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

Could Nemtsov Threaten Putin in Death as in Life?

Dynamic and debonair opposition leader had supported liberal economic reforms, criticized Russian president's aggression in Ukraine More

Oil Smuggling Highlights Challenges in Shutting Down IS Finances

Pentagon spokesman says Islamic State 'certainly continues to get revenue from the oil industry black market' but that airstrikes have made a dent More

India Focuses on Infrastructure, Investment to Propel Economy

Government expects economy to grow at 8 to 8.5 percent in next fiscal year 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 Supreme Court Hears Hijab Discrimination Casei
X
Katherine Gypson
February 25, 2015 11:30 PM
The U.S. Supreme Court has heard opening arguments in a workplace religious discrimination case that examines whether a clothing store can refuse to hire a young woman for wearing the headscarf she says is a symbol of her Muslim faith. Katherine Gypson reports from the Supreme Court.
Video

Video US Supreme Court Hears Hijab Discrimination Case

The U.S. Supreme Court has heard opening arguments in a workplace religious discrimination case that examines whether a clothing store can refuse to hire a young woman for wearing the headscarf she says is a symbol of her Muslim faith. Katherine Gypson reports from the Supreme Court.
Video

Video Falling Gas Prices Hurt Nascent Illinois Hydraulic Fracturing Industry

Falling oil prices are helping consumers purchase cheaper petroleum at the pump. But that’s made hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” less economically viable for the companies in the United States invested in the process. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports on one Midwestern town that was hoping to change its fortunes by cashing in on the next big U.S. oil boom.
Video

Video Fighting in Sudan's South Kordofan Fuels Mass Displacement

Heavy fighting in Sudan's South Kordofan state is causing hundreds of thousands to flee into uncertain conditions. Local aid organizations estimate as many as 400,000 civilians have been internally displaced since the conflict began more than three years ago, while another 250,000 have fled across the border to refugee camps in South Sudan. VOA's Adam Bailes reports.
Video

Video Lao Dam Project Runs Into Opposition

A Lao dam project on a section of the Mekong River is drawing opposition from local fishermen, international environmental groups and neighboring countries. VOA's Say Mony visited the region to investigate the concerns. Colin Lovett narrates.
Video

Video A Filmmaker Discovers Her Biracial Identity in "Little White Lie

Lacey Schwartz grew up in an upper middle-class Jewish family, in a town in upstate New York where almost everyone she knew was white. She assumed that she was, as well. Her recent documentary, Little White Lie, tells the story of how she uncovered the secret of her true racial background. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more on the film.
Video

Video Deep Under Antarctic Ice Sheet, Life!

With the end of summer in the Southern hemisphere, the Antarctic research season is over. Scientists from Northern Illinois University are back in their laboratory after a 3-month expedition on the Ross Ice Shelf, the world’s largest floating ice sheet. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, they hope to find clues to explain the dynamics of the rapidly melting ice and its impact on sea level rise.
Video

Video US-Cuba Normalization Talks Resume Friday

Negotiations aimed at normalizing diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba resume Friday. On the table: lifting a half-century trade embargo and easing banking and travel restrictions. There's opposition in Congress, but some analysts say there may be sufficient political and economic incentives in both nations for a potential breakthrough this year. VOA's Mil Arcega reports.
Video

Video Pakistan's Deadline For SIM Registration Has Cellphone Users Scrambling

Pakistani cell phone users have until midnight Thursday to register their SIM cards, or their service will be cut off. While some privacy experts worry about government intrusion, many Pakistanis are just worried about keeping their phone lines open. VOA Deewa reporter Arshad Muhmand has more from Peshawar.
Video

Video Myanmar Warns Factory Workers to End Strikes

Outside Myanmar's main city Yangon, thousands of workers walked off their jobs earlier this month demanding a doubling of their wages, pay raises after a year and input from labor unions on industrial regulations. Since Friday, the standoff has grown more tense as police moved in to disrupt the sit-ins, resulting in clashes that injured people from both sides. VOA correspondent Steve Herman visited industrial zones which have become a focus of Myanmar's fledgling workers rights movement.
Video

Video Oscar Winners Do More Than Thank the Academy

The Academy Awards presentation is Hollywood’s night to reward the best movies from the previous year. It’s typically a lot of glitter, a lot of thank you’s, a lot of speeches. But many of this year’s speeches carried messages beyond the thank you's. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti takes a look.

All About America

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More