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2-Plants: GRAIN on vitamin A malnutrition and GE approaches

Dear GENET-news readers,

the development of genetically engineered rice that produces b-
carotene has has fueled the debate about the suitability of silver 
bullet approaches to complex problems. Below you will find an article 
written by GRAIN and published in the March issue of Seedling. It 
investigates the underlying causes of Vitamin A - and other - 
malnutrition and gives examples how to solve problems with already 
existant, farm-based solutions making use and conserving the still 
existing rich biodiversity of rice-growing Asian countries. For the 
long version with full references check


Hartmut Meyer




Some 40% of the worldŐs people suffer from micronutrient 
deficiencies.  The 'solution' to this problem is now being promised 
through genetic engineering.  In the face of growing resistance to 
the first generation of genetically modified foodstuffs, Vitamin A or 
'golden rice' provides a golden opportunity to restore biotechnology 
to public acceptability.  Not only will it address a global public 
health problem, but it is being promised free to farmers.  Monsanto 
has also been developing high beta-carotene mustard which it is 
targeting Đ for free Đ to poor farmers in the South.  These nutrient-
enhanced crops are receiving a good deal of attention, particularly 
in delivering the promise of genetic engineering in the guise of 
humanitarian cause.  Too good to be true?  Technical fixes such as 
these will only treat the symptoms of micronutrient deficiency and 
propagate the problem, which is caused by declining diversity in the 
food being produced and consumed.

Despite improvements in global food supplies, malnutrition and hunger 
remains one of the most devastating problems facing society.  
Malnutrition caused by deficiencies in specific vitamins and minerals 
afflict some 40% of the worldŐs population, especially women and 
children.  Ironically, the largest numbers of people suffering from 
micronutrient malnutrition live in South Asia, where a high diversity 
of micronutrient sources, such as fruits and vegetables, exist.  

Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) is one of the leading causes of 
micronutrient malnutrition in developing countries.  Historically, 
vitamin A was recognised to be important for the prevention of 
blindness.  More recently, its role in helping to fight infections 
has come to light.  Vitamin A helps prevent diseases such as 
diarrhea, respiratory ailments, tuberculosis, malaria and ear 
infections, and helps prevent transmission of Human Immunodeficiency 
Virus from mother to child.  According to the World Health 
Organisation (WHO), around 2.8 million children under five years of 
age currently exhibit a severe clinical manifestation of vitamin A 
deficiency known as xerophthalmia.  It has been demonstrated that 
vitamin A could lower childhood mortality by about one-third in many 
parts of the developing world.  VAD is considered a serious public 
health problem and several high level initiatives have been launched 
with the goal of eliminating VAD in 2000.  Progress has been made, 
but the goal is still a long way off.

Deficiency of a single micronutrient seldom occurs in isolation.  In 
many countries, malnutrition with significant health consequences 
results from deficiencies in zinc, vitamins C and D, folate, 
riboflavin, selenium and calcium , in addition to the three 
micronutrients to which so much attention is now given (vitamin A, 
iron and iodine).  VAD is mostly prevalent amidst poverty, 
environmental deprivation and social disparity.  It is considered as 
one of the components Đ and a minor component at that - of the 
syndrome of undernutrition  Hence, in the context of multiple 
nutrient deficiencies and inter-relationships of nutrients, the use 
of a single nutrient to combat micronutrient malnutrition does not 
make sense.

Vitamin A or retinol, is present exclusively in animal foods such as 
liver, milk and eggs. Fruits and vegetables contain provitamin A, 
such as beta-carotene and other carotenoids, which first need to be 
converted into retinol before the body can utilise them (see example 
in the table below).  The origins of vitamin A deficiency in 
childhood can be traced to poor nutrition status of the mother during 
pregnancy and lactation, and inadequate intake of foods rich in 
either preformed or provitamin A by the infant after weaning and 
thereafter.  A logical approach then to the prevention of vitamin A 
deficiency must seek to address these basic causes and not rely on 
technological fixes.  Fortunately, the abundance of natural foods in 
the South  should make such dietary improvements possible.

Farms not pharmacies!

