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

Video Five Patients Given Experimental Ebola Drug Said To Be Improving

Experimental drugs have been tried on six people: three Westerners and now, three African pyhysicians More

Video In Ukraine, Fear and Distrust Remain Where Fighting has Stopped

As Ukrainian military reclaims control of eastern cities residents rebuild their lives, but many say everyone is being treated with suspicion More

Video In Rural Kenya, Pressure Builds Against Female Circumcision

Girls learn to object; FGM practitioners face penalties from jail sentences to stiff fines 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.
Five Patients Given Experimental Ebola Drug Said to Be Improvingi
X
Carol Pearson
August 19, 2014 11:43 PM
The World Health Organization has approved the use of experimental treatments for Ebola patients in West Africa. The Ebola outbreak there is unprecedented, the disease deadly. The number of people who have died from Ebola has surpassed 1,200. VOA's Carol Pearson reports on the ethical considerations of allowing experimental drugs to be used.
Video

Video Five Patients Given Experimental Ebola Drug Said to Be Improving

The World Health Organization has approved the use of experimental treatments for Ebola patients in West Africa. The Ebola outbreak there is unprecedented, the disease deadly. The number of people who have died from Ebola has surpassed 1,200. VOA's Carol Pearson reports on the ethical considerations of allowing experimental drugs to be used.
Video

Video In Ukraine, Fear and Distrust Remain Where Fighting has Stopped

As the Ukrainian military reclaims control of eastern cities from pro-Russian separatists, residents are getting a chance to rebuild their lives. VOA's Gabe Joselow reports from the town of Kramatorsk in Donetsk province, where a sense of fear is still in the air, and distrust of the government in Kyiv still runs deep.
Video

Video China Targets Overseas Assets of Corrupt Officials

As China presses forward with its anti-graft effort, authorities are targeting corrupt officials who have sent family members and assets overseas. The efforts have stirred up a debate at home on exactly how many officials take that route and how likely it is they will be caught. Rebecca Valli has this report.
Video

Video Leading The Fight Against Islamic State, Kurds Question Iraqi Future

Western countries including the United States have begun arming the Kurdish Peshmerga forces in northern Iraq to aid their battle against extremist Sunni militants from the Islamic State. But there are concerns that a heavily-armed Kurdistan Regional Government, or KRG, might seek to declare independence and cause the break-up of the Iraqi state. As Henry Ridgwell reports from London, the KRG says it will only seek greater autonomy from Baghdad.
Video

Video In Rural Kenya, Pressure Builds Against Female Circumcision

In some Kenyan communities, female genital mutilation remains a rite of passage. But activists are pushing back, with education for girls and with threats of punishment those who perform the circumcision. Mohammed Yusuf looks at the practice in the rural eastern community of Tharaka-Nithi.
Video

Video For Obama, Racial Violence is Personal Issue

The racial violence in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson is presenting U.S. President Barack Obama with an issue to which he has a deep personal connection. To many Americans, Obama's election as America's first black president marked a turning point in race relations in the United States, and Obama has made ending the violence a policy priority. On Monday he issued a new call for calm and understanding. Luis Ramirez reports from the White House.
Video

Video Clinton-Obama Relationship Could Impact 2016 Election

President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have a long and complicated relationship. That relationship took another turn recently when Clinton criticized the president’s foreign policy. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone reports there is renewed attention on the Clinton-Obama relationship as Hillary Clinton considers running for
Video

Video Iran Looks to Maintain Influence in Baghdad With New Shia PM

Washington and Tehran share the goal of stopping Syrian-based militants in Iraq. But experts say it's Iran, not the United States, that will most influence how the new government in Baghdad approaches internal reforms and the war in Syria. VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns has the story.

AppleAndroid