The Science of Sustainability

Greenpeace or Golden War?

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The evolution of golden rice. Click image for a larger version. Courtesy Golden Rice Humanitarian Board.

As a Prius-driving, Peet's Coffee drinking supporter of public television, I almost always reflexively gave to Greenpeace when they asked. Not anymore.

I am not opposed to most of what they stand for. I want them to keep pushing to fight global warming, save the oceans, etc. Where I disagree with them is on genetically modified foods. And in particular, I disagree with them on golden rice.

Golden rice is an example where a scientist wanted to do some good. A huge problem in the developing world is vitamin A deficiency. The numbers I have seen for this deficiency are truly horrifying. One report I read stated that it is responsible for 1-2 million deaths and over 500,000 cases of irreversible blindness per year.

This deficiency tends to affect people who get most of their calories from rice because rice doesn’t make vitamin A or anything that can be converted into vitamin A. Well, actually that isn’t strictly true. The rice plant does make provitamin A in its leaves, just not in the part we eat.

So Dr. Ingo Portykus decided to create a strain of rice that would make provitamin A in the rice kernel. Since there isn’t any easy way to breed this into rice or to turn the necessary genes on in the rice kernel, he decided to add a couple of genes instead.

The first plant he engineered didn’t make a lot of provitamin A but with a couple of tweaks here and there, researchers managed to make an orangish rice capable of providing a good portion of someone’s vitamin A. Thus golden rice was born. And with it, a whole lot of controversy.

The current controversy has centered on the unknown health effects of this rice and on the danger of the added genes getting out into nature. These are the same sorts of things that are brought up about any genetically modified (GM) foods.

My thoughts on the matter are that each GM food should be looked at individually with respect to risks and benefits. For each one we should ask, “Do the benefits outweigh the risks?”

This is going to be different for each GM crop. For example, planting of Round Up ready crops requires no tilling of the soil which conserves the soil and protects its fauna. (Yield is also often improved.) But these crops require a lot of the herbicide Round Up to be sprayed onto crops and if the added gene gets loose, it will make weeds Round Up resistant.

It is an open question about whether the risks outweigh the benefits with these GM crops. Frankly I lean towards planting them because the benefits to the soil outweigh the risks of Round Up but I understand the opposing side’s point of view. Not so with golden rice.

If golden rice can do what is promised, the effects on people’s lives will be enormous. When fully implemented, half a million people might not lose their sight. In other words, it would be like saving every person in Oakland from going blind. Each year.

And golden rice could save 1-2 million people from dying. That is like keeping every person in San Jose and San Francisco from dying. Again, each year.

So the benefits are obvious. And odds are that people would get them too. Early studies have shown that people can get sufficient vitamin A from around 3.5 ounces or 100 grams of golden rice per day.

The risks are hazier. Adding the genes could have created some subtle change in the biochemistry of the rice kernel that will prove harmful. This doesn’t seem very likely especially since the plant already makes provitamin A in the leaves. There is also no evidence that anything like this has happened.

Still, it is formally possible. But does this very low risk outweigh the potential benefits?

The two genes they added could escape into nature but this is extremely unlikely with rice. I am told that rice plants are self pollinating and that the pollen is very short lived. Makes sense to me given the thousands of varieties planted all over the world.

Even if they did get out, they would only become a problem if there was some sort of advantage to a plant having these two genes. What this advantage might be isn’t clear. This is unlike making a weed Round Up ready which might be a real advantage.

So the risks are minor and the potential benefits huge. But is there another way to get these folks vitamin A? Yes but none of them have worked particularly well to date.

For example, if these folks could eat a more varied diet, they wouldn’t suffer from vitamin A deficiency. Same thing if we could get more of them vitamin A supplements.

These might be the solutions in a perfect world. However, as the nightly news and even Greenpeace’s website shows, we do not live in a perfect world.

Golden rice seems to me to be the best way right now to save hundreds of thousands of people their sight and millions their very lives each year. Once Greenpeace gets behind golden rice or supplies sufficient funding for alternative methods of getting people the vitamin A they need, I will start supporting them again.

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Dr. Barry Starr

About the Author ()

Dr. Barry Starr is a Geneticist-in-Residence at The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, CA and runs their Stanford at The Tech program. The program is part of an ongoing collaboration between the Stanford Department of Genetics and The Tech Museum of Innovation. Together these two partners created the Genetics: Technology with a Twist exhibition. Read his previous contributions to QUEST, a project dedicated to exploring the Science of Sustainability.
  • http://www.thetech.org/genetics/ Barry

    Got this question on Facebook: is the golden rice being given to the developing world for free?