Three measures are currently being employed worldwide to control 
vitamin A deficiency: supplementation, food fortification and dietary 
diversification.  Most of the current strategies worldwide rely 
heavily on health interventions - usually the administration, at 
periodic intervals, of massive oral dosages of synthetic vitamin A 
supplements to children under three years of age.  This strategy was 
pioneered in India in the late 1960Ős.  What was originally envisaged 
as a short-term measure to dietary improvement has become the 
centerpiece of many current programs.  UNICEF estimates that half of 
the children in the world at risk of vitamin A deficiency received at 
least one  dose of vitamin A in 1998.  The ease of supplementation 
has left research into and promotion of dietary measures in the 

This 'drug-based approach' to synthetic vitamin A distribution has 
received wide criticism, even from the very individuals who have 
pioneered the work.  Some of the limitations cited based on the 30-
year experience of India are: ineffectiveness in correcting VAD 
(especially in populations where milder signs of deficiency are 
widespread), the limited shelf-life of vitamin A and logistical 
problems in ensuring supply.  Supplementation programs are often 
expensive and unsystematic, and coverage may be poor.  There have 
been many calls for an alternative approach, addressing the root 
causes of the problem rather than treating the symptoms.  The World 
Declaration and the Plan of Action on Nutrition, adopted by 159 
countries, at the International Conference on Nutrition jointly 
organized by the UNŐs Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and WHO 
in 1992, states that strategies to combat micronutrient malnutrition 
should: "Ensure that sustainable food-based strategies are given 
first priority particularly for populations deficient in vitamin A 
and iron, favouring locally available foods and taking into account 
local food habits."     

The fortification of butter, margarine and sugar with vitamin A is 
already being implemented in some countries.  It too has drawbacks.  
In most instances, food fortification is only feasible in countries 
that possess well-developed, efficiently monitored and properly 
regulated pharmaceutical and food processing sectors.  Like 
supplementation, fortification does not lead to awareness building 
and changes in dietary habits, and its impact is limited to those who 
can access these fortified products.  Dietary diversification, on the 
other hand, requires minimal foreign currency; it promotes the intake 
of a whole range of micronutrients other than vitamin A; it is 
sustainable; it fosters community and individual involvement; and it 
can even help stimulate the local economy. 

The Green Revolution: feast and famine

The prevalence of micronutrient deficiencies now far exceeds protein 
and calorific malnutrition in Asia.  Despite substantial increases in 
cereal supplies, which have contributed to increased intake of 
calorie- and protein-rich foods, the supply and consumption of foods 
rich in micronutrients have not increased proportionally, and in many 
cases have actually declined.  Only 30 crops 'feed the world,' 
providing 95% of dietary energy and protein requirements.  More than 
half of these come from wheat, rice and corn alone.  For this reason, 
these three crops served as the cornerstone of the Green Revolution 
in the 1960Ős.  Monocultures of these crops were encouraged , which 
resulted in  the growth of a food supply that provided more 
macronutrients but did not provide the much-needed micronutrients, 
which were already in short supply.  In some cases, the availability 
of and access to micronutrient rich food crops actually decreased for 
millions of poor people.  Today, more than 2 billion people consume 
diets that are less diverse than 30 years ago, leading to 
deficiencies in micronutrients, especially iron, vitamin A, iodine, 
zinc and selenium.  

Varietal replacement of traditional varieties in the field, which is 
reported to be the major cause of genetic erosion around the world, 
also had its impact in home gardens.  A farm household survey in the 
Republic of Korea, for example, revealed that out of 143 crops 
cultivated in home gardens in 1985, only around 26% of landraces 
remained cultivated by 1993.  These results are disturbing since such 
home gardens have traditionally been important not only as 
conservation sites especially for vegetable crops, but also an 
important source of vitamins and minerals.

A significant and consistent decline in per capita consumption of 
green leafy and yellow vegetables had been noted in Philippines.  The 
same is true for vegetables, fruits, pulses and spices in Bangladesh 
(see graph above). This situation caused the Director of the 
Horticultural Research Center of Bangladesh Agricultural Research 
Institute to suggest that  "Food patterns could have been changed and 
we could have attained self sufficiency in food and nutrition much 
earlier with 300 g cereal/capita per day as against achieving food 
self sufficiency today with 500 g cereals."

