IF technology could save lives, would you want it? Many people in the developing world do not get enough vitamin A or beta-carotene from the food they eat, contributing to the serious public health problem of vitamin A deficiency.
More than a decade ago, researchers found a solution by inserting other naturally occurring genes into rice — a main staple among countries such as the Philippines and Bangladesh — but the answer to alleviating vitamin A deficiency has yet to reach those who need it most.
In the Philippines, vitamin A deficiency affects approximately 1.7 million children (15.2%) ages six months to five years, and subclinical vitamin A deficiency affects one out of every 10 pregnant women.
Golden rice was developed in 1999 using genetic modification techniques, with genes from maize and a common soil microorganism that, together, produce beta-carotene in the rice grain.
Surveys of rice varieties around the world failed to identify any varieties that contain significant amounts of beta-carotene, so conventional breeding programs could not be used to develop golden rice.
According to research, daily consumption of a very modest amount of golden rice — about a cup (or around 150 g uncooked weight) — could supply 50% of the recommended daily allowance of vitamin A for an adult.
However, activists, especially Greenpeace, have bitterly opposed all genetically modified (GM) crops, including golden rice. The latest showing of this occurred in August, when 300 protesters stormed a research plot in the Philippines and uprooted the plants to die.
Golden rice field trials are conducted by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) to understand how the crop can help improve nutrition. This field experiment would have been one of the 13 multi-locational trials started in 2012 in different parts of the Philippines.
So far, no adverse environmental effects have been reported from the nine completed field trials. The golden rice crop that was sabotaged was the third such planting in the same site since March 2012.
"Golden rice field trials are part of our work to see if golden rice can be a safe and effective way to reduce vitamin A deficiency in the Philippines — to reduce malnutrition," said Dr. Bruce Tolentino, deputy director general of communications and partnerships at IRRI. "Vitamin A deficiency is horrible and unnecessary, and we want to do our part to help to reduce it.
"Our golden rice research is part of our humanitarian work to reduce vitamin A deficiency that mostly affects women and children — causing sickness, blindness and even death," Tolentino added.
The National Academy of Science & Technology Philippines said in a statement, "Rather than use unfounded fears in making a decision, the scientific data from the sabotaged experiment would have provided the third set of solid observations about the field performance of golden rice."
It's those "unfounded fears" that have kept science and technology from being used as a tool for the betterment of society.
Dr. Michael Purugganan, a plant geneticist from the Philippines and the dean of science at New York University, explained that golden rice is "not some sort of unnatural, monster rice." Rather, geneticists inserted only three genes into rice DNA to allow it to make vitamin A — and this is out of the more than 30,000 genes present in a rice plant.
Those genes are not some "weird, manufactured material but are also found in squash, carrots and melons," he explained.
Michael Specter, author of the book Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet & Threatens Our Lives, spoke recently at an event titled Food for Billions at Ohio State University. He contended that actions such as the destruction of golden rice fields are "wasting brilliant minds' time."
He said it's important to challenge people to think about where their information is coming from to prevent misinformation from catching on and spreading.
"I can't stress enough how important it is to be skeptical, to question everyone," Specter said, noting that there is more information out there than ever before, "but at some point, we need to arrive at a reality that is based on fact."
Right now, decisions regarding GM food crops are not being evaluated based on the scientific soundness they have shown over the last nearly two decades.
Specter pointed out that no one has ever printed data of "any scientific validity that shows how someone died or became seriously ill from eating a genetically engineered product."
The same can't be said for aspirin, however.
"All terrible problems won't be solved with genetically engineered anything, but if we walk away from science for the first time since the enlightenment, we'll fail," Specter said. "Because of science, we can do a lot of amazing things, and we've done it with a scientific philosophy that says, 'We'll try stuff and evaluate the safety of it,' but we're walking away from inventing things now."
Purugganan challenged that his home country of the Philippines and the world are now at a critical point.
The population of the planet will hit 9 billion people by 2050. To add some perspective to the food needs, the amount needed to feed the world's population by 2050 will be the amount of food produced in all of history up to this point.
"In the face of reduced land for farming, a growing population and increasingly erratic climates, we, in the Philippines, need to use every tool we have, including agricultural biotechnology, to help our farmers and our people to survive and thrive," Purugganan said. "Our scientists have helped develop golden rice varieties, as well as other genetically engineered crops, to increase our food security. Let us not turn our backs on this technology for the 21st century and find ourselves once again at a technological and economic disadvantage from the rest of the world."
Nearly 30 years ago, some of the best rice breeders in the world gathered at Los Banos, Cal., and discussed harnessing biotechnology to help feed the world.
"What they dreamed up is now poised to become a reality that will help farmers produce a more nutritious rice that can save lives," Purugganan asserted.