooting deaths in five cities, including Nairobi, between 2009 and 2014, representing 67 percent of all gun deaths in the areas reviewed. Gabe Joselow has more from Nairobi.
Video

Video In Syrian Crisis, Social Media Offer Small Comforts

Za’atari, a makeshift city in Jordan, may be the only Syrian refugee camp to tweet its activities, in an effort to keep donors motivated as the war in Syria intensifies and the humanitarian crisis deepens. Inside the camp, families say mobile phone applications help hold together families that are physically torn apart. VOA’s Heather Murdock reports.
Video

Video Chemical-Sniffing Technology Fights Australia's Graffiti Vandals

Cities and towns all over the world spend huge amounts of resources battling graffiti writers who deface buildings, public transport vehicles and even monuments. Authorities in Sydney, Australia, hope a new chemical-sniffing technology finally will stop vandals from scribbling on walls in the passenger areas of commuter trains. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Cambodia Struggling to Curb Child Labor

Earlier this year a United Nations report found 10 percent of Cambodian children aged 7-14 are working – one of the highest rates in the region – and said one in four children in that age bracket are forced to quit school to help their families. Although the child labor rate has dropped over the past decade, Cambodia has a lot more to do – including keeping more children in school. Robert Carmichael reports for VOA from Phnom Penh.

VOA Blogs