It is becoming evident that the Green Revolution represented a trade-
off between quantity and quality in peoplesŐ diets, especially 
amongst the poor.  Even the International Rice Research Institute 
(IRRI) admits that the Green Revolution may have actually increased 
micronutrient malnutrition among the poor. But IRRI can not look 
beyond the Green Revolution model for a solution to this problem, and 
is looking to genetic engineering to get it out of the hole it has 
dug for itself.  Like many other international organisations involved 
in agricultural development, IRRI sees the answer to micronutrient 
malnutrition in engineering the missing elements back into Green 
Revolution crops.  Some of the most advanced research in this arena 
is on engineering vitamin A into rice and mustard plants.  These 
vitamin A crops are being hailed as evidence that genetic engineering 
holds promise for the poor as well as the rich, and that transgenic 
crops can benefit humanity as well as generating profits for the gene 
giants.  This new approach is expected by many to supplant existing 
strategies for dealing with VAD, hopefully overcoming their 

Engineering vitamin A into crops 

Vitamin A rice was showcased in Science in August 1999.  This 
genetically-engineered rice produces beta-carotene in its endosperm, 
giving it the distinct yellow colour that affords it the name Ôgolden 
rice.Ő  The rice was developed with funds from the Rockefeller 
Foundation and the European Commission.  Since it has been developed 
outside the private sector, 'golden rice' has become a much-needed 
and timely public relations tool for the promoters of genetic 
engineering.  At the same time, Monsanto had been developing a high 
beta-carotene mustard plant which it planned to offer to poor 
subsistence farmers around the world.  Through the Global Vitamin A 
partnership and local stakeholders, Monsanto promised to develop 
appropriate varieties of crops for those areas in greatest need.  
This donation allowed Monsanto to make a strong case for the 
relevance of agricultural biotechnology to the problems faced by the 
worldŐs poorest, to get the technology adopted on the grounds of 
public good, and to counter the very bad reputation it had earned 
itself, particularly in Europe and India.  

'Golden rice' is the product of two German research teams under the 
direction of Dr Ingo Potrykus of the Swiss Institute of Technology in 
Zurich, and Dr Peter Beyer of the University of Freiburg.  The idea 
of genetically engineering beta-carotene into rice emerged nine years 
ago, in the light of UNICEF and WHO reports on the high incidence of 
VAD in countries where rice serves as a staple food.  The researchers 
engineered a laboratory variety of japonica rice (Taipei 309, adapted 
to temperate weather in Europe) to convert a naturally-occurring 
hormone precursor into beta-carotene.  The team has added three 
genes, two of which are new to genetic engineering and come from 
daffodils (Narcissus pseudonarcissus).  The third comes from a 
bacterium, Erwinia uredovora, which has been already used by Kirin 
Brewery.  The teams are also working to cross this new line with 
another rice line to increase its iron content. 

The amount of hype given to 'golden rice' seems a little premature 
given that only a handful of genetically engineered seeds have so far 
been developed.  All that is certain is that some of the transformed 
seeds contain beta-carotene in the endosperm, but it is not yet clear 
whether or not it is available for absorption.  Even if the rice 
proves to be a success, the beta-carotene trait still needs to be 
transferred to the indica rice varieties, the types grown in Asia.  
This work will be done by several of the International Agricultural 
Research Centres (IARCs), including the Philippine-based IRRI, the 
India-based ICRISAT and the Colombia-based CIAT where further cross-
breeding and field testings will be done.  IRRI, together with the 
Philippine Rice Research Institute, is set to transfer the golden 
trait to widely-grown varieties such as IR64.

