The Ideologues vs. 'Golden Rice'

December 11, 2000 The News Tribune

About a year ago, stunning news emerged from the world of biotechnology: European genetic engineers had developed a strain of rice that spontaneously produces beta carotene, a nutrient that the body metabolizes into vitamin A.

What's more, the chief inventor of this "golden rice" - a German named Ingo Potrykus - was anxious to distribute the seeds at no cost to farmers in impoverished Asian and African regions where rice is a mainstay of the diet. This promised to be a humanitarian breakthrough, because no variety of rice naturally produces vitamin A. At least 1 million children die every year - and another half-million go blind - as a result of vitamin A deficiency. Most of these children live in places, including much of Southeast Asia, where rice is often the only food available.

One would think that this invention would have spurred a race to get golden rice to those threatened children as soon as possible. No such luck. Potrykus has spent much of this year trying to untangle a thicket of patents involved in the process of producing the rice. That, however, looks to be the easy part. The hard part will be running a gantlet of ideologues who are attacking and trying to suppress any and all genetically modified -"GM" - crops, which they categorically vilify as "Frankenfoods."

Golden rice is such a "monster": Potrykus and his partners spent the better part of the last decade tinkering with the rice genome. They were ultimately able to coax beta carotene out of a strain of rice by inserting DNA sequences from a bacterium, a virus, a pea and a daffodil. There's a whole movement of people who demonize any such laboratory hybrids as dangerous violations of the natural order - even when a given GM food poses no demonstrable health threat. This movement is especially strong in Europe, and Potrykus is now racing an attempt to prohibit all GM exports from Switzerland. The New York Times recently reported that his golden rice is being kept in a fortified, grenade-proof greenhouse on the outskirts of Zurich. It is a long way from the millions of malnourished infants who are weaned on rice gruel and nothing else.

The well-fed activists who want to kill golden rice certainly offer some emotional and apocalyptic arguments. The epithet "Frankenfoods" is catchy indeed. But the rhetoric might ring just little hollow in much of the developing world, where malnourished children routinely die or are blinded for life for the lack of beta carotene in their diet.

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