People behind politics

October 29, 2013

The movement against genetic modification is strong but a lot of the opposition is based far more on politics and emotion than science.

Those buying into the politics and emotion forget about the people who could benefit from GM food like golden rice.

Dietary micronutrient deficiencies, such as the lack of vitamin A, iodine, iron or zinc, are a major source of morbidity (increased susceptibility to disease) and mortality worldwide. These deficiencies affect particularly children, impairing their immune system and normal development, causing disease and ultimately death. The best way to avoid micronutrient deficiencies is by way of a varied diet, rich in vegetables, fruits and animal products.

The second best approach, especially for those who cannot afford a balanced diet, is by way of nutrient-dense staple crops. Sweet potatoes, for example, are available as varieties that are either rich or poor in provitamin A. Those producing and accumulating provitamin A (orange-fleshed sweetpotatoes) are called biofortified,* as opposed to the white-fleshed sweet potatoes, which do not accumulate provitamin A. In this case, what needs to be done is to introduce the biofortified varieties to people used to the white-fleshed varieties, as is happening at present in southern Africa by introducing South American varieties of orange-fleshed sweetpotatoes.

Unfortunately, there are no natural provitamin A-containing rice varieties. In rice-based societies, the absence of β-carotene in rice grains manifests itself in a marked incidence of blindness and susceptibility to disease, leading to an increased incidence of premature death of small children, the weakest link in the chain.

Rice plants produce β-carotene (provitamin A) in green tissues but not in the endosperm (the edible part of the seed). The outer coat of the dehusked grains—the so-called aleurone layer—contains a number of valuable nutrients, e.g. vitamin B and nutritious fats, but no provitamin A. These nutrients are lost with the bran fraction in the process of milling and polishing. While it would be desirable to keep those nutrients with the grain, the fatty components are affected by oxidative processes that make the grain turn rancid when exposed to air. Thus, unprocessed rice—also known as brown rice—is not apt for long-term storage.

Even though all required genes to produce provitamin A are present in the grain, some of them are turned off during development. This is where the ingenuity of the Golden Rice inventors, Profs Ingo Potrykus (formerly ETH Zurich) and Peter Beyer (University of Freiburg) comes into play. They figured out how to turn on this complex pathway again with a minor intervention.

One of the criticisms used by opponents of Genetic modifcation is that it’s not about feeding the hungry but about controlling food supply.

The International Rice Research Institute:

Golden Rice was invented by Professor Ingo Potrykus, then of the Institute for Plant Sciences, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, and Professor Peter Beyer of the University of Freiburg, Germany. By 1999, Professor Potrykus and Dr. Beyer produced a prototype Golden Rice and published their landmark research in Science.

The inventors’ desire to donate Golden Rice as a gift to resource-poor farmers in developing countries led to a public-private partnership with Syngenta to help further develop Golden Rice.

Scientists at Syngenta then carried out additional laboratory, greenhouse, and field research to help raise the beta carotene levels in Golden Rice. In 2005, they developed a new version of Golden Rice that produces substantially more beta carotene than the 1999 prototype – as published in Nature Biotechnology.

Syngenta arranged royalty-free access to the patents and intellectual property, held by several biotechnology companies, for a number of key technologies used in Golden Rice. This allows IRRI and others to develop Golden Rice varieties on a non-profit basis. . .

Not everyone will be swayed by those inconvenient facts.

For those who prefer emotion there’s one of the people hurt by the politics:
"Since Golden Rice was first announced in 2000, Greenpeace has made a concerted effort to block its introduction. They have waged a campaign of misinformation, trashed the scientists who are working to bring Golden Rice to the people who need it, and supported the violent destruction of Golden Rice field trials at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines." By opposing Golden Rice, Greenpeace defies its own values – and harms children: Image via

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