Science & Technology

Where's the golden rice?

A lifesaving grain is being held hostage by anti-science activists


You've probably seen the poignant and inspiring national TV ads from the Council for Biotechnology Information, an industry group, touting the development of "golden rice," a genetically modified product that packs extra nutrients and vitamins into the familiar staple crop. In an ad called "The Promise," scenes showing children and farms in the developing world flash by as the announcer talks about the new miracle rice that could help prevent disease and blindness in millions of poor children each year. The music crescendos, children smile, and all is right with the world.

But all is not right. Golden rice is nowhere near the poor children who need it. Instead, it's locked away in a grenade-proof greenhouse in Switzerland.

Poor people in developing countries could benefit hugely from golden rice, which was created by biotech researcher Ingo Potrykus. Potrykus and his colleagues at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology have created a variety of rice that makes beta-carotene, the precursor to vitamin A. The orange-yellow color of beta-carotene is what makes golden rice "golden."

Some international agencies estimate that as many as 2 billion people in the developing world, especially those living in countries in which rice is the dominant grain, suffer from vitamin A deficiency; about 500,000 children a year go blind from vitamin A deficiency. No known rice variety produces beta-carotene, so Potrykus put the appropriate genes from daffodils and bacteria into rice, which then produces the missing beta-carotene. His team achieved this success more than a year ago. The next step in getting this lifesaving product to poor people is to send it to plant breeders at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines. There, it can be crossbred with varieties useful for local farmers.

But this hasn't happened.

Why? Partly because Potrykus is still wending his way through a legal maze of the more than 70 patents that are involved in creating golden rice. Potrykus is brokering a deal with leading international biotech companies that have agreed to license their technologies for free. For example, Monsanto announced in August that it is providing royalty-free licenses for all of its technologies that can further development of golden rice. This sudden attack of generosity can be attributed to the fact that crop biotech companies, battered by successful activist campaigns against their products worldwide, are seeking some good public relations. Whatever the corporate motives, it is good news for the world's poor that the patent thicket is being hacked away. That means golden rice can reach them sooner.

But the lifesaving grain is not protected in a grenade-proof greenhouse because Potrykus fears attacks from irate patent lawyers. Like biotech corn and soybeans in the Midwest, this biotech crop has militant enemies. Mae Wan Ho, director of the U.K. activist organization, the Institute of Science in Society, asserts that "the golden rice project is a useless application" and demands that it "be terminated immediately before further damage is done." Greenpeace is leading a global campaign against biotech crops, asserting that they are unhealthy and environmentally unsafe. A press release says that "Greenpeace opposes golden rice because it has all the risks of any [genetically modified] crop."

These groups are adept at sketching out scary scenarios. But they have not offered a scintilla of scientific evidence that biotech crops have harmed human health—or the natural world.

They're also known for their "decontamination" raids on biotech crop fields throughout Europe, where they rip up or vandalize genetically modified crops. Thus, the Ft. Knox treatment for golden rice. Researchers are afraid that activists will try to take the product out before it's even able to get to markets in the developing world. The New York Times reports that activists are supporting legislation that would make it illegal to export biotech crops like golden rice from Switzerland.

The question is: Will anti-biotech activists succeed in breaking the promise that golden rice holds for poor people in the developing world?