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Seeing clearly: Golden Rice and climate science








Thursday, 10 October 2013

Written by  Bob Zeigler

On World Sight Day, IRRI Director General Robert Zeigler reflects on what we can all do to help improve eyesight and support research that seeks to improve people’s vision.

Today is World Sight Day–a time to reflect on the importance of vision and on what we can all do to help improve eyesight and support research that seeks to improve it.

Once upon a time, it might have seemed far-fetched to think that a rice scientist could contribute anything to improve people’s vision. But Golden Rice has changed all of that. I consider myself fortunate to know the person whose insight prompted the unlikely alliance between rice breeders and nutritionists: Peter Jennings.

For better or worse, Pete was my mentor when I began my career in rice research in 1985. I vividly recall our conversation when he returned from a visit to the Philippines where he attended the first international meeting of the Rockefeller Foundation’s International Program on Rice Biotechnology. He could barely contain his amusement as he recounted a conversation with his colleagues. He stunned them into silence when he answered the question “What is your favorite trait?” with “Yellow endosperm.”

Jennings had been looking for yellow rice since his earliest days, in the 1950s, as a rice breeder in Colombia with the Rockefeller Foundation. He knew that vitamin A deficiency was a scourge of rice-dependent countries, as rice contains no vitamin A in its grains. He also knew that a yellow rice grain would most likely carry beta carotene, a yellow plant pigment, that humans can convert to vitamin A as needed.

Pete never found beta carotene in rice and early efforts by the Rockefeller Foundation to find it in global collections of rice or by mutating millions of plants likewise failed. The only path to getting yellow rice, later dubbed “Golden Rice”, was to engineer it using genetic modification. The teamwork of Ingo Potrykus and Peter Beyer eventually created a prototype genetically modified (GM) Golden Rice in 1999.

Golden Rice contains beta carotene, which could provide an additional source of vitamin A to the diets of millions of rice consumers worldwide. And that’s important because vitamin A deficiency can impair vision and cause other sight problems before killing you outright.

Vitamin A deficiency is the number one cause of preventable blindness among children in developing countries, with as many as 350,000 going blind every year. And it is most prevalent among young children and pregnant and nursing women as they have increased nutrient requirements.

Rigorous research has shown that just one cup of Golden Rice a day could be enough to provide an adult with half their daily needs of vitamin A. So it could make a really big difference to people’s nutrition–and their sight.

Anyone reading this blog certainly knows that anti-GM “activists” are vehemently opposed to Golden Rice being approved for production by farmers. They say openly that they fear its release because it will be a “Trojan Horse” technology that would allow other GM food crops to be released.

The depravity of their cynicism astounds even a crusty old bird like me: If Golden Rice is a success and effectively reduces blindness, disease, and death caused by vitamin A deficiency in millions of rice consumers, it will pave the way for other GM food crops that may be healthier for people and good for the environment. Therefore, they say, we must stop Golden Rice before it is too late!

As far as I can tell, the main surviving mainstream argument against GM crops has boiled down to concerns over corporate control of agriculture and seed supply. I think this is a legitimate concern and worthy of debate and action. But, Golden Rice was developed by public sector scientists using public funds. Private entities that hold patents over technologies used to develop Golden Rice have made them available freely for this purpose. So, can someone please explain to me why “activists” should block a technology developed by the public sector and hold the world’s poor hostage over a fight about private control of agriculture in rich countries?

I generously say that the main argument comes down to one of corporate control. But, that does not stop our activist friends from making all sorts of baseless and vile claims about the technology. Nor does it stop them from destroying field trials designed to address questions around environmental impact, performance,and effectiveness as a human food. They claim that there is not enough information to decide if these crops are safe, yet they destroy the trials designed to provide the very answers they are demanding. Could it be that they do not want to see the answers?

Interestingly, last week, we saw the launch of the “Allow Golden Rice Now!” campaign that sought to promote the potential role of Golden Rice in improving vision and the health of children worldwide. The campaign asks anti-GM activists to stop targeting Golden Rice because of its huge potential to reduce vitamin A deficiency among women and children in impoverished rice-eating countries. IRRI is not involved in this campaign.

However, we would like to join the ranks of people, including the more than 6,000 supporters who have signed the petition to stop the destruction of field trials of GM crops, in calling for anti-GM activists and other concerned citizens to not take action that could delay the assessment and ongoing research of Golden Rice as a potential new way to reduce vitamin A deficiency and reduce the damage it can do to the precious vision and eyes of children.

I have this to say to activists: We ask you to support the completion of scientific research, development, and assessment of Golden Rice because of its strong potential benefit to humanity.

We also welcome peaceful dialogue and the opportunity to listen to concerns about Golden Rice so that we can seek to address any issues. Science can help to address issues, but if such scientific research is shut down, then we cannot answer the important questions on the safety and huge potential benefits of Golden Rice. We should all support the science-based assessment of Golden Rice and allow national regulators to undertake their important work without international pressure or interference.

It is surprising to me that it is often the activists who speak up in support of the scientific consensus around climate change (i.e., that there is overwhelming scientific evidence that climate change is induced by humans and is happening), who are the same activists who don’t accept the scientific consensus and evidence that shows that GM crops can be safe. Either you accept scientific consensus or you don’t; but you cannot have it both ways, accepting science that agrees with your personal philosophy and rejecting that which does not.

We don’t know what further action might be taken to delay the research or assessment of Golden Rice. But in the interests of those children and women whose vision and lives Golden Rice might be able to improve, we hope that we are supported to continue investigating and evaluating Golden Rice–because it really is looking like it could help.


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