A plant that produces tomatoes in its leafy parts and potatoes in its roots? Well, this actually exists. It is called a pomato, marketed as TomTato, and is a chimera obtained by the classic technique of grafting. At the end of the 20th century, human beings learned to create molecular grafts, using the smallest pieces of a plant: its genes. But since then, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have met with fierce opposition from a segment of society. The best example of this is Golden Rice; created in the 1990s, it has been lost in limbo for two decades and has not yet emerged, even though it could solve a vitamin A deficiency that affects a third of children under the age of five and causes more than 100,000 deaths a year. The story of Golden Rice illustrates the tensions surrounding GMOs, an innovation that was created for the benefit of humanity, but which has never quite taken off.
The Golden Rice tale begins in 1984, when the development of the first GM plant spurred interest in producing nutritionally fortified varieties. During a meeting organised at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines by the Rockefeller Foundation, the foundation’s head of biotechnology, Gary Toenniessen, asked the participants which gene they would like to see introduced into rice. Peter Jennings, an IRRI expert who had developed the successful IR8 variety in the 1960s, suggested creating a yellow grain. For years Jennings had been looking unsuccessfully for a variety of this colour, a sign of the presence of beta carotene, the precursor of vitamin A. Deficiency of this essential micronutrient in the diets of 250 million children is the leading cause of preventable childhood blindness and increases mortality from a weakened immune system.
A single cup to cover 60% of children’s daily vitamin A requirements
In the year 2000, with the encouragement of the Rockefeller Foundation, Golden Rice finally saw the light of day at the hands of Peter Beyer from the University of Fribourg and Ingo Potrykus from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. The two scientists used the Agrobacterium bacteria to insert the genes for the enzymes phytoene synthase (psy) from the daffodil and phytoene desaturase (crtI) from the soil bacterium Erwinia uredovora into the rice grain; both provided the grain with the necessary building blocks for completing the biosynthesis of provitamin A or beta carotene. In 2005, researchers at Syngenta Biotechnology replaced the psy gene from the daffodil with the psy gene from maize, creating a new improved version that produced 23 times more beta carotene.
The first transgenic crop designed to improve human nutrition was hailed as a breakthrough that promised to solve a serious problem. In subsequent years, studies confirmed that it was effective as a source of vitamin A, that a single cup would be sufficient to cover 60% of children’s daily vitamin requirements, that the introduced proteins were not allergenic and that it could be crossed with the most widely used local varieties. In 2018 it was approved in the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. And yet, twenty years after its creation, it is still not grown for consumption anywhere in the world, nor has it been approved in the countries of the world that would benefit most from it.
“I strongly believe that the benefits and safety of Golden Rice have been sufficiently supported by scientific evidence,” Tuskegee University plant biotechnologist Channapatna Prakash, editor of the journal GM Crops & Food, tells OpenMind. And yet, the path towards the acceptance of this crop has been strewn with obstacles. In 2015, a study in China on its nutritional benefits in children was retracted when it was found that the trial had not passed the relevant ethical approvals, and families were not informed about the GM nature of the rice. Doubts also remain about the deterioration of beta carotene in stored or cooked grain and about the assimilation of this fat-soluble compound when fats are scarce in the diet, as is the case in many of the children targeted. But for the plant biotechnologist José Miguel Mulet, from the Polytechnic University of Valencia, “as problems have appeared they have been solved. That’s how science works,” he tells OpenMind.
Opposition to GMOs, a big stumbling block
A major stumbling block for Golden Rice has been opposition from a segment of society. “The fears and cautions remain because anti-GMO activists who are opposed to Golden Rice simply keep saying so despite all the evidence to the contrary, and the complicit media provide airtime to them,” Prakash says. Queensland University of Technology plant biotechnologist Jean-Yves Paul tells OpenMind about the opposition in the Philippines, a country that approved Golden Rice as safe to eat in December 2019, but where many steps have yet to be taken before it can be commercialised: “The Philippines is a main driver of the criticisms and roadblocks. Activist and anti-GM groups are really active and well supported there and have severely damaged the image of Golden Rice over the years in a country where unfortunately this technology is much needed.”
The mistrust finds support in the UN’s Cartagena Protocol, which is guided by the precautionary principle to block GMOs even without testing, something that is not required of new varieties developed by other techniques, such as mutations produced by bombardments of radiation. “For more than 20 years, Golden Rice has undergone overwhelming studies on its biosafety, bioavailability, environmental impact, biodiversity, etc., and every conceivable question has been asked. It is probably the most intensively tested crop and food ever!” Prakash says. But for Ingo Potrykus, co-creator of Golden Rice, the rejection is complex: “Opposition to GMOs is in part a matter of scientific literacy but more so an emotional matter,” he tells OpenMind.
There are also criticisms from the academic community. Developing country agriculture experts Glenn Davis Stone of Washington University in St. Louis and Dominic Glover of the Institute of Development Studies question whether Golden Rice is capable of delivering on its promises, and not because of the opposition from activists. Glover tells OpenMind that the proclamation that rice will be offered free to farmers with incomes under $10,000 a year as a “humanitarian project” is a “misrepresentation.” “As far as we know, nobody has proposed that the seed will be provided for nothing, as a routine,” he notes. “It would be expensive to do so.”
Not only does Glover question whether farmers will, without subsidies, choose to grow Golden Rice over other varieties that offer different advantages such as “yield, disease resistance, tolerance to abiotic stresses, cooking qualities, consumer prices…,” but ultimately he doubts that it will really be the solution to vitamin A deficiency over more traditional alternatives such as nutritional programmes or encouraging more variety in crops. “What have been the opportunity costs of investing in Golden Rice rather than other strategies,” he asks.
For the moment, the roll-out of Golden Rice continues to stagnate. “Bangladesh was claimed to be on the brink of giving approval, but the decision was deferred indefinitely, for unstated reasons,” says Glover. Meanwhile, advocates of the crop condemn the obstruction. “It’s pure politics. There is no scientific reason,” Prakash laments. “All this delay while half million children may die or go blind this year because of vitamin A deficiency. It is beyond pathetic, it is criminal!” For his part, Potrykus is confident that his life’s work will eventually see the light of day: “The opposition will delay, but cannot prevent the use of Golden Rice.”