Vitamin A rice has a long way to go still.  Success in the laboratory 
means little in the field.  Transgenic plants which perform well in 
laboratories often fail in nature, especially if they contain not 
one, but three added gene-constructs.  Environmental impact can only 
be speculated on at this point, and issues such as palatability and 
public acceptance may also pose problems.  The whole project does not 
seem to have been thought through very well.  PotrykosŐ and BeyerŐs 
teams contacted international institutions with experience in VAD, 
such as UNICEF,  FAO and the WHO, only after the project was well 
underway.  Had they done so prior to undertaking the research, the 
project might well never have happened.  The research team has 
consisted of plant scientists and a nutritionist, and issues related 
to extension and public acceptance have not been addressed.  
Consumers may very well react against a rice which is yellow instead 
of white.  If public education is needed, wouldnŐt it be better to 
use such efforts to promote dietary diversification which would 
improve overall nutrition rather than simply supplement a single 

While the development of vitamin A rice seems to be well-intentioned, 
if perhaps misdirected, MonsantoŐs beta-carotene mustard comes from 
more questionable roots.  Calgene, which was bought by Monsanto in 
1996, first developed rapeseed (Brassica napus) with elevated 
carotenoid levels because it contained higher proportions of fatty 
acids, making it potentially more profitable.  Unlike the Ôgolden 
riceŐ initiative, the objective was purely commercial.  Transferring 
the technology to mustard (Brassica juncea), a close relative, was an 

It seems unlikely that it is pure coincidence that MonsantoŐs idea to 
create beta-carotene mustard has come at a time when mustard, which 
is the most important oil crop in South Asia, is being pushed into 
the marketplace.  Monsanto is present in the Indian seed market 
through its agreements with Mahyco and its ownership of Cargill.  
MonsantoŐs donation appears within the context of mustardŐs 
transformation into an international trade commodity and the 
companyŐs desperate attempts to gain credibility and support for its 
transgenic crops in India.  Although the company is ready to share 
the technology with any interested party, only the new Delhi-based 
TATA Energy Research Institute is mentioned by Monsanto as a 
potential partner Đ hardly one of the "local stakeholdersÓ it talks 
about.  It may take more than beta-carotene mustard for local farmers 
to trust the corporation they see as at least partially responsible 
for their own hardships. 

MonsantoŐs new R&D center at the Indian Institute of Science in 
Bangalore is responsible for transferring the beta-carotene 
technology from rapeseed into mustard varieties, which it hopes to do 
by the end of 2000.  Field testing will take a further 2 to 3 years.  
Meanwhile, many questions remain.  Since beta-carotenes are fat-
soluble, Monsanto expects that the oil from its transgenic mustard 
will be readily absorbed by the human body.  However, heat destroys 
beta-carotene, and mustard oil is most often consumed after cooking, 
so the beta-carotene needs to be stabilised somehow.  Another 
drawback is that the modified rape seed oil is orange, which could 
affect public acceptance.

Tangled up in patents

Despite all the publicity, the promises of 'golden rice' and 
MonsantoŐs rapeseed are still far from being realised.  One issue 
that has been largely beyond the scope of the press debates is that 
of intellectual property rights associated both to the Monsanto 
rapeseed and, perhaps less evidently, to the 'golden rice'.  In the 
case of Monsanto, the company owns Đ through Calgene Đ the patent on 
the beta-carotene rapeseed (WO9806862), and on the promoter (napin 
promoter: US 5,420,034).  It is bound to pay royalties to the 
developers of the transformation method it has used to produce the 
transgenic rapeseed and to Kirin Brewery for the carotenoid 
biosynthesis genes from the bacterium Erwinia uredovora (EP0393690).  

Monsanto has announced that it aims to provide the high beta-carotene 
mustard free of charge to poor and subsistence farmers "not fully 
participating in the world economy."  However, what this means is not 
clear.  What will be the limit for the sale of the rapeseed or its 
oil?  How would such limitations affect the availability of the beta-
carotene oil to the poor?  Will they  affect the purchase of the 
seeds or oil by large national or international corporations?  
Sources from MonsantoŐs R&D Institute say that while the project is 
philanthropic, the company has no clear policy to answer these 

In the case of the 'golden rice,' its developers claim that it will 
likely be given free of charge to the farmers.  Whether this claim 
will be realised is still up in the air given the patent hurdles it 
faces.  Despite being funded by public sector, the 'golden rice' is 
to a large extent the product of private companies. 

