Issue Date: August 26, 2013
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On Aug. 8, protesters destroyed experimental plots of genetically modified rice in the Philippines. Called golden rice, the plant contains genes that enable production of β-carotene, which the human body converts to vitamin A. The crop was just weeks away from harvest and submission for safety testing in the regulatory process required for commercialization. The hope in the Philippines and other developing countries suffering from malnutrition is that golden rice will help alleviate vitamin A deficiency. Lack of the vitamin causes blindness and raises the risk of death from infections, according to the World Health Organization, which estimates that up to a half-million vitamin A-deficient children become blind every year.
The incident is a reminder of the deep divide between those for and against genetically modified food. In the war for hearts and minds, fear mongering trumps rational conversations about risks and benefits.
Pioneers of recombinant DNA technology were alert to the potential hazard of mixing genes from different organisms. In 1974, C&EN reported, the group named the Committee on Recombinant DNA Molecules “called on workers currently doing research in the genetic modification of bacteria and viruses to put off all work until a … task force can evaluate the hazards involved and recommend precautions for continued investigation into the area.”
Because of that call, work on genetic engineering was suspended until scientists who gathered in Asilomar, Calif., came up with principles for the safe conduct of experiments. The key recommendation was “for workers to impose on themselves strict guidelines and maintain strict containment in proportion to the potential hazard of the particular experiment.”
The principle of containment proportional to risk informs the regulation of experiments involving genetically modified organisms, says geneticist and New York University Dean of Science Michael Purugganan. Golden rice is in field trials, he says, because scientists and regulators have assessed that if the crop accidentally escaped the experimental confines, the risk to the environment and human health would be minimal.
Golden rice was created by inserting into the rice genome β-carotene biosynthesis genes from a daffodil and a bacterium. The inventors—Ingo Potrykus and Peter Beyer—licensed the technology to the German biotech company Greenovation, which in turn signed a deal with AstraZeneca to make golden rice “available free of charge to the developing nations of the world.” In late 2000, the intellectual property landed in Syngenta, a new company formed after AstraZeneca and Novartis merged their agricultural businesses.
The field trials in the Philippines are being carried out by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and the Philippine Rice Research Institute (PRRI). They are part of the Golden Rice Project, an international humanitarian program.
The reasons for the vandalism are not clear. A television clip identifies the vandals as farmers, students, consumers, and people from the church who suspect that golden rice will bring harm.
Educated in the Philippines, Purugganan is dismayed by the news of the vandalized trials. He has written a commentary in a Philippine news website, debunking misinformation about golden rice. “As a scientist, as a biologist, I have a very, very hard time coming up with a scenario where spreading golden rice would pose a risk to the environment,” he says.
The summary statement from the Asilomar conference was silent on engaging the public about the risks and benefits of genetically modified organisms. As the science has evolved since the 1970s, so has the need increased to educate the public and to conduct work in complete transparency. For the public to support this work, they have to understand it. I must assume that IRRI and PRRI did due diligence on these fronts. If they did, the incident shows they have more work to do. If not, they need to get moving.
Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.
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