Dr. Shini Somara’s Question
“To what extent have giant leaps in scientific progress been influenced by shifts within the scientists themselves?”
Theme: A small step; a giant leap
GM Rice – A giant leap in discovery, but a small step in distribution
Beta-carotene enriched Golden Rice is a very argued topic, with people taking drastic sides. This GM rice should reduce Vitamin A deficiency in poor countries, reducing cases of blindness, unhealthy skin and weak immune systems, and leading to premature death to the billions of people that have a rice-filled diet. Vitamin A deficiency alone affects 250 million children in the world. This rice ensures that food will be nutritious in the future, when demand will exponentially increase. However, only one country has started distribution and production of this rice, in the Phillipines.
So, why is this so called ‘miracle’ rice not being eaten at billions of peoples’ homes?
First, we shall look at how the first strain of rice was created. This was done by adding 2 beta-carotene biosynthesis genes: the first is phytoene synthase (from daffodils) and the second is carotene desaturase (from the bacterium Erwinia uredovora). They combine to give lycopene, a red compound found in tomatoes. However, in 1999 the strain of GM rice was modified so that did not require lycopene, so produced B-carotene from inside the rice grain. The combination of PSY and CRTI gives the rice a yellow look, a clear indicator that it contains Vitamin A. This is known as genetic engineering (making certain products more useful). This was first thought out in 1984, and successfully created in 1999.
The carotene contains many molecules and enzymes and with at least one B-ionone ring have vitamin A activity. This means the rice has mechanisms for carotene sequestration, e.g. crystallization, oil deposition and protein-lipid sequestration. Putting this gene into rice which is usually low in carotene took until the 1990s to perfect. The synthesis of lycopene via PSY and CRTI in the rice provides the substrate for these enzymes, which enables the formation of PSY and CRTI, which produces vitamin A.
Production chain of carotenoids ( +B-carotene)
However, this 1st strain of golden rice did not provide enough vitamin A to negate vitamin A deficiency. Therefore, a second strain of golden rice was created in order to produce higher B-carotene levels to combat this.
This is because, in multi-step biosynthetic pathways to create this rice, there is a step which limits the rate of a substance produced, which will decrease the amount of B-carotene produced. This can be prevented by either increasing the concentration of rate-limiting enzyme or by using an enzyme that is more active, i.e. it catalyzes faster. It was established that in this case the PSY was limited. Experimentation with PSY genes from different sources identified that maize and rice genes are the most efficient in rice.
This led to the second generation of Golden Rice, which produced over 30 times more B-carotene than the first strain, which means that a diet containing GR2 is much more likely to reduce vitamin A deficiency related diseases. This also gives GR2 a much stronger yellow color than GR1.
Since the discovery of GR2, there are now 5 rice field trial sites in the Philippines which aim to start the distribution of golden rice in the country by 2017, and Bangladesh will be next with aims of 2018.
This does sound like a breakthrough in technology. However, not everyone is happy with this. Protests against this rice, by people especially in the Greenpeace group, are threatening its use in the Philippines and elsewhere. Reports of Greenpeace followers destroyed one production field in the Philippines. Greenpeace has been a major scaremonger and leader in creating doubt in this produce, especially against the use of biotechnology.
(destruction of the GM rice fields in the Philippines.)
In addition, even though this project has been backed by more than 100 of the world’s most distinguished scientists, problems still arise. The lack of acceptance boils down to two beliefs that do not relate to the science of the GM rice: uncertainty and fear. There is also the concern about whether the growing of GM-rice could spread to the conventional crop of rice. The biggest scare was that several years ago in China, researchers involved with Golden Rice committed an ethical breach by feeding the GM-rice grain to children without informing their parents/guardian first. When this became public, China shut down the research completely, drastically undermining the GM crops’ reputation.
In countries such as Brazil and Paraguay, the increasing use of soybean monocultures has already led to widespread deforestation, which sparked protests. People use similar arguments that mass-producing GM rice could lead to mass deforestation.
On the other side, amongst the opposition, there are many, many supporters of The Golden Rice Project, who constantly praise this miracle crop. Supporters of the project also reject the opposition’s concern over the fact that this project has partners in the biotech industry companies that make profit. It has freedom to operate under humanitarian use, therefore the technology can be provided free of charge in developing countries, meaning costs will not be an issue to the local farmers either.
The Golden Rice project also received the blessing from the Pope and received the 2015 Patents for Humanity award In June 2016, 110 Nobel Laureates (winners of Nobel Prizes), amongst 5591 scientists and ordinary people, signed a letter against Greenpeace’s opposition to genetically modified organisms. Sir Richard Roberts, winner of the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine, also the leader of this campaign, stated that: “We call upon Greenpeace to cease and desist in its campaign against Golden Rice specifically, and crops and foods improved through biotechnology in general.”
(blessing of the Golden rice project).
However, the opposition retaliated by arguing that even after 24 years of research and billions of dollars spent, the project is still years away from completion and the release to countries. They argue that many research questions remain about golden rice.
Even further, Masipag, the network for Philippine farmers and scientists, say that caution is needed.
Chito Medina, the leader of Masipag, asks: “Is Golden Rice food, medicine or both? If it is both, then the health department should be doing safety studies. So far only feeding studies have been going on, showing that the Vitamin A is absorbed by the body, but there are no safety data showing whether chemicals may have been produced in the process of genetic engineering.” To Masipag, the test field’s destruction in the Philippines made clear that golden rice simply isn’t welcome there. Medina said that their network itself wasn’t officially part of the destruction, but some of its members were there at their own will.
Therefore, after these countless debates, the progress in The Golden Rice project remains at a snail’s pace, whilst millions of people die due to Vitamin A deficiency. After such a massive leap in discovery, but a small step in distribution, it is almost a waste of an opportunity to solve a vast problem in the world, with GM rice distribution only just commencing in the Philippines and beginning in Bangladesh in 2018.