Golden Rice may be a golden opportunity

Golden Rice produces beta-carotene, which the human body processes into Vitamin A. Deficiency of the vitamin is a major cause of blindness and death in developing countries.

Genetically engineered crop may soon save millions of lives

Saturday is the United Nations' World Food Day, an annual event intended to bring attention to hunger problems around the globe.

Increasingly, technology is taking centre stage during such events as continuing population growth and shrinkage of arable farmland ratchet up the pressure on world food supplies.

One key technology to fighting shortages, food scientists say, is bio-engineered crops —also known as genetically modified organisms.

The first commercially available GMO, the Flavr Savr tomato — engineered to ripen more slowly so that it would retain its firmness and colour longer — hit the U.S. market in 1994. Since then, GMO crops have spread to become the norm in many countries, with pesticide- and insect-resistant corn, cotton and canola among those being grown.

The crops have been hugely controversial, though, with organizations such as Greenpeace raising questions about their environmental and health impacts, as well as the motives of the people behind them. Critics have said that companies such as Monsanto and DuPont are only in the GMO business to make money and don't really care about humanitarian possibilities.

One crop, however, was created strictly with humanitarian purposes in mind. Golden Rice, a strain engineered by German academics Ingo Potrykus and Peter Beyer to have a higher Vitamin A content, is close to finally being rolled out.

First formulated 10 years ago, Golden Rice produces beta-carotene, which the human body processes into Vitamin A. Deficiency of the vitamin is a major cause of blindness and death in developing countries, causing an estimated one to two million deaths a year.

Controversy around GMOs, especially in Europe, means the yellow-coloured rice has spent years running regulatory hurdles around the world. It is currently in tests in a number of countries and the Golden Rice Project, a group of scientists shepherding its development, are hopeful that it will soon pass muster.

Dr. Adrian Dubock, a former sheep farmer from the U.K. and food scientist at Swiss agri-giant Syngenta, discussed Golden Rice's past and future with CBC News.

CBC: Early on, Golden Rice was criticized for not containing much Vitamin A. How much of that claim was correct and how much has it actually improved?

Dubock: In calculating how much you need to make a difference, you have to multiply together a number of factors and each of those factors has a range. [Greenpeace] took the least favourable of those numbers and multiplied them together and came up with [the statement] that you'd need a large amount. We actually didn't know then how much was needed to make a difference because there were a number of things we couldn't know at that stage. For example, how many units of beta-carotene are converted into Vitamin A in the human body? We didn't know that, we've only known for the past couple of years. We didn't know how much of the daily recommended allowance we'd have to supply in order to make a difference in mortality and morbidity.

Greenpeace created a stunt and you couldn't argue with it in a way because we could see how they arrived at it, at least conceptually, but it was misleading and wrong. Just recently, we've run the calculations with the things that we know about — the bio-conversion ratio and so on — and even with the original amount, about a hundred grams a day would have supplied something like 40 or 50 per cent of the estimated daily requirement, which is probably enough to lift people out of death and morbidity.

The situation now is that 100 grams, which is about half a teacup, will be enough to prevent death and, previous to that, blindness from Vitamin A deficiency, which is tremendous. We got there by doing some nutritional work with humans, which we were criticized for, but how can you get to know how it works with humans without using humans? We're on track to roll the technology out, finally, probably in 2012 or 2013.

CBC: It seemed like controversy slowed Golden Rice's rollout, but it also sounds like there was quite a bit of work to do on it. Was it a combination or would it have happened a lot sooner if there hadn't been the criticism?

Dubock: It's hard to quantify the effect of that criticism, but it does create suspicion and suspicion has a political effect. The political effect is that countries and organizations become cautious and that leads to delays. In the old days, when they wanted to try different varieties of wheat from one country to another, they'd just say, 'Send me some seeds.'

The Cartegena Protocol, a treaty right at the beginning of genetic modification [in 2000] put an international framework for regulation in place that obligated countries that signed on. Then an organization, the UN's environmental program, went off training countries in risk assessment so that they could in theory set up programs to carry out scientifically based assessment of risk. The guy who set that up came and talked here in Switzerland a few years ago and I had a meeting with him afterwards and I said, 'It's great that you've trained them all in risk assessment, but where's the assessment of benefit?' And he said, 'That's somebody else's job, that's not our job.' To me, risk is a relative thing — what's the benefit to the risk?

