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2-Plants: Reburnishing Golden Rice



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TITLE:  Reburnishing Golden Rice
SOURCE: Nature Biotechnology 23: 395, Editorial
        posted by AgBioView, USA
DATE:   Apr 2005

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Reburnishing Golden Rice

The revelation last month that Syngenta has mistakenly distributed an
unapproved variety of GM corn containing an ampicillin resistance marker
over the past four years reveals a monumental foul up. It's ironic then
that the same company deserves credit for a classic piece of industrial
development applied to a public good. Syngenta has brought the world
'Golden Rice 2,' an improved version of transgenic rice engineered to
produce -carotene (provitamin A). The company has developed the crop to the
point where it might now fulfill its promise as a remedy for certain forms
of malnutrition that principally affect people in developing countries.

Golden Rice first burst onto the scene five years ago. It was heralded then
by some as biotech's solution to a staggering human health crisis: vitamin
A deficiency, which is responsible for 3,000 deaths per day and 500,000
cases of infant blindness per year. The problem is that Golden Rice was
miscast as a panacea for the world's poor. In fact, it is one of many
solutions that need to be developed in tandem, including educational
initiatives to promote consumption of fruit, vegetables and animal
products, local efforts to fortify existing food staples with vitamin A and
international programs to distribute dietary supplements in developing
countries.

Low-tech solutions by themselves, however, can only do so much. The poorer
the family, the less likely they are to receive a balanced diet,
particularly in times of famine when fruit and vegetables are in short
supply. And the more rural the family, the smaller the chance they will get
to hear about educational programs or benefit from vitamin A-fortified foods
or supplements distributed by aid programs.

Ingo Potrykus, one of the codevelopers of the original Golden Rice strain,
understood this. He developed carotene-enriched rice as a biological
solution to the same problem, one that is much simpler. A single Golden
Rice grain potentially allows a subsistence farmer to produce 1,000 grains
of rice, from which might be produced 1,000,000 seeds, and so on. From one
kernel, a farmer could grow 20,000 tons of rice in two years after four
generations. And Golden Rice has fewer cost and aid implications:
educational programs and vitamin supplements need annual budgets, networks
for delivery, and they foster dependency. Rice seed, on the other hand, can
be replanted each year at no extra cost to the farmer.

This argument would be compelling were it not for the fact that even the
best lines of the original Golden Rice accumulated -carotene to levels that
supply only 15-20% of the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for vitamin A.
Biotech opponents, such as Greenpeace, have seized on this to claim that
Golden Rice is 'a technical failure' because malnourished children would
need to consume kilograms of rice to attain any tangible benefit (a
position that conveniently ignores the reality that most people are only
partly deficient in vitamin A and require only a small supplement to their
daily carotenoid intake). Even last month, Greenpeace claimed in a press
release that Golden Rice would "exacerbate malnutrition and undermine food
security because it encourages a diet based on a single industrial staple
food."

What Syngenta has now done in Golden Rice 2 is to replace the daffodil
phytoene synthase gene with the equivalent gene from maize (p. 482). The
consequence is that the new strain accumulates levels of the provitamin A
that are more than 20-fold higher than those of the original. Syngenta
scientists estimate that Golden Rice 2 could provide 50% of the RDA for
vitamin A, although overall bioavailability would depend on the presence of
dietary oils and proteins.

This is just the sort of thing that happens when you set goal-focused
industrial R&D on a problem: they get on it and solve it. It might not
always be pretty science. It might not always offer huge mechanistic
insights or fundamental understanding. But it works and it usually works
quite quickly. Unlike Golden Rice, which was the product of an academic
collaboration between the groups of Potrykus and Peter Beyer with funding
from the Rockefeller Foundation, the new rice strain is entirely a product
of Syngenta's corporate R&D funding. Does that mean that the company aims
to monopolize on its valuable product through exhorbitant licenses or
sales? Actually no, not at all.

Syngenta is a member of the Humanitarian Golden Rice Network, which has
obtained free licenses for humanitarian use of the necessary technology
from more than 32 different companies and universities. The company will
work with breeders in the public rice research institutions in Bangladesh,
China, India, Indonesia, South Africa, the Philippines and Vietnam to make
locally adapted varieties of Golden Rice 2 freely available to small-scale
farmers with incomes less than $10,000. Once approved for release,
varieties directly bred from Syngenta's rice will become the farmer's
property, which they will be able to resow year after year without payment.

Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and their political allies in European
governments and nongovernmental organizations will not welcome Golden Rice
2. They will continue to reject and stall biotech products at the mere hint
of a transgene, no matter what the humanitarian value of the crop and no
matter how spurious the environmental concerns. But there comes a time when
arguments against a GM product that could help prevent blindness in hundreds
of thousands and death in millions each year should be seen for what they
are: ideological bigotry.

Golden Rice is an exception to the rule that we don't give away gold or
grain for free. It cannot change the way the world works. And it cannot
reverse all the health or economic inequities that exist around the globe.
But it can change for the better the plight of the world's malnourished, if
only those rigidly opposed to GM crops would let it.


-- 
GENET
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