The True Story of the Genetically Modified Superfood That Almost Saved Millions

The imperiled birth—and slow decline—of Golden Rice.

Plant biotechnologist Swapan Datta inspects a genetically modified Golden Rice plant at the International Rice Research Institute in Los Baños, the Philippines, on Nov. 27, 2003.
Plant biotechnologist Swapan Datta inspects a genetically modified Golden Rice plant at the International Rice Research Institute in Los Baños, the Philippines, on Nov. 27, 2003. David Greedy/Getty Images

The cover of the July 31, 2000, edition of Time magazine pictured a serious-looking bearded man surrounded by a wall of greenery: the stems, leaves, and stalks of rice plants. The caption, in large block lettering, read, “This rice could save a million kids a year.”

The man in question was Ingo Potrykus, a professor of plant sciences at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, in Zurich, where Albert Einstein had studied and taught. The rice plants around him, although the joint products of many minds and hands, had been largely inspired by him. Their kernels were not the usual plain white grains of rice. Instead, they had a distinct golden hue, the color of daffodils. When spread out on a black surface, they looked like nothing so much as tiny yellow gemstones.

This was Golden Rice, the fruit of nine years of research, experimentation, and development. The “gold” was in fact beta carotene, a substance that is converted into vitamin A in the human body. Conventional rice plants already contained beta carotene, but only in their leaves and stems, not in the kernels. Golden Rice also carries the substance in the part of the plant that people eat. This small change made Golden Rice into a miracle of nutrition: The rice could combat vitamin A deficiency in areas of the world where the condition is endemic and could, thereby, “save a million kids a year.”

Golden Rice: The Imperiled Birth of a GMO Superfood, Ed Regis, Johns Hopkins University Press, 256 pp., .95, October 2019

Golden Rice: The Imperiled Birth of a GMO Superfood, Ed Regis, Johns Hopkins University Press, 256 pp., $29.95, October 2019

Vitamin A deficiency is practically unknown in the Western world, where people take multivitamins or get sufficient micronutrients from ordinary foods, fortified cereals, and the like. But it is a life-and-death matter for people in developing countries. Lack of vitamin A is responsible for a million deaths annually, most of them children, plus an additional 500,000 cases of blindness. In Bangladesh, China, India, and elsewhere in Asia, many children subsist on a few bowls of rice a day and almost nothing else. For them, a daily supply of Golden Rice could bring the gift of life and sight.

The superfood thus seemed to have everything going for it: It would be the basis for a sea change in public health among the world’s poorest people. It would be cheap to grow and indefinitely sustainable, because low-income farmers could save the seeds from any given harvest and plant them the following season, without purchasing them anew.

But in the 20 years since it was created, Golden Rice has not been made available to those for whom it was intended. So what happened?

For one, Golden Rice is a genetically modified organism, and as such is weighed down with all the political, ideological, and emotional baggage that has come to be associated with GMOs—stultifying government overregulation, fear and hostility, and criticism (much of it unfounded) from environmentalist and other activist organizations and individuals. Greenpeace, for one, was especially vocal in its condemnation of genetically engineered foods, Golden Rice in particular.

To many, this protracted delay has been unconscionable, and it brought forth reactions as extreme as the hyperbolic claims made by GMO opponents. In 2016, for example, George Church, a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School, said in an interview with the science publication Edge:

Golden Rice was a tough call strategically for Greenpeace and some of their associates. … A million lives are at stake every year due to vitamin A deficiency, and Golden Rice was basically ready for use in 2002, so it’s been thirteen years that it’s been ready. Every year that you delay it, that’s another million people dead. That’s mass murder on a high scale. In fact, as I understand it there is an effort to bring them to trial at The Hague for crimes against humanity. Maybe that’s justified, maybe it isn’t.