The development of the rice has involved patented processes, genes 
and promoters, which amount to at least six previous patents (see 
table opposite).  On top of these, the teams of Zurich and Freiburg 
have filed a patent application covering the insertion of the 
metabolic pathway to produce beta-carotene in seeds.  The scientists 
involved claim this was to prevent other parties (corporations) from 
patenting the technology.  If this is really the case, it would have 
been enough just to release the information into the public domain.  
Applying for the patent turns the Rockefeller Foundation and the 
European Commission into potential for-profit institutions.  
According to Beyer, the patent application that has been filed covers 
the insertion of the new metabolic path in any crop, not only rice.  
Rice will be the only crop freely available to farmers, and only 
under certain circumstances as specified in a contract between the 
ÔinventorsŐ and the IARCs transferring the genes for the Ôgolden 
riceŐ into tropical varieties. 

This is not the first agreement between private sector companies and 
IARCs to use and distribute patented materials.  Ciba-Geigy (which 
merged with Sandoz to form Novartis) made Bt genes available to IRRI 
to develop rice, and the rice produced with this gene is freely 
available to rice producers in all countries except Australia, 
Canada, Japan, New Zealand, United States, and members of the 
European Patent Convention as of 1994.  Plant Genetic Systems has 
provided the Centro Internacional de la Papa (CIP) with Bt genes and 
technologies, and the results of collaborative research are freely 
available for developing countries, provided the recipient does not 
appropriate them unfairly or seek profit through their 
commercialisation in industrial countries.  The control must remain, 
after all, in the hands of the patent holder.

The teams behind the 'golden rice' believe that, if only for the sake 
of their public image, no company will prevent them from using their 
patented processes, genes or promoters to make rice freely available 
for the poor.  But it is a complicated arena because a conflict of 
interest could easily arise for the companies involved, particularly 
given that they have only made their technologies freely available 
for use under certain circumstances.  However philanthropic the 
intentions of the project, the products of genetic engineering are so 
entangled in IPR issues and directed towards the profit motive, 
conflicts are almost certain to arise.  Charitable initiatives may 
easily be corrupted and derailed because of the private sectorŐs 
ownership of key genes and patents.

Will biotech solve the problem?

The unveiling of 'golden rice' is giving impetus to the application 
of genetic engineering to combat micronutrient malnutrition.  But it 
is highly unlikely that poor people stand to benefit from this 
strategy.  This 'band aid' approach will merely perpetuate the 
declining quality of food grown under the industrial agricultural 
system at the expense of fruits, vegetables, and underutilized and 
wild crops.  Without shifting the focus of nutrition efforts towards 
a more diverse agricultural base, there is no doubt that 
micronutrient deficiency will persist.  The real impacts of vitamin A 
crops will be:

- Reducing dietary and nutritional diversity
Focusing on engineering micronutrients into staples instead of 
promoting natural sources will further skew agricultural research and 
development and consequently food availability further away from 
diversity.  It will perpetuate the commodity bias towards staples or 
a limited range of so-called functional foods such as high beta-
carotene oil.  This will exacerbate genetic erosion, decimate farming 
systems and reduce nutritional diversity.
- Decreasing overall nutritional status
The very narrow target of just providing a single micronutrient such 
as vitamin A into commonly consumed crops will do little to overcome 
micronutrient deficiencies.  The transfer of an exotic gene into a 
monoculture crop can do little to make up for the dietary 
deficiencies of those suffering from monoculture malnutrition.  The 
nutritional value of  a combination of rice and Moringa (drumstick) 
leaves is far greater than that of the 'golden rice'.  Providing only 
a single micronutrient via food to a population which   is deficient 
in a whole range of nutrients could be considered unethical, 
especially where the whole  range can easily be obtained easily from 
locally-available fruits and vegetables and in wild and underutilised 

- Perpetuating the problem
The claim that Ôgolden riceŐ or beta-carotene mustard will help 
eliminate VAD in the South has great appeal.  Yet the genetic 
engineering approach erroneously assumes that VAD exists due to a 
general lack of vitamin A food sources.  This type of intervention 
tends to maintain the status quo, where rice remains to be the 
predominant food in poor peoplesŐ diets, instead of encouraging 
people to diversify their food sources.  Instead of solving the 
problem, it merely masks the shortcomings of the Green Revolution and 
perpetuates the problem.   