So where this is functioning, it's got a lot of people looking at all sorts of incredible detail often asking about areas that for other crops are not even known about. It creates suspicion and people think, 'Well if there's all this regulation, there must be something really, seriously of concern about this technology. Why would all this be there if there were no problems?' The advocacy groups that are against the technology then leverage that suspicion in one way or another and that just causes political delay.

For example, before the licensing structure was signed in India, there were something like 30 questions in the Indian Parliament about Golden Rice. It wasn't just off-the-top-of-their-head things, they were very carefully thought-through, devious questions. Once we got the licence signed, the Indian breeders said, 'OK, now we'd like to have the materials.' Between them asking for the materials and getting them, it took a whole year because of the paperwork that had to be filled in. So here's a really good example of questions in Parliament that have been sensitized by advocacy groups, and on top of that there's a whole bureaucratic process taking time to do everything. I've seen this reflected in the attitudes of grant-giving agencies, companies, research institutions. It makes all institutions nervous and that's one of the big reasons for delay.

CBC: Is it safe to assume that when Golden Rice finally does get approved, it'll happen in Asia first?

Dubock: Definitely, and it's because Asia is predominantly where rice provides the staple carbohydrate and it's where there are a lot of marginalized people. Vitamin A deficiency comes about as a result of people having too narrow a diet and white rice only basically contains carbohydrates. If you don't have some fish or vegetables or fruit in your diet and you only eat carbohydrates, you can easily end up with Vitamin A deficiency. Half the world, three billion people a day, eat rice and of those many populations are getting about 80 per cent of their calorific value from rice, so that's where the problem is.

CBC: Are you hopeful that the long path taken by Golden Rice will make it easier for other humanitarian GMOs to make it through the process?

Dubock: That's our assessment. It's a slightly uncomfortable burden to have but clearly there is a lot riding on the success of this project. It's about more than just Vitamin A deficiency alleviation to rice-consuming populations because this project happens to counteract most if not all of the earlier arguments against GMOs. Originally, it was environmental risk — well that's largely gone away, people don't really think that any more. Then it was all these untold health risks that may be occurring — nobody is taking that so seriously anymore. Then there's questions of, 'How can you know what the genome effect is inserting another gene?' But as knowledge arises about similarity of gene effects, with similar genes in different organisms having a unity of purpose — when you start to understand that, and the world will ultimately understand it, then you can see from a scientific perspective that all this over-regulation is really over-regulation.

When you really dig down to opponents, often they get down to feeling that GMOs are some way that the private sector will take charge of the food chain and that it's only for the benefit of industrialized farmers. [Smaller] farmers will lose choice and become dependent and monopolization will force up prices. But with Golden Rice, you have a project now that is demonstrably public sector where the [genetic] trait will be provided free of charge, there's no licence fee, it's for poor farmers, it's for health.

If Golden Rice is successful, it will help the appreciation of the utility of the technology for wider society. That's the big sin of this controversy against GMOs — that this technology is extremely scaleable and it can help poor people in developing countries much more than a lot of other technologies in agriculture because, basically, it doesn't cost anything. It doesn't require rocket-science skills to do it either. It is very, very pertinent to developing countries.

CBC: The inventors of Golden Rice were initially angry when companies claimed they had violated their patents in creating it, but they eventually changed their tune. What happened?

Dubock: Ingo and Peter felt they had made this great scientific breakthrough and they would have it in farmers' hands in three years. When they published (in the journal Science in 2000), they were told there was an analysis that had been done which suggested they had real intellectual property problems. I can't remember the exact detail of the analysis but it was something like 72 patents from 32 organizations had been infringed. They were hit by this sledgehammer between the eyes and thought, 'Oh god, how do we deal with that? We're a couple of academics.' That was what drove them to start talking to the private sector. 

