Alleviating Dietary Deficiencies The Golden Rice Story

In addition to proteins, fats, and carbohydrates, a proper diet for the human body includes at least 17 inorganic minerals and 13 organic vitamins. Inadequate supplies of these essential substances can result in nutritional-deficiency diseases. For example, scurvy (the hallmarks of which include bleeding gums, fatigue, and eventual prostration) appears in people deprived of vitamin C for even a few weeks; pellagra, a syndrome of skin lesions and sometimes mania, follows from a paucity of dietary niacin (vitamin B3); rickets, a disease of growing bones, ensues from inadequate supplies of vitamin D; and anemia is among the early symptoms of iron starvation.

According to the World Health Organization, one of the world's most serious nutritional health challenges is vitamin A (retinol) deficiency, a leading cause of blindness in children and an accessory factor for other afflictions including diarrhea and respiratory illnesses. More than 250,000 children in Southeast Asia reportedly go blind each year as a consequence of retinol deficiency. Worldwide, vitamin A deficiency affects the health of nearly 125 million youngsters, and it is estimated that higher doses of this essential nutrient could help to prevent about 1—2 million deaths annually.

As basal organisms in the food web, plants are the ultimate biological source of many vitamins and minerals in the human diet, supplying these nutrients to us directly, or indirectly through the animals we consume. The delivered quantity of different nutrients varies widely according to the type of plant and the mode of food preparation (storage and cooking reduce the concentration of many vitamins and minerals). For example, spinach and other leafy vegetables are a great source of vitamin K and fluoride, seed grains are excellent for biotin and several minerals, and fruits and orange/yellow vegetables (such as carrots) are rich in vitamin A. Thus, most nutritional experts recommend varied diets. But even in well-fed nations where diverse cuisines are readily available, vitamin pills and food additives are deemed important if not critical as nutritional supplements.

Sadly, in much of the developing world, people subsist on simple diets of staple foods such as corn, wheat, or rice that are poor sources of some of the essential nutrients. Approximately 30% of the world population is at constant risk of iodine and iron deficiencies, for example. Such health challenges raise a compelling new question for agrotechnology: Can staple crops be engineered to produce and deliver essential dietary nutrients otherwise in short supply? In other words, can they be genetically prefortified with higher doses of essential vitamins and minerals?

One of the earliest, most ambitious, and advanced projects of this sort involves Golden Rice, genetically engineered to deliver substantial levels of vita min A that regular rice grains lack. Constructed in the late 1990s by Ingo Potrykus, Peter Beyer, and their colleagues, this transgenic rice cultivar, named for its golden color, soon was promoted by the media as a nutritional health breakthrough.

The science itself was a tour-de-force. Using a combination of genes isolated from diverse organisms—daffodils, pea plants, two species of bacteria, and a virus—these scientists engineered the entire biosynthetic pathway for b-carotene into experimental rice plants. This pigmented compound is a molecular precursor (or provitamin) to retinol. When ingested by people, it is naturally and easily converted to vitamin A. To almost everyone's surprise, the transgenic plants produced b-carotene, and in such quantities as to imbue the rice grains with their characteristic golden hue. The creation of Golden Rice was revolutionary in being the first case of an entire metabolic pathway being genetically engineered.

At least as complicated and interesting have been the sociopolitics surrounding Golden Rice. Potrykus and Beyer consistently have championed the view that agrotechnology must first and foremost benefit consumers, particularly the poor and disadvantaged in developing countries. But their ultimate goal of delivering Golden Rice to subsistence farmers, free of charge and without restrictions, soon encountered serious hurdles.

Most of the pathbreaking research on Golden Rice conducted in the Potrykus/Beyer lab was underwritten by public funding or by support from the Rockefeller Foundation, with neither source claiming financial stakes in any commercial products that might emerge. However, part of the research was funded under a contract with the European Commission, which included a clause conveying certain rights on project results to industrial partners of the Carotene Project. Potrykus and Beyer soon found themselves immersed in legalities and regulations—patents, technology-transfer permits to developing countries, intellectual property rights (IPRs), technical property rights (TPRs), and so on—that jeopardized their humanitarian goals. Indeed, an audit commissioned by the Rockefeller Foundation found that no less than 70 IPRs and TPRs, belonging to 32 companies and universities, had been involved in the development of Golden Rice.

In part as a concession to public opinion from the huge media attention that Golden Rice has received, some of the partnership companies recently acquiesced in various ways to humanitarian aspects of the project. For example, Syngenta, to which the inventors of Golden Rice had assigned commercial rights, announced that subsistence farmers (defined as those with annual earnings below $10,000) can cultivate Golden Rice varieties, once available, license free. In 2001, the first free samples of this experimental crop were shipped to the Philippine Islands.

Apart from the legal and economic hurdles, there are critics of the Golden Rice project who sometimes see the entire enterprise primarily as a self-serving means for agribusiness to polish its tarnished image. They point out, for example, that in the absence of a balanced diet containing fats that enable the human body to adsorb and utilize vitamin A, the vaunted health benefits of Golden Rice may elude the poorest people the crop is intended to help. They further note that a bowl of Golden Rice (100 g) probably would provide less than 10% of the U.S. recommended daily requirement for this vitamin. And they also ask whether it might not be far cheaper and easier just to distribute vitamin capsules to those in need, as indeed the United Nation's Children Fund (UNICEF) has been doing with good success at least since 1997. According to UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy, a high-dose capsule, costing about 2 cents and given twice a year, is adequate to protect a child against vitamin A deficiency.

Golden Rice has been a poster-child crop of the biotechnology era, but whether it will truly help the real-life poster children of world poverty is a compelling question that only time will fully answer. Sadly, at least for now, the boonmeter must show a rating merely of fervent hope for this approach, despite its lofty goals and the power of its underlying science.


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