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Debunking Golden Rice myths: A geneticist's perspective

August 12, 2013 9:34pm
It all started in 1984 in Los Baños, Laguna. Scientists had begun to develop an exciting new approach to breeding crops—genetic engineering—and everyone wondered how it could be used to help the world.  
 
In the sala of a house in this college town in Laguna sat several breeders who were dreaming of what they could do with this exciting new technology.  Increase yields?  Develop crops to survive droughts?  Protect rice against pests?
 
Finding answers to global malnutrition
 
One breeder, who developed many of the Green Revolution crops that had saved hundreds of millions from famine, gave a startling answer: yellow rice.  Why?  Because, he said, vitamin A deficiency afflicts millions of people around the world. 
 
How bad is vitamin A deficiency?  In 2005, for example, the devastating effects of lacking this one vitamin affected 190 million children and 19 million pregnant women in 122 countries. Each year, it is responsible for up to 2 million deaths and 500,000 cases of irreversible blindness. 
 
Rice could substantially reduce the devastating impact of vitamin A deficiency because in many developing countries—the Philippines among them—the poorest families lack the means to eat the vegetables and fruits that contain this crucial nutrient.  They can afford nothing more than plain white rice. 
 
There is only one problem.  Rice cannot make vitamin A.  While many fruits and vegetables have genes to make this vitamin, neither rice nor any of its close wild relatives had these genes.  Traditional breeding in rice is useless in the fight against this deadly vitamin deficiency.  It would take genetic engineering to help solve the problem of making rice produce vitamin A. 
 
Golden Rice, from dream to reality
 
Today, we are there.  The dream of yellow rice—now dubbed Golden Rice—has gone from a rice breeder's dream to an actual variety that can be planted in rice fields.
 
It promises to help poor communities around the world reduce the deaths and blindness that comes with not getting enough vitamin A.  As we try to increase the nutrition of poor families across the country, Golden Rice can help alleviate the health scourge of vitamin A deficiency.  Studies have shown that one cup of Golden Rice gives someone 60% of the recommended vitamin A they need for the day.
 
We are there—that is, if we are not misguided enough to turn our backs on this important technology.
 
Last week, activists stormed a research field in Bicol and destroyed one of several trials of Golden Rice, potentially setting back the delivery of this humanitarian crop.  It was a criminal act against a project whose only goal is to help elevate the health of the world's poorest people.

 
There are many misconceptions about Golden Rice—too many, really, to list them all here.  But as a plant scientist who works on rice, although not GMO rice, let me talk about three of them:
 
Myth 1: Golden Rice is 'unnatural'
 
First is the notion that Golden Rice is some sort of unnatural, monster rice. The truth is, in developing Golden Rice, geneticists have inserted only three genes into rice DNA to allow it to make vitamin A. Three genes out of the more than 30,000 genes present in a rice plant.  And the genes they inserted to make the vitamin are not some weird manufactured material, but are also found in squash, carrots and melons. 
 
So there is nothing unnatural about the process—scientists just figured out how to take a gene from one species and add it to another's DNA.  Plants do this in the wild all the time.  It is called horizontal gene transfer, and plants, animals and bacteria have been shown to get many genes from each other as they evolve.  
 
Breeders actually do much more radical things to the rice genome and the rice plant by traditional breeding methods, and with much less information about what exactly they are doing to the rice plant's genes.  We know a great deal more about the genes that were inserted by the Golden Rice geneticists - what they do, how they act - than we know about thousands of genes and millions of mutations that rice contains. 
 
Myth 2: GMOs are unsafe and risky
 
Second is the idea that GMOs are unsafe, causes cancer or other major health risks, or poses serious environmental problems.  Let me be clear here - the safety issue has been studied and discussed by scientists around the world, and the conclusion is that there is no evidence that GMOs are inherently unsafe.  Let me repeat again. The most prominent scientific bodies in the world - among them, the US National Academy of Science, the American Medical Association, the World Health Organization, and the Philippine National Academy of Science and Technology - have publicly concluded that GMOs are safe.  
 
Now, it is true that we still have to test the safety of every new GMO plant variety that is developed—that is just common sense.  In fact, GMOs are probably the most intensely tested and studied crop varieties in the world.   Much more so than the seed you buy from your local garden or farm store, which are released with no health or safety analysis.  
 
But, you ask, haven’t I read stories about scientists that have supposedly linked health problems—even cancer—to eating GMO foods?  Well, the overwhelming majority of reputable scientists who have examined these claims have shown that the conclusions they draw are simply wrong. These stories are based on research that was poorly designed and analyzed, and other scientists have strongly criticized these studies. 
 
Myth 3: Golden Rice is Big Business
 
Finally, there is the idea that Golden Rice is being developed to be sold by big biotechnology companies to profit from poor Filipino famers.  Again, let us be clear here:Golden Rice is a public project.  While the company Syngenta produced the original Golden Rice, they have given it to the International Rice Research Institute for free - no costs, no fees, no royalties. 
 
The breeding of Golden Rice in now being done by the very public IRRI, in cooperation with the government research institute PhilRice, and other public breeders around the world.  The varieties that are developed will be turned over to government agricultural agencies in developing countries, who will then determine how to distribute it to farmers in their countries. IRRI is not selling Golden Rice, and no big biotech company will make money from it.
 
Critical juncture for the Philippines
 
Our country, and the world, is now at a critical point.  The population of the planet will hit 9 billion people by 2050.  The Philippines already has more than 100 million people. In the face of reduced land for farming, a growing population and increasingly erratic climates, we in the Philippines need to use every tool we have, including agricultural biotechnology, to help our farmers and our people to survive and thrive   Our scientists have helped develop Golden Rice varieties, as well as other genetically engineered crops, to increase our food security.  Let us not turn our backs on this technology for the 21st century, and find ourselves once again at a technological and economic disadvantage from the rest of the world. 
 
Nearly 30 years ago, some of the best rice breeders in the world gathered at Los Baños and discussed harnessing biotechnology to help feed the world. What they dreamed up is now poised to become a reality that will help farmers produce a more nutritious rice that can save lives. 
 
Let us make sure that those who need it most can, for once, put gold on their plates. — TJD, GMA News

Dr. Michael Purugganan is a Filipino plant geneticist and the Dean of Science at New York University. 


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