That's when I came along and we did the deal and we said, 'We'll help you with this problem.' The analysis was stupid. There were two major problems with it. One was it analyzed the American patent scene, where patents are national in character, they're time limited and if they're applied for doesn't mean they'll be granted, and even if they're granted doesn't mean they're valid. The other problem with the analysis, which was done by a unit at Cornell University, is they included patented technologies that had been legitimately used as a result of commercial arrangements. Including those is like including Boeing using a patented screwdriver to fix wings together on their planes, and then the screwdriver owner coming along and saying, 'We need a share of all the passenger receipts.' It's nuts.

When I got our patent people at Zeneca to take a look, they concluded that maybe a maximum of half a dozen patents had been infringed. I then went to the owners of those patents and persuaded them to contribute that technology, if it had been infringed — and we're not saying it was — for the humanitarian purpose, and they all did that. I went and talked to them to fix it, and it didn't take long.

CBC: In other areas of technology, especially computing, there's the law of accelerating returns, which sees advances stack on each other, leading to rapid advancement. Is that happening with GM crops?

Dubock: That's a very interesting question and not one I've answered before. I think it has the potential to do that, but it's constrained by the controversy and politics that I've explained. Clearly, the understanding is growing but understanding would grow more if more applications could be achieved. The applications being achieved, especially in the public sector, are extremely constrained by this suspicion and bureaucratic, unscientific regulatory aspect. In the private sector, the know-how grows but there's nervousness from the controversy and there's a tendency to keep things a trade secret unless they're patentable.

But the early traits and tools of biotechnology are already off-patent or coming off-patent, and that actually means they're available for anybody to use. Sometimes you need this plus that plus that, but increasingly, they're going to be off-patent. The companies that are principally the drivers of novelty will keep trying to stay ahead of the curve in terms of the benefits they can deliver so they can keep their commercial edge, but the other stuff that's coming out at the other end of the patent pipeline, that's available for anyone to use. From that perspective, yes there's a capability to be picked up but the problem, repeatedly, is regulation. The danger is the regulation and the sensitivity created by it will kill the technology before it gets anywhere close to delivering what it can deliver.

CBC: How much are you paying attention to the debate regarding genetically modified animals — such as salmon — going on in the U.S.? Do you see those companies as allies?

Dubock: Within the Golden Rice Project per se, we're completely neutral about that. My personal view is coloured by my experience in the public sector as well as working in the public sector. To formulate a view about how good or bad that technology is needs a better understanding than I have about whether the genetic trait is containable or not, and so on. On the other hand, you have to think about the food protein demands of the world. It's pretty clear that the [fish] resources in the sea are reducing hugely and it's also pretty clear that farmed salmon and chickens, at the moment, provide cheaper protein than just about anything else. You could say that if you could extend that trend, it should be good. People want protein and they want cheap and plentiful food. Unless we get on top of birth control, and if we keep combating old age and other diseases, there's going to be nine billion people to feed instead of six billion. They can't all eat beef.

There appears to be even more sensitivity in the public's eye about genetic modification used for animals than there is for plants. It's a strange world because most new pharmaceutical drugs that are coming out of the pipeline actually arise from biotechnology. A lot of genetic modification is used and has been used for many years in items that many people consider to be normal, like cheese and beer and things like that. Public reaction is not very scientific at all and it can easily be manipulated. In broad terms, we have to embrace all the technology we can to provide wholesome food and of course, it should be questioned whether the technology is safe or not, but you also have to look at the benefits that arise or the costs of not doing anything. You need a holistic view of these things. It's what governments are for, to take all these views and not be bamboozled by them.

CBC: It's been said that opposition to GMOs is a luxury that only people in relatively wealthy developed countries can afford. Do you agree?

Dubock: Yes, and it's borne out by two facts that I'm aware of. There's a guy named Kim Anderson, who's an economist out of Adelaide University and a consultant to the World Bank, and he did some estimates on the value of having GMO crop foods in Europe. The benefit to the population, about five years ago, worked out to about the price of a cup of coffee for each individual. So you could say, 'Do they want to take the risk?' The answer is [obviously not]. The same economist did a study on the economic benefit of adopting Golden Rice to Asia and he estimated, conservatively, it would add $18 billion annually to the GDP of Asia.


Peter Nowak


Peter Nowak is a Toronto-based technology reporter and author of Humans 3.0: The Upgrading of the Species.