World
The long, slow march of 'biofortified' GM foodPublish Date: Jul 08, 2014
The long, slow march of 'biofortified' GM food
  • mail
  • img
A file photo taken on October 19, 2012 in Los Angeles, California shows labels on bags of snack foods. AFP/PHOTO
newvision

In 1992, a pair of scientists had a brainwave: how about inserting genes into rice that would boost its vitamin A content?

By doing so, tens of millions of poor people who depend on rice as a staple could get a vital nutrient, potentially averting hundreds of thousands of cases of blindness each year.

The idea for what came to be called "golden rice" -- thus named for its bright yellow hue -- was proclaimed as a defining moment for genetically-modified food.

Backers said the initiative ushered in an era when GM crops would start to help the poor and malnourished, rather than benefit only farmers and biotech firms.

"It's a humanitarian project," Ingo Potrykus, professor emeritus at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH), one of the co-inventors of golden rice, said in a recent interview with AFP.

Yet the rice is still a long way from appearing in food bowls -- 2016 has become the latest date sketched for commercialisation, provided the novel product gets the go-ahead.

With $30 million (23 million euros) invested in it so far, the odyssey speaks tellingly of the technical, regulatory and commercial hurdles that have beset the "biofortified food" dream.

First, it took scientists years to find and insert two genes that modified the metabolic pathway in rice to boost levels of beta-carotene, the precursor to vitamin A.

After that came the biosafety phase, to see if the rice was safe for health and the environment -- and if beta-carotene levels in lab plants were replicated in field trials in different soils and climates.

There were also "bio-efficacy" experiments to see whether the rice did indeed overcome vitamin deficiency, and whether volunteers found the taste acceptable.

These tests are still unfolding in the Philippines, Indonesia and Bangladesh, said Bruce Tolentino, deputy director general of the Philippines-based International Rice Research Institute (IRRI).

"We have been working on this for a long time and we would like to have this process completed as soon as possible," he said AFP.

But "it depends on the regulatory authorities. That is not under our control."

Antonio Alfonso at the Philippine Rice Research Institute, which partners IRRI in the not-for-profit development of golden rice, said "it will be two or three more years before we can apply for commercialisation."

The rice's yield may also have to be tweaked to boost its appeal to farmers, whose buy-in is essential, he said.

- Super banana -

Coming on the heels of golden rice is the "super banana" developed by the Queensland University of Technology in Australia with the help of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Genetically designed, like golden rice, to be enriched with beta-carotene, the bananas were sent to the United States in June for a six-week trial to measure by how much they lifted vitamin A levels in humans.

If all goes well, they will start to be grown commercially in Uganda in 2020.

Project leader James Dale said so-called cooking bananas grown as the staple food in East Africa were low in vitamin A and iron.

"Good science can make a massive difference here," he said.

Other research into biofortified food has looked at boosting levels of important micronutrients in cassava and corn, also called maize, but progress has also been faltering.

It took 15 years of enclosed research in the lab for British scientists this year to decide to seek permission for field trials of a plant called false flax (Latin name Camelina sativa).

Engineered to create omega-3 fat, the plant could be used as feed in fish farming. It would spare the world's fish stocks, which provide food pellets for captive salmon, trout and other high-value species.

Environmental groups are defiant about GM-fortified foods. Some have dubbed golden rice "fool's gold."

Greenpeace, the most vocal and influential of the critics, says the risks of GM contamination to other plants and impacts on health may not emerge for years.

There are also suspicions that developing countries are being used as a technological testbed -- and contentions that malnutrition will not be ended by a magic bullet fired from a gene lab.

"This whole vitamin A issue is a red herring," said Janet Cotter, a scientist with Greenpeace at the University of Exeter, southwestern England.

"Access to a better and diverse diet is what people need, not a technical fix, (not) something based solely on rice or bananas."

Andrea Sonnino, chief of the Research and Extension Unit at the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), said ensuring food security and a decent diet were very complex.

GM crops had a part to play in the solution, but not exclusively so.

"We have to go with a set of possible answers to problems that in many cases are technological and in many cases are not, they are social, economic and so on," he said.

"We have to work in different ways, and not only on the technological front." AFP

 

The statements, comments, or opinions expressed through the use of New Vision Online are those of their respective authors, who are solely responsible for them, and do not necessarily represent the views held by the staff and management of New Vision Online.

New Vision Online reserves the right to moderate, publish or delete a post without warning or consultation with the author.Find out why we moderate comments. For any questions please contact digital@newvision.co.ug

  • mail
  • img
blog comments powered by Disqus
Also In This Section
Israeli shelling kills at least 15 in UN Gaza shelter - health ministry
At least 15 people were killed and many wounded on Thursday when Israeli forces shelled a U.N.-run school sheltering Palestinian refugees in northern Gaza...
Second foreign tourist shot dead in Mombasa
A foreign female tourist was shot dead in Kenya's port city of Mombasa on Thursday, the second such killing there this month, police said...
Air Algerie plane with over 110 on board missing over Mali
AN Air Algerie plane with more than 110 people on board including French and Spanish nationals went missing during a flight from Burkina Faso to Algiers...
Man chops off four patients
A man is arrested for using a blunt razor to chop off the testicles of four patients at a Chinese nursing home....
More than 2.2 billion people poor - UN report
Nearly 1.5 billion people in 91 developing states live in poverty while another 800 million are teetering on the edge...
US lifts Israel flight ban as Kerry cites truce
US airlines lifted a flight ban to Israel Thursday as Washington''s top diplomat cited progress in ending 17 days of bloodshed in Gaza which has killed 718 Palestinians....
Should government review powers of kings?
Yes
No
Can't Say
follow us
subscribe to our news letter