Imagine a Healthier World
By Bruce M. Chassy
Such is the case with this new rice, developed by Ingo Potrykus, a Swiss scientist, and Peter Beyer, his German collaborator. They introduced new genes into rice so that it produces beta-carotene and iron. Increased beta-carotene (the precursor of vitamin A) turns the rice "golden" in color.
It could be very important to developing nations, where millions of children go blind from lack of vitamin A, and where millions of iron-deficient women and children suffer serious health problems. The scientists, supported by the Rockefeller Foundation, identified a great humanitarian need and sought to solve it by adding the missing nutrients to a food that hundreds of millions of poor people eat nearly every day.
All the major media recognized the human importance of the project and rushed to cover it. For example, the discovery of genetic gold put Potrykus on the cover of Time magazine last summer.
The biotechnology industry, beleaguered by an onslaught of negative publicity, used it to illustrate the great potential it sees in this technology. Most biotech products on the market today benefit primarily farmers and the environment, benefits that are not obvious to consumers. So the industry's advertising campaign points to the rice story as an example of the gold it believes that biotech will produce.
Activist groups opposed to agricultural biotechnology portray the rice as "fool's gold." Golden rice is a problem for them, because it has such potential for good. So, they ignore the benefits and focus on perceived problems in an effort to discredit the project. They say golden rice would not provide the recommended daily requirement of vitamin A or iron, so why bother? And they portray it as a deception cooked up by industry to take the heat off biotech. This is a great insult to the scientists and their project, which is not industry-funded and was initiated 11 years ago.
It's time to put golden rice in perspective. It is not a flash in the pan, nor is it a panacea. Golden rice is not yet on the market. It is a product concept that is still in development. Through remarkable science, Potrykus and Beyer have shown that they can make rice yield iron and beta-carotene. The current prototype produces only modest levels of the desired nutrients, but new varieties with higher levels are promised in the near future.
There are still many hurdles yet to clear. It must be demonstrated that the added nutrients survive cooking and that the body can absorb them. Environmental and food safety tests must be completed. These tests will be more rigorous than for current products, because golden rice does not meet the criterion of being "substantially equivalent" to its conventional counterpart. It is nutritionally different, and it will be labeled as such.
Like any potential new product, golden rice may fail to pass any of dozens of tests that could prevent it from reaching the marketplace. If it is developed into a product, golden rice will not be a cure for all the world's nutritional ills, so let's not bill it as such. And if for some reason it does not clear all hurdles, it would be a humanitarian setback, but it would not mean that biotechnology had failed.
The truth is that golden rice is already a success if we see it for what it really is - an amazing scientific achievement that shows us the possibilities that biotechnology places within our reach. No matter how the golden rice story ends, it is pointing us to where we need to go - not just for the immediate needs that Potrykus and Beyer have identified but also for future generations.
We must learn to develop better ways to grow more food for the 4 billion people who will join us in the next 50 years. Golden rice shows that biotechnology will help us get there. Food shortages may seem inconceivable to those of us who are fortunate enough to live in developed countries. But then again, power shortages in California seemed inconceivable only a few short months ago.
Bruce M. Chassy is assistant dean for biotechnology outreach at the College of Agricultural Consumer and Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
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