Golden rice can end world hunger

Genetically modified rice has been controversial, but with 250 million children suffering from vitamin A deficiency can we afford to ignore it?

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 01 October, 2012, 6:46pm

Rice is a food staple for two billion people worldwide, but it does not contain provitamin A. That is one of the reasons why 250 million children worldwide have a deficit in this vital vitamin.

Vitamin A is not only important for vision, but also for resistance to infectious diseases.

Yet each year, up to 500,000 of these poor kids go blind and even more die of infections because they do not get enough of the vitamin in their diet. This is "hidden hunger" - enough calories, but not enough vitamins.

What are we doing to combat these disastrous numbers? The golden rice variety of this food is a good start: fortified with the yellow provitamin A it is indeed a golden opportunity.

So where did it come from? It was pioneered by Peter Beyer of the University of Freiburg and Ingo Potrykus, professor emeritus in plant sciences at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. But the creation has not been without controversy and a longstanding row over the modified rice was reignited this month after Greenpeace alerted Chinese health authorities to an experimental trial giving the modified rice to children at a Hunan primary school.

A Chinese government researcher involved in the experiment has been suspended, while the American research chief was criticised for failing to get consent from parents.

This was despite their paper having been peer-reviewed and published in the respected American Journal of Clinical Nutrition and their research supported by the US National Institutes of Health.

However, their objection wasn't to the addition of provitamin A, but to the use of a "gene transfer".

But did they put human DNA or fish DNA into the rice? Not at all. Genes of maize were transferred with the help of common soil bacteria.

This is DNA transferred from one plant to another. And now the rice contains plenty of provitamin A. Similar DNA transfers happen in Mother Nature billions of times.

Potrykus and Beyer have a great humanitarian plan. Their GMO golden rice will be "crossed" into local rice varieties and distributed to poor farmers in Asia and Africa free of charge. This time, no profit!

So far, genetically modified organisms have not changed the situation in poor and hungry communities, but Potrykus and Beyer have set up a Humanitarian Golden Rice Board, supported by Pope Benedict - who says it is not God's will to let poor people go hungry.

One might be rather sceptical as to whether GMOs can solve entirely the problem of hunger: unequal distribution, feudalistic structures and the capitalist profit motive are equally important to overcome.

But to condemn all scientific attempts to solve the hunger problem is wrong. Genetic engineering may be the only way to find new solutions to disease and pest resistance, plant productivity and fortification with vitamins.

This is impossible without research. Field experiments are best conducted in developing countries and sponsored by the international community.

Do you remember the heated debate years ago about using genetically engineered bacteria to produce human insulin? Today, no diabetic patient cares about this at all. We will see the same for GMOs. How many children could have kept their eyesight, or stayed alive, if short-sighted campaigners had not stopped it?

Biochemist Gottfried Schatz said: "Golden rice has already been available for 10 years. No company will make extra profits from it."

Strains of golden rice will be distributed from spring 2014 to Philippine farmers, who will keep rice from their harvest for next year's seeding.

More countries will follow.

And golden statues will be erected to Beyer and Potrykus in Asia and Africa in their lifetimes.

This was what the famous medieval doctor Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, better known as Paracelsus (1493-1541) had to say: "He who heals is right."

Reinhard Renneberg is a professor of bioanalytical chemistry at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology