Fourteen years ago, scientists developed a genetically engineered version of rice that would promote the production of vitamin A to counter blindness and other diseases in children in developing countries. In a few months, the Philippines will become the first country to start giving “golden rice” out to its farmers. Bangladesh and Indonesia will follow suit soon, and India is seriously considering it.
Good, but 14 years is rather a long time, isn’t it? The number of children in developing countries who went blind from vitamin A deficiency during that time (half of whom died within 12 months of losing their sight) runs into the low millions. (The World Health Organization estimates that between a quarter-million and a half-million children a year go blind from vitamin A-deficiency.)
“Golden rice” contains beta-carotene, an orange-coloured pigment that is a key precursor chemical used by the body to make vitamin A. Sweet potatoes, carrots, spinach, and butternut squash are naturally rich in beta-carotene, but ordinary white rice contains almost none. And rice is the most important food in the diet of about half the world’s people.
So what caused such a delay in getting it out to the farmers? It was created by Peter Beyer, professor for cell biology at Freiburg University in Germany, and Ingo Potrykus of the Institute of Plant Sciences in Switzerland in the late 1990s, and was ready for field trials by 2000. But the first field trials were delayed for seven years by protests from Greenpeace and other environmental groups, and crossing various regulatory hurdles took another six.
Both the protests and the regulatory hurdles were based on the notion that genetically engineered plants are “unnatural”. Which automatically raises the question: which human food crops are actually “natural”, in the sense that you will find them growing wild in nature. Answer: none.
That’s why ecologist Stewart Brand has proposed the phrase “genetically engineered” (GE) in lieu of the more common “genetically modified” (GM) on the grounds that all domesticated plants have been genetically modified, by cross-breeding or by blasting seeds with radiation. None of them would survive in the wild.
Gene-splicing is just a more efficient and neater way of achieving the same goals. Much of the early opposition to GE was no more than a superstitious fear of the unknown, and there was also genuine concern that it might pose health risks to consumers.