ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network

The following article by Hugh Warwick first appeared in Splice (March/April 2000), the magazine of the Genetics Forum

The golden backlash

Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) is a serious problem in parts of the developing world. It causes partial or full blindness (Xerophthalmia) and exacerbates other illnesses. It is associated with malnutrition and is estimated to affect some 250 million people, mainly small children and pregnant women.

And something needs to be done about it. But the solution being advocated by the technophiles, that of rice genetically engineered to produce beta-carotene, the precursor of vitamin A, is an obscene abuse of these people’s suffering. While anti-biotech protesters are criticised for the emotional base of their arguments, it is rather rich to have the sort of guilt trips that the proponents of GE rice are laying on us all.

In fact it is more than just a sordid attempt to co-opt our emotions. It marks the start of the long-awaited backlash by the biotech industry and their lackeys. For much of the past couple of years, proponents of biotech have been on the back foot - having to deal with criticism from almost every quarter. And now they are beginning to attack. But their first attempt fails to stand up to even the most superficial analysis.
The dream of Vitamin A rice, known as ‘Golden Rice’ due to the inevitable colouration from the carotenoids that make up pro-vitamin A, is being pursued by Ingo Potrykus from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zuerich. For which Potrykus has managed to attract some $100 million from the Rockefeller Foundation. He likes to portray himself as something of a renegade. Claiming to be fighting against patenting of the technology and demanding that it be given away to the poor and needy.

But Potrykus has not always been so keen to distance himself from patents. As a search of databases reveals, he is named as ‘inventor’ and thus has interest in thirty plant-related patents, most of them belonging to Novartis.

His motivation perhaps became clearer when a paper was published in Science earlier this year. It was accompanied by a commentary declaring that: "One can only hope that this application of plant genetic engineering to ameliorate human misery without regard to short-term profit will restore this technology to political acceptability."

But this application may face many hurdles. Not least of which is the very real concern that people will refuse to eat an orange rice. So deeply embedded has the notion that white is best become, that the cultural obstacles could be insurmountable.

 There are biological problems to be overcome as well. The most serious of which is that the technology so far works in no more rigorous an environment than the laboratory. But there is also the very real issue of the bio-availability of pro-vitamin A. For it to have any impact on VAD, it has to be absorbed in the gut and then built up into vitamin A. But pro-vitamin A is fat-soluble, so the diet must include fats or oils, often lacking for the malnourished. Otherwise all the good work just gets excreted.

There are other factors affecting the uptake of pro-vitamin A that need to be tackled. The science is not understood. For example, carrots produce the pro-vitamin, but in a hardly digestible, crystalline form. They need to be cooked, with some oil added, to assist uptake. But oranges deliver the pro-vitamin far more efficiently. And there is evidence that other vitamins and minerals play a role, so the diet as a whole needs to be improved for the golden rice to have any impact.

And this is the point made by John R. Lupien, director of the ‘Food and Nutrition Division’ of FAO: "A single nutrient approach towards a nutrition-related public health problem is usually, with the exception of perhaps iodine or selenium deficiencies, neither feasible nor desirable."
This is where the alternatives to the techno-fix step in. The seriousness of VAD is such that many believe we cannot wait the ten years before golden rice might come on stream. And already there are a host of measures being implemented that offer solutions. There are three basic strategies that are being investigated:

Food-fortification (e.g margarine containing vitamin-A in the Phillipines; sugar fortified with vitamin-A in some Latin American countries).
Supplementation: Administration of high dose vitamin-A capsules twice a year at a cost of around one pence per dose
Food-based or dietary projects:  Vitamin-A is found in meat, fish, eggs or milk-products. Provitamin-A is found in plants, especially in green leafy vegetables and fruit. For example, red palm oil has the carotene equivalent of 30000 micrograms of vitamin A per 100g edible portion compared with 2000 in carrots and 50 in herring and mackerel. Education and improvement in status of women has also been identified as vital in the effective development of dietary projects.

While the first two strategies generate faster results, the impact of food-based projects can be profound. And the WHO wants them to be in place within 5 years of starting a VAD programme in any given country. As they tend to be rooted deep in the concepts of sustainable agriculture, there are far more benefits accruing.

In Bangladesh the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation) began a project in 1993. Working with Helen Keller International and other NGOs, they introduced a programme of education and helped develop small home-gardens as well as improving cultivation methods. Families without land were shown how to grow vitamin A rich plants up the walls of their homes, for example beans and pumpkins. The project swiftly snowballed as the health benefits became apparent. And from small beginnings there were at least three million people involved by 1998.
Analysis of this project indicated that only small areas of land were required to generate sufficient vitamin A, and that the greater variety of fruits and vegetables a person consumes, the better their uptake of pro-vitamin A.

In Thailand the focus was on the ivy gourd. This pro-vitamin A rich leafy vegetable can be cultivated with ease and actually grows wild in many regions. The message was spread through the radio, posters and comics. Theatre groups became involved as did teachers and monks. And in West Africa, the realisation that sun drying helps maintain nutrient levels of fruit and vegetables was used. Mango dried in this way retains pro-vitamin for as long as six months.

Ironically, some of the most exciting news has come from studies of rice growing. Rather than furthering the mistakes of the Green Revolution, that has left vast areas of the world growing a very few varieties of chemically dependent rice, Jules Pretty, from the University of Essex, has been investigating the value of diversity and sustainability. It was once common practice to maintain fish populations in paddy fields. These then provided a rich source of protein and vitamins, including easily absorbed vitamin A. But the onset of the Green Revolution saw the end of this as the chemical load in the water destroyed any chance of fish surviving. Also, the chemical regime tended to eliminate any chance of growing additional crops around the paddy fields.

However, projects in Bangladesh and China have shown how, with a little thought, a great deal can be achieved. For example the ‘farmer field schools’ in Bangladesh have emphasised the ecological concepts of pest control. Rice yields have actually risen - by 5-7% - and the costs of production have fallen as 80% of farmers attending the schools have ceased using pesticides. And there have been significant additions to families incomes from the sale of fish reared in the paddies and vegetables grown on the dykes that surround them.

In the Jiangsu province of China there has been a massive rise in rice/aquaculture systems. Here rice yields have increased 10-15%, but the greatest dividend has come from the fact that each hectare can produce 750kg of fish. There is the additional benefit that the incidence of malaria is dropping as fish predate the mosquito larvae.

If it were not for the vast array of alternatives on offer, the arguments for the GM approach might be genuinely compelling. But this is simply not the case. In fact the sole beneficiaries of the technology so far have been the biotech corporations, who have started to claim altruistic motives for their work. Hopefully the public will not be so gullible as to believe their claims. After all, this is little more than a cynical attempt to engineer a ‘PR-gene’ into an otherwise beleaguered industry.

Hugh Warwick
Splice March/April 2000