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A journalist reveals the complicated history of a crop created to help millions

Golden Rice: The Imperiled Birth of a GMO Superfood

Ed Regis
Johns Hopkins University Press
256 pp.
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The term genetically modified organisms (GMOs) inspires images of crazy crops: a single plant that bears tomatoes above ground and potatoes beneath, or a tree that bears a fruit with stripes of yellow sour orange and green stripes from citron. Unlikely as they may sound, the two plants described above are very real, although neither was made in a laboratory. They are products of simple grafting, a technique used by horticulturalists for thousands of years. In Golden Rice: The Imperiled Birth of a GMO Superfood, science writer Ed Regis explores why certain food plants are treated by regulatory authorities and the public as “genetically modified,” and therefore worthy of strict cautionary regulation, whereas others are seen as “natural,” despite intensive human intervention in their growth and development.

The book’s title refers to rice whose yellow grains have been genetically altered to express b-carotene to address the widespread problem of vitamin A deficiency, symptoms of which include frequent infections, blindness, and even death. Vitamin A deficiency is estimated to affect one in three children under the age of 5, claiming 670,000 lives every year. The idea behind golden rice was that expressing b-carotene, a vitamin A precursor that occurs in other parts of the rice plant, in the grain, would facilitate the delivery of the vitamin to children in Africa and Southeast Asia, whose main diet is rice.

Golden Rice is a thoughtful and carefully documented tale of how difficult it can be to take something that works in the laboratory and get it to the people who stand to benefit from it. Regis puts his cards on the table from the start, dedicating the book to the scientists who led the development of golden rice. But he also makes clear that these researchers were responsible for some of the missteps that thwarted the rice’s journey.

In April 1984, at the end of the day at a rice conference, some of the world’s preeminent rice breeders met up for beers and started to discuss new molecular biology technologies, debating which trait they would most like to introduce into rice. The answer, according to veteran rice breeder Peter Jennings, was clear: add a gene for yellow endosperm.

By 2000, Ingo Potrykus and Peter Beyer had identified the right set of genes and inserted them into an existing rice genome (1). Here, Regis gives special mention to Adrian Dubock, an intellectual property expert who negotiated the deals that made it possible for the researchers to legally use all the patented technologies—from gene constructs to the Agrobacterium vector— that had gone into creation of golden rice.

From a scientific standpoint, the technology was a success. So, what prevented golden rice from being quickly disseminated? Although Greenpeace and other anti-GMO activists have been vocal critics of the project, Regis also points to another culprit: the Precautionary Principle.

The Precautionary Principle, cited in the Cartagena Protocol of 2000 (an international agreement on biosafety), allows countries to restrict, postpone, or ban any product or technology without offering any evidence that the item poses a threat or danger—“better safe than sorry” writ large. Many years of the Golden Rice Project have thus been spent attempting to comply with stringent regulatory hurdles.

When it came time, in 2012, to transfer the “golden” trait to a strain of rice used in Asia, researchers were forced by the high cost of regulation to select a single cultivar, GRG2. When it produced a lower yield than those of nongolden varieties, the researchers had to make the costly switch to a backup variety in order to ensure that they were bringing to market a grain high in yield and in b-carotene content.

Although nuclear energy has Chernobyl and pharmaceuticals has thalidomide, Regis points out that no such disaster exists for GMOs. (A suspected link between Monarch butterfly decline and Bt corn might have fit the bill, but these claims were later debunked by numerous studies.) While one could argue that it is better to be proactive than to wait for a tragedy to occur before taking precautions, Regis invites the reader to consider whether it may be worth the unknown risks ostensibly being prevented by regulation to prevent the death and disability that is known to accompany vitamin A deficiency.

After millions of dollars and years of effort, the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand have all recently approved golden rice as safe for consumption. Now, the end goal is in sight: Golden rice is in front of regulators in the Philippines and in Bangladesh, where it is expected to be approved by the end of 2019.

1. X. Ye et al., Science 287, 303 (2000).

About the author

The reviewer is an Australian science journalist based In Medellin, Colombia.