Much of the pro-Golden Rice backlash was overstatement, too. For one thing, it is doubtful that Golden Rice was “ready,” in any but the most technical sense, in 2002. Indeed, some critics would argue that as a proven, viable, agricultural commodity, it is not yet ready even today. Still, the fact is that the crop has been grown, and grown successfully, first in laboratories, then in greenhouses, and finally in open fields since it was invented. The rice has also been subjected to safety studies—toxicity and allergenicity studies—and studies on human consumption, including among American adults and Chinese children. These have found it to be more effective in providing vitamin A than spinach and almost as effective as pure beta carotene oil itself.

So what really happened? Extremist opposition, protests, rhetoric, and even vandalism did not, by themselves, have the power to stop Golden Rice in its tracks or even to substantially hamper the pace of its development. Indeed, the delay may come down to a variety of other, less obvious, factors.

The first source of delay was simply the scientific and technological difficulty of inventing a new crop type, one that was nutritionally enhanced by molecular methods to express beta carotene in a part of the rice plant that did not normally do so. The tasks of genetically engineering a new metabolic pathway in the plant, getting the plant to express the desired trait at the most beneficial levels of concentration, and then transferring that newly engineered trait into several different varieties of rice successfully—all of these things were, at the time, new, untried, and unproven technologies.

The second cause was the fact that plants themselves are recalcitrant experimental subjects: They grow only so fast and no faster, and the cycle of germination, maturation, and seed production is a process that can’t really be sped up. However, this same process can easily be slowed down, or even terminated, by a variety of causes such as disease; insect attack; natural disasters and weather events including floods, frosts, heat waves, and droughts; vandalism; or simple human misjudgment or mishandling.

But it was something else altogether that had the greatest power to impede the development of Golden Rice, and that was government regulation. That power resided in a complex set of operational guidelines, restrictions, and requirements that created enormous obstacles for the Golden Rice scientists to overcome. Governments imposed these constraints in the name of safety; chiefly responsible for these restrictions is an international treaty known as the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety and its highly controversial Principle 15, otherwise known as the “precautionary principle.”

This principle states that if a product of modern biotechnology poses a possible risk to human health or the environment, then it is prudent to restrict or prevent the introduction or use of that product or technology, even if the magnitude or nature of the risk is uncertain, speculative, scientifically unproven, or even unknown. Although it may have been benign in its intent, the effect of the principle has been to slow the pace of biotechnology research and development—and in some cases even to halt it, at least temporarily, at multiple times during the research and development process.

In the case of Golden Rice, the combined result of these three factors—the scientific difficulty of the project, the slow and stately rate of plant growth and reproduction, and a body of stifling government regulations governing biotechnology research and development—was to prolong the incubation time of a food that, absent externally imposed government restrictions, could otherwise be saving the sight and lives of millions of people.

The story of Golden Rice thus makes for a sad and maddening tale of scientists being repeatedly thwarted in their attempts to invent, improve, breed, field-test, and disseminate a potentially lifesaving food.

Yet despite all these roadblocks, Golden Rice has still emerged as the world’s first purposefully created biofortified crop. The project began in 1990, when Potrykus and his colleague Peter Beyer, of the University of Freiburg, started working to genetically engineer a metabolic pathway into a variety of Oryza sativa, the world’s most commonly consumed rice species, so that the plant’s edible kernels would contain beta carotene. It is an understatement to say that their task was daunting. There was no assurance when they started out that what they contemplated was even technologically possible, since it had never been done before. But the two men were highly motivated by the horrors of persistent vitamin A deficiency in developing countries, and they viewed their work as a calling—one from which they would not be deterred.

It took almost a decade of laboratory experimentation to invent Golden Rice, but by 1999, Potrykus, Beyer, and a group of colleagues finally succeeded. They inserted a set of genes into the rice genome so that the plant’s beta carotene accumulated not only in the plant’s leaves and stems, as it normally did, but also in the rice kernels themselves, just as if nature had intended things to work that way from the very beginning.

Once they accomplished that small but powerful technological trick, the inventors naively imagined that the hard part was now behind them. Little did they know that the most difficult tasks still lay ahead. Looking back on it all afterward, Potrykus reflected, “Had I known what this pursuit would entail, perhaps I would not have started.”

