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

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.

Comments (28) Add New Comment
MarkFornataro
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...
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Garth Boyd
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.
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mmoney
"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?
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Alex
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.
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Greg
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.
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Gus Baheau
"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.
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Jeff
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
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Tom
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.
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Andrew
"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.
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Joanne LeBlanc
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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Believedata
“The main conclusion to be drawn from the efforts of more than 130 research projects, covering a period of more than 25 years of research and involving more than 500 independent research groups, is that biotechnology, and in particular GMOs, are not per se more risky than e.g. conventional plant breeding technologies.” Ref: European Commission Directorate-General for Research and Innovation; Biotechnologies (2010). A Decade of EU-Funded GMO Research (2001-2010)

Similarly US institutions have ranked the risks from different sources of variation for plant breeding, and found that genetic mutational breeding – that is artificially inducing random genetic mutations as described above – which is considered to be a technique of “conventional breeding” (with which anyway there are no practical problems) to be riskier than the techniques used in genetic engineering. Ref: Safety of Genetically Engineered Foods: Approaches to Assessing Unintended Health Effects. 2004. From The National Academies Press, 500 Fifth St, NW, Washington, DC 20001, ISBN 0-309-09209-4.
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Barney Fife
Gwynne, do you know why all the bees are dying?
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NorthRon
So since so many people on here donèt agree with Dyer's article how do they propose to deal with the central issue he raises? How do we feed 7 or 8 billion people whil;e keeping the percentage of cultivated land as low as possible? It is easy to to say no to GE crops when your belly is full.
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Beez
Whether or not you like the idea, genetically modified crops are one of the few sustainable tools for feeding the world. Current irrigation practices are not sustainable even without climate change considerations. We're tracking the decline of ground water by the month now. The amount of fertilizers we use is creating its own ecological disaster. We need a few more breakthroughs or we're heading for trouble.
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I. Chandler
"But it’s now clear that GE crops pose no health risk."

Russia just suspended imports of Monsanto GM corn (NK603) after a french study linked it to cancer - rats fed the GM corn developed tumors and died.

"Monsanto used relentless lobbying to get its GE seeds"

Those bad OLD days were awful...
Just last week: Congress anonymously sneaks legislation protecting Monsanto from federal courts halting the planting and sale of GMO seed crop regardless of any consumer health concerns. The legislation is written with the same level of accountability as Internet comments - anonymously !

http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/wed-april-3-2013/you-stuck-what-where-...

http://rt.com/usa/monsanto-congress-silently-slips-830/

Rats fed GM potatoes for 110 days had stunted growth and a repressed immune system:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pusztai_affair#Follow_up

"the notion that genetically engineered plants are “unnatural” "

The FDA has no definition of "natural"...This 'GE', reminds me of the attempted name change of high fructose corn syrup to "corn sugar". The FDA ultimately rejected the name change. Googling 'GM cancer' gets more results than 'GE cancer'

"promote the production of vitamin A to counter blindness and other diseases in children in developing countries...Philippines,Bangladesh and Indonesia...

I'm surprised Iraq hasn't signed up - Iraq's children could use some vitamins since they recently lost their national seed bank:

http://tribune.com.pk/story/342986/control-by-seed/

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=43rv7yl2tUY&list=UU_euBuEA3DeyTuJ_6_0qF1g

It's hard to say GM crops pose no health risk when restrictive end-user agreements, prevent scientists to study GM plants. No independent research can be legally conducted on 'GE' technology.
Making 'GE' sound like conventional plant breeding is "not only scientifically incorrect but is deceptive"

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other solutions
better food distribution
- production is sufficient we just don't get it to the people who most need it and waste so much.

less meat consumption
- a ridiculous amount of crops are grown for feeding animals for consumption which is a hugely inefficient use of energy and land.

stop using crops for fuels
- using crops for ethanol and biofuels does not make any sense, we gain less energy than we put in - we should get the energy directly with solar panels

Not to mention polution, climate change, desertification, and other human caused strains on arable land which we could address.

Of course these solutions don't increase agribusiness profits or lead to greater control of food production.
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Paul Buhler
As many comments have pointed out, numerous studies have demonstrated the safety of genetically engineered food. It is telling that a scientist like Stewart Brand also supports the use of GE crops.
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Lilasuka das
The obvious solution is what you should take of the table. Just phase out feeding grain to animals and cars. Right now many governments give tax incentive to feed grain to animals and cars. They need to change this to make it more costly to feed grain to animals and cars. It is a political solution that does not require gene splicing and other magic.
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I. Chandler
"The opposition to GE crops never came from farmers"

Food Inc. describes how the opposition to Monsanto's GE crops from US farmers was crushed by Monsanto:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=gJ_QchB7iLg#t=298s
...

"Which raises the question: which human food crops are actually “natural”, in the sense that you will find them growing wild in nature. Answer: none."

Hmm.. Wild cacao still can be found growing in nature (wild jungle) 500 years after it was cultivated:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cocoa_bean#History

Also - The World According to Monsanto describes how GM corn was banned in Mexico but it miraculously appeared growing "growing in nature" on the side of the road. This transgenic contamination vector is suspicious:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=6VEZYQF9WlE#t=5...

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true north strong and free
When I first read this article, I too questioned who really wrote it...and reread it. I still wonder, is it really Gwynne or a clone? It's written as if Gwynne was genetically modified or engineered and his clone wrote this one.

How I see it, Earth didn't have these issues before man got stupid. Earth was paradise ...until man thought he was smart.

Man pretends to be like 'g-d' by engineering things that imitate what is real. Man is a flyspeck on the face of the Earth. Any food genetically engineered or genetically modified by man are fake. Man doesn't know enough about Mother Nature and shouldn't be tampering with elements of life.

These imitations are mere band aid solutions to the real issues and reasons behind famine, drought, starvation, flooding, severe weather patterns, over population of humans on earth, toxic pollution and disease. They all contribute to: global climate change.

Man tries to change everything around him, including Mother Nature's life supporting elements and environment. Well man... It's your turn to change. How about it? Before it's too late.
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