In an interview for the UK Independent this week, Conservative environment secretary Owen Paterson was forthright, to say the least, in his defence of genetically modified (GM) foods, and ‘golden rice’ in particular. ‘It’s just that little children are allowed to go blind and die because of a hang-up by a small number of people about this technology. I feel really strongly about it. I think what they do is absolutely wicked. There is no other word for it.’
‘Golden rice’ is an idea developed in 1999 by two plant biologists, Peter Beyer and Ingo Potrykus. Rice plants have the ability to synthesise beta-carotene (which our bodies can convert into vitamin A) in their leaves, but this mechanism is ‘switched off’ in the part of the plant we eat, the grain. Beyer and Potrykus discovered that by transferring two genes into rice, they could switch on beta-carotene production in the grain, giving the grain a distinctively yellow appearance. The result is a form of rice that effectively supplies vitamin A.
Vitamin A deficiency is a very serious problem in poor countries where people don’t have varied enough diets - particularly of green, leafy vegetables - to get enough of the vitamin through their food. The World Health Organisation notes: ‘An estimated 250million preschool children are vitamin A deficient and it is likely that in vitamin A deficient areas a substantial proportion of pregnant women are vitamin A deficient. An estimated 250,000 to 500,000 vitamin A-deficient children become blind every year, half of them dying within 12 months of losing their sight.’
So golden rice looked like an easy solution to this problem - add the vitamin to the food people do have access to. At first, the levels of beta-carotene were disappointingly low - insufficient to make much practical difference. But in 2005, a way was found to boost substantially vitamin-A levels. Subsequent studies have suggested that golden rice could supply half a child’s vitamin-A needs. Good news, right?
Not according to green groups like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, which have campaigned tirelessly against golden rice. Earlier this year, a field trial in the Philippines of golden rice was trashed. This was supposedly done by local farmers who were worried about the new crop, but the project manager of the site told the GM-supporting environmentalist Mark Lynas it was actually the work of a relatively small number of anti-GM activists (and he has some highly suggestive photographic evidence to back up the claim). Whether this piece of anti-scientific vandalism was directly the work of such activists or not, it is most certainly the product of the anti-GM ideas promoted by green groups. The destruction of this crop will set back the approval of golden rice - and any potential benefit that may come from it.