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May 27, 2008 / calebdresser

Golden Rice

I saw two petri dishes full of yellow-brown seeds today – the oft-mentioned “golden rice.” Hype about golden rice started nearly a decade ago, when research teams successfully inserted genes that express beta-carotene into a rice plant. The hope was – and still is – that this transgenic rice could help provide Vitamin A to malnourished, micronutrient deficient people around the world. In 2000, TIME magazine ran an article in which golden rice seemed to be the silver bullet that would save Africa, and since then it has come to occupy a rather high-profile position in the debates on food, development, and biotechnology. However, golden rice will not be hitting the dinner tables of the malnourished poor for a long time.

Fields of golden rice already exist, it is true. I walked through one just before lunch today – a half hectare of paddy surrounded by a belt of corn (to prevent rice pollen spread), a moat of flooded, uncultivated paddy, and a chain link fence. We entered and left by a narrow bund of packed earth; the rice itself was not visible from outside. The similarities to a temple or holy place were not lost on me – in some ways, that half hectare is a shrine to a specific vision of the future that is, it turns out, very difficult to realize.

The field I visited is being used to test different varieties of transgenic “golden” rice. The gene for beta-carotene expression has been bred into the popular IR64 line, and successive generations of backcrossing have produced varieties that closely resemble IR64. Breeders are now in the process of selecting the highest performance lines, which will be multiplied for seed stock. After that, it is a matter of arranging for distribution and oversight – a whole new kettle of hornets.

Although I am, with reservations, supportive of GMOs such as golden rice, there are a lot off disturbing issues with this one. It is unclear how effective the uptake of B-carotene and its conversion to vitamin A are in this system, and there are extensive issues regarding how the distribution, management, and oversight will occur when golden rice is released to the world. On a more immediate level, the plant breeder running the golden rice project here is also on the safety oversight panel that controls it – something of a conflict of interest! That said, they have taken extensive precautions here, including temporal pollen isolation: the transgenic plants are planted to flower at a time in the growing season when no other rice plants are receptive, thus minimizing the potential for contamination of non-transgenic lines. On the whole, I’m interested in seeing what happens with the project, but it certainly doesn’t seem to be the silver bullet, nor the humanitarian blessing, nor the guilt-free GMO that it is so often hailed as.

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3 Comments

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  1. Becky / May 28 2008 2:11 pm

    Golden rice may not be the silver bullet.. clearly because it is golden and not silver.

    I find it hard to believe that the corn belt can actually prevent the spreading of pollen.

  2. Amy Freitag / May 28 2008 10:26 pm

    Wow… I definitely had the impression that golden rice was farther along in the production line, for better or for worse.

    Seems to me like it’d be easier to try to get people to eat brown rice than golden, which comes with all the GMO baggage. But there is that old saying about trying to teach an old dog new tricks… who knows which, if any, are even possible?

    In an unrelated research story from today… we planted all kinds of groups of wildflowers today to see whether a monoculture (think invasive species) or polyculture has a higher diversity of herbivores, predators, and whether it affects selection of traits in the plant. We’re using native species just because they grow well and we’re still under risk of frost in the fields (the tomatoes died last night :-(, but it definitely has agricultural implications, especially for breeders. The community might affect the natural selection… who knew?

  3. calebdresser / Jun 3 2008 2:43 pm

    Too bad about the tomatoes – sound like a good set of experiments. Oh – I checked, Becky – rice pollen is only viable for about 5 minutes, and travels less than ten meters usually.

    Another issue that occurred to me while someone was promoting Golden Rice to us was the issue of pricing. If they are able to get people to think Golden Rice is better for them, it will doubtless command a higher price in the market… perhaps preventing its target population, the very poor, from eating it. While the licensing agreements stipulate that it not be sold for higher prices, one wonders how easy it is going to be to enforce those…

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