 -Promoting technical fixes again 
This one-dimensional technical fix approach to VAD is reminiscent of 
the Green Revolution paradigm.  This was another techno-fix solution 
to a  complex problem: that of poverty and hunger.  'Golden rice' is 
another simple, universal solution to the problems of the poor 
decided upon and developed by scientists from the North.  It comes as 
no great surprise that the Rockefeller Foundation, one of the main 
architects of the Green Revolution, has been financing this approach 
to solve a problem which it helped to create in the first place.

- Accessibility and equity
The "poor" are a major target for vitamin A crops.  Yet many of the 
poor, particularly women, have not benefited from Green Revolution 
crops, so it is unlikely they will benefit from the next wave.  Any 
direct benefit to the poorest, who by definition have little 
purchasing power thus generate little of a market,  is to be 
generated as a side effect, or an exception to the rule, upon which 
the poor do not have any control.  Scarce resources should be 
directed, instead, to policies that have the poor as their main 
objective, not as incidental beneficiaries.  

- Dietary diversification or uniformity?
Although improved dietary habits, particularly the increased 
production and consumption of beta-carotene-rich foods, have long 
been advocated as the only acceptable long-term solution to combat 
VAD, very few concrete steps have been taken in this direction in the 
past twenty years.  In the words of the 1991 laureate of the World 
Food Prize, Dr. Nevin Scrimshaw:  "It is ironic that some of the 
worst concentrations of xerophthalmia and blindness due to vitamin A 
deficiency occur in populations surrounded by abundant sources of the 
vitamins and minerals in local vegetables and fruits, yet, no country 
has yet mounted a successful campaign to solve the Vitamin A problem 
in this way".

Breaking the cycle
Supplementation and fortification programmes treat the symptoms but 
not the underlying cause of micronutrient malnutrition.  Poor quality 
diets consisting primarily of  staple foods are the underlying cause 
of micronutrient malnutrition.  'Golden rice' is merely an extension 
of the supplementation approach and also fails to address the cause.  
Even worse, it actually perpetuates malnutrition because it fails to 
address peoplesŐ requirements of other minerals and vitamins, which 
would be met by adopting a dietary approach to VAD.

Improving dietary diversity by stimulating the production and 
consumption of micronutrient-rich foods is the only sane and 
sustainable approach to overcoming micronutrient deficiencies.  There 
is a great scope for improving direct household supplies to such 
foods in rural and urban areas (see box on p 17).  The real cause of 
VAD is that vulnerable populations are not empowered enough to access 
these natural sources of vitamin A.  This should be the starting 
point of any strategy to combat VAD.  Diversity is the basis of 
balanced nutrition.  Agricultural and nutritional policies should 
promote the availability of micronutrient-rich foods and targeted 
nutrition education programs should help increase their consumption.  
Only by providing a diversity of food sources in the field and by 
increasing awareness of foodŐs relevance not just to fill the bowl 
with calories but to improve nutritional well-being, can we break 
away from the vicious cycle of hunger and malnutrition.   

Main Sources:

- C Gopalan et al (1998), "Micronutrient malnutrition in SAARC," NFI  
  Bulletin, India
- BA Underwood et al (1999), Micronutrient Malnutrition: policies and 
  programs for control and their implications.  Ann. Review of 
  Nutrition, Vol 19.
- FAO-WHO (1992), Nutrition - the global challenge.  InternŐl 
  Conference on Nutrition, Dec 5-11,  Rome.
- H Bouis (1998) Plant breeding: a new approach for solving the 
  widespread, costly  problem of micronutrient malnutrition, IFPRI
- Personal communication with KK Narayanan,  Monsanto R&D Centre in 
- Xudong Ye et al (2000), "Engineering the Provitamin A (b-carotene) 
  Biosynthetic Pathway into (Carotenoid-Free) Rice Endosperm",
  Science, Vol 287, pp303-305)
- Interview with Ingo Potrykus and Peter Beyer.
- Florianne Koechlin (2000) "The Ôgolden riceŐ Đ a big illusion?"
  No Control On Life Mail-out 73, February 2000


|                   GENET                     |
| European NGO Network on Genetic Engineering |
|                                             |
|             Hartmut MEYER (Mr)              |
|          Reinhaeuser Landstr. 51            |
|            D - 37083 Goettingen             |
|                 Germany                     |
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| phone: +49-551-7700027                      |
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