Gwynne Dyer: Golden rice and the necessity of genetically engineered crops

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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.

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

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MarkFornataro

Apr 4, 2013 at 10:20am

Semantical games- genetically modified vs engineered- won't convince me that these Franken foods are safe. I'll have more faith from a reputable scientist such as David Suzuki any day over Gwynne Dyer's reckless claims, whether its on this issue or his endorsement of nuclear energy.
http://www.cbc.ca/archives/categories/economy-business/agriculture/genet...

Garth Boyd

Apr 4, 2013 at 11:38am

This is the first article from Gwynne that I have completely disagreed with. This sounds so wrong that I think Gwynne has left his computer unattended and someone else snuck in and did the typing.

From a feed the billions perspective he may be right. But 15 years is not long enough to accurately understand the health effects of tinkering with the food supply. Plus there ARE other mechanisms on the table.

For example, Cuba. When not pushing 1950 era cars to the gas station Cuban's have had an embargo from US agri-corp and this has been to their benefit in mixed farming alternative to GM/GE and peciticide farming.

As my Father who grew up on a farm in the 1920s told me once. The food he ate in Cuba reminded him of what our food used to taste like.

Monsanto, another word for evil, will forever in my opinion be tainted by their tactics. The seed game they play in India is the cause of thousands of farmer suicides.

mmoney

Apr 4, 2013 at 2:15pm

"As my Father who grew up on a farm in the 1920s told me once. The food he ate in Cuba reminded him of what our food used to taste like."

Tastes like poverty?

Alex

Apr 4, 2013 at 2:58pm

Genetically engineered foods and seed need to be patent free or at least easily licensed out to farmers and producers so that companies like Monsanto do not own our entire food supply, regardless of GE, GMO or what have you. It's like big PHARM all over again.

Greg

Apr 4, 2013 at 5:48pm

gwyn, how are you even qualified to comment on these issues? stick to your jingoistic banter and steer clear of scientific and philosophical debates please. Tell me is an unnatural hybridized apple different than a genetically modified apple? Are there differences between our agrarian ancestors fussing around with apple varieties and our scientists (funded by capital) engineering apples. Yes and yes. Big differences. Different relations with nature so to speak. Different risks emerge.

Gus Baheau

Apr 4, 2013 at 5:49pm

"as my father grew up in" is right. The pork chops that I grew up witch as a child, just are so much better tasting (As I remember) than the ones that I can buy in the stores today!

G.S.B.

Jeff

Apr 4, 2013 at 5:53pm

Wow - I am surprised at the lack of research Gwynn did for this article.

Did he really study the research for the following claims:
1.But it’s now clear that GE crops pose no health risk
2.The opposition to GE crops never came from farmers

Tom

Apr 4, 2013 at 8:00pm

Gwynn, thanks for your reasoned observations. It always amazes me that there are so many people who so keen on letting others starve, go blind and even for their less than rationale principles.

Andrew

Apr 5, 2013 at 6:35am

"15 years is not long enough to accurately understand the health effects of tinkering with the food supply."

I don't know, it's been 300-400 years since carrots were modified to make them orange and that hasn't killed anyone yet.

"Cuban's have had an embargo from US agri-corp and this has been to their benefit in mixed farming alternative to GM/GE and peciticide farming."

Cuba is also subject to tight rationing and imports and majority of its food.

Joanne LeBlanc

Apr 5, 2013 at 6:41am

Incredible - can't believe that Gwynn wrote this article - sounds like Monsanto rhetoric - makes me question how accurate his previous articles have been... Whew!

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