Once they had their initial proof-of-concept rice in hand, the inventors moved swiftly to develop Golden Rice further, first to improve the product and then to make it available, for free, to poor farmers in developing countries. In April 2000, they licensed their rice technology to the British agrochemical company Zeneca on a quid pro quo basis: The company retained the right to sell Golden Rice seeds commercially, perhaps as a health food, on the condition that the company financially supported the inventors’ future work on the rice and let them distribute the seeds at no cost to small-scale farmers. Zeneca later merged with the Swiss-based company Syngenta, but the terms of the original arrangement remained unchanged.

On Feb. 9, 2001, Greenpeace, which had a long record of opposition to all GMO foods and crops, issued a statement that an adult would have to eat 9 kilograms (about 20 pounds) of cooked Golden Rice daily to prevent persistent vitamin A deficiency, and that “a breast-feeding woman would have to eat at least 6.3 kilos in dry weight, which converts to nearly 18 kilos [40 pounds] of cooked rice per day.” Since the bioavailability of beta carotene in the rice was not then known, there was no factual basis for these claims, which in any case were later proved false. At about the same time, the Indian anti-GMO crusader Vandana Shiva called Golden Rice a “hoax.” It was the beginning of a propaganda war against the rice that has only intensified.

Around the same time, the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety was making waves. The protocol had been adopted in the year 2000 by more than 100 nations, including members of the European Union (but neither the United States nor Canada). The written document, which came into force in 2003, governed the handling, packaging, identification, transfer, and use of “living modified organisms” among the parties to the agreement.

The agreement contained one version of the precautionary principle. Exactly what that principle, which focused on avoiding unknown risks, meant in practice was not immediately clear. It is more of an ideal, a standard of perfection to be aimed at, than a real-world guide to action or public policy. On the one hand, it sounds like a dressed-up variant of a number of innocuous platitudes such as “look before you leap” or “better safe than sorry.” On the other, it can equally well be interpreted as a doctrine of “guilty until proven innocent.”

In light of the Cartagena Protocol, every aspect of Golden Rice development—from lab work to field trials to screening for “regulatory clean events”—was entangled in a Byzantine web of rules, guidelines, requirements, restrictions, and prohibitions. The simple transfer of seeds from one country to another became a major logistical problem. It could take “more than two years to transfer, for example, breeding seed from the Philippines to Vietnam, and one year from USA to India, during which time 30 politically loaded questions were asked in the Indian parliament,” Potrykus said. “These Cartagena conditions are enforced, despite common sense suggesting that it is extremely difficult to construct a hypothetical risk from seed transfer between two breeding stations in different countries, especially for Golden Rice.”

Golden Rice was unique among genetically engineered foods, and the properties that made it different also made it immune to many of the conventional criticisms of GMOs. Golden Rice was not invented for profit, and after 2004, when Syngenta renounced all commercial interest in the rice, it would no longer be developed for profit. The rice would benefit the poor and disadvantaged, not modern, multinational corporations. It would be given free of charge to subsistence farmers who can save seeds and plant them from one harvest to the next, without restriction or payment of fees or royalties. The rice was not developed primarily for the benefit of farmers, as were most other GMOs that had been designed to be resistant to herbicides or pesticides. Instead, it was developed for the sole purpose of helping users: the malnourished poor suffering from vitamin A deficiency. And Golden Rice is not a crop upon which a major genetic engineering effort conferred a relatively minor advantage such as a longer shelf life or slightly improved taste, as was true, for example, of the long-since-abandoned Flavr Savr tomato. That’s why, for all the vitriol, the real villain of the story is regulation, rather than activism run amok.

Had Golden Rice not faced overly restrictive regulatory conditions, it could have been cultivated by rice farmers and distributed throughout some of the poorest regions of South and Southeast Asia. It would have already saved millions of lives and prevented millions of children from going blind.

Excerpted from Golden Rice. Used with permission of the publisher, Johns Hopkins University Press. Copyright © 2019.

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