    Answer: From http://www.goldenrice.org/Content3-Why/why3_FAQ.html

    "The intention is to introduce Golden Rice into publicly-owned rice varieties via national and international public sector research institutions, to be made available by governments free of charge to resource-poor farmers. The farmers will then be able to grow, save, consume, replant and sell on a small scale into the local economy the resulting rice crop. No new dependencies will be created."

  • http://www.thetech.org/genetics/index.php Barry Starr

    The official word:

    The answer is "yes"

    The inventors donated all the materials for the defined humanitarian use, and research leading to it.

    No one has any pecuniary interest in GR – including the inventors. There are no license fees, and any limitations on use are to keep it within the defined humanitarian use. For example, it has to be used in publicly owned germplasm. It cannot be stacked with proprietary traits unless under the free control of a public institution for humanitarian use.

    As part of the original license I negotiated with the inventors in 2000 (when I was employed by Syngenta) improvements would be added as they occurred. Under this obligation Syngenta donated the improvements made by them in the mid noughties.

    Basically it will be free of any charge to all farmers in developing counties earning less that US$10,000 per year from agriculture – this includes almost all of them. There is meant to be no charge for the trait. Rice can be sown, harvested, processed, stored, cooked, eaten or seed kept and replanted, just as for any other of the 20,000 varieties of rice.

  • john fiorentino

    Sometimes in our haste to do good, we actually do the opposite.

    My problem with all of this is in the way this GM food was tested.

    Here's some info:

    Critics are furious that the GM rice was not put through animal feeding trials to ensure it was safe before being given to children.

    The decision to use the children has been condemned as 'completely unacceptable' by a group of 22 scientists – all GM critics – from Britain and around the world.

    They claim it is indicative of moves by the biotech lobby, led by the USA and biotech firms, to force GM food into the mouths of the world without proper assessment. The project was financed and run through the US National Institutes of Health and involved children in China and America.

    The scientists have written an open letter to the team behind the experiments, condemning the way they were conducted.

    It states: 'We are writing to express our shock and unequivocal denunciation of the experiments being conducted by your colleagues which involve the feeding of genetically modified Golden Rice to human subjects.'

    The letter says there has been 'woefully inadequate pre-clinical evaluation' of the rice.

    The scientists argue there is a large body of evidence showing GM food production can trigger gene mutations which 'can result in health damaging effects when GM food products are fed to animals'.

    The letter adds: 'Our greatest concern is that this rice, which is engineered to overproduce beta carotene, has never been tested in animals'.

    It says there is evidence that certain chemicals derived from beta carotene 'are both toxic and cause birth defects'.

    Critics of the GM experiments says the Nuremburg code states that children under 10 are not considered legally capable of giving consent to participation in such experiments.

    They say the code also requires that human guinea pigs should not be used if scientists have an alternative experimental method.

    Thirdly, experiments on humans should not be conducted until tests with animals have identified potential hazards.

    Among the leading bodies behind the GM Golden rice project are the biotech company Syngenta, the Rockefeller Foundation and the charitable foundation set up by Microsoft boss Bill Gates.

    The list of signatories to the protest letter includes Malcolm Hooper, emeritus professor of medicinal chemistry at Sunderland University, who said: 'This type of experimentation is frightening – children as lab rats …'

    Another is Prof David Schubert, of the Salk Institute of Biological Studies, San Diego, who said: 'It is completely immoral to feed this rice to children without proper safety testing…It's like putting a new drug on the market with no toxicology or safety trials.'

    Other signatories include Prof Carlo Leifert, director of the Tesco Centre for Organic Agriculture at Newcastle University; and Dr Stanley WB Ewen.

    Dr Ewen was involved in rat feeding trials in Scotland in 1999 which linked GM potatoes to harmful toxic effects.

    Dr Brian John, of GM Free Cymru said: 'These irresponsible and dangerous trials must be stopped immediately, and the Golden Rice Project team must put its much-vaunted product through a full and transparent testing process before it is allowed to pass the lips of any other human being.'

    Project manager at the Golden Rice Organisation, Dr Adrian Dubock, denied that the Nuremburg Code has been breached. He said the feeding trials had been approved by independent ethical review panels.

    'Parents were not given financial rewards for their children’s participation – to avoid undue pressure on poor families – but children were rewarded with school bags and pencils and paper as a thank you for participating,' he said.

    Dr Dubock said 6,000 people around the world die every day due to illnesses related to failing immune systems where Vitamin A deficiency is a factor.

    'The Golden Rice contains the food colours found everywhere in coloured natural foods and the environment…There is no possible way the trials could do any harm to the participants.'

    Dr Dubock said animal experiments would not have helped. 'As humans are the designed beneficiaries of Golden Rice, animal testing could not answer the questions posed,' he said.

    This appears odd as all GM foods, which are designed to be eaten by humans, are required to go through animal testing by food safety authorities in many countries.

    Also re: Dr. Ewen as mentioned above – He himself was critcized by ACNFP (Advisory Committee On Novel Foods and Processes) for not releasing the results of his study prior to peer-review publication.

    In a letter to Dr. Ewen the ACNFP stated the following: (excerpts)

    "We understand from the above newspaper article that you have carried out histological analyses of tissues from rats fed a genetically modified potato in experiments run at the Rowett Research Institute. The article indicates that you have findings which may have serious implications in relation to the assessment of the safety of GM foods.

    The ACNFP is an independent committee advising UK Ministers on issues relating to novel (including genetically modified) foods. The Committee has asked, as a matter of urgency, if it would be possible to have access to a detailed report of your examinations and conclusions.

    The newspaper article indicates that you are unwilling to discuss your findings in advance of their peer review and publication. Nevertheless I would hope you would understand that it is important for the ACNFP to be able to assess any new developments so that it may bring the most up-to-date knowledge to bear in carrying out safety evaluations of novel foods. If there are lessons to be learned it is vital that these are taken on board as soon as possible."

    Moreover, in my opinion, Dr. Dubock's statements re: animal testing go beyond the comment of "odd," to me they are ludicrous.

  • http://www.thetech.org/genetics/index.php Barry Starr

    Not sure if this helps but a rebuttal letter to all of this can be found here:

    http://www.goldenrice.org/PDFs/Daily_Mail_Letter_Feb_2009.pdf

  • john fiorentino

    Well, it's a scientific debate.

    I just think we need more studies.

  • Judy Linhares

    How much does genetic modification resemble hybridizing which has been done for years to improve the quality of many vegetables?

  • http://www.thetech.org/genetics/index.php Barry Starr

    Merging two similar species means lots of different genes get mixed up whereas genetic modification usually means that only one gets moved (golden rice took two).

    Another big difference is how the DNA gets transferred. Usually with genetic modification it is done using a plant virus that can put its DNA into a host's DNA (this is how gene therapy is done in people as well). With hybridization it happens via fertilization.

    Genetic modification also allows for selectivity. You can say I want this plant to make vitamin A and then add the genes necessary. More conventional means require either hybridization which introduce many different genes and often require lots of breeding to isolate the desired trait or mutating the plant and looking for the trait to appear. Mutation introduces many changes besides the one being looked for.

  • Robert McCallum

    Can't carrots grow there?
    And to get people to grow the gm rice would require education , couldn't that same effort be applied as well as in regards to carrots?

  • Douglas Starr

    It doesn't actually take any extra education other than giving them the rice, it is grown the same way. They'll probably just give them free bags of the stuff to grow to get them started.

    Your carrot comment is a good one and there have been ongoing efforts to get it to happen but they have not been that successful. I am not sure why that is true but I do know this is a big initiative on Greenpeace's part to avoid the planting of this GM rice.

  • FloatingFaceDown

    I think you might want to look a little deeper into the RoundUp related comments. It's not a safe product, nor is the company behind it, Monsanto.
    http://science.kqed.org/quest/2010/04/26/greenpeace-or-golden-war/
    The jury is still out on GMOs, but I doubt it will turn out well for them.

  • Barry

    An anti-GMO activist has a change of heart: http://www.latimes.com/news/science/sciencenow/la-sci-sn-gmo-food-safety-conversion-mark-lynas-20130108,0,2270106.story Why? His quote: “I guess you’ll be wondering – what happened between 1995 and now that made me not only change my mind but come here and admit it? Well, the answer is fairly simple: I discovered science.”

  • Barry