Beta-carotene enriched Golden
Rice is a very argued topic, with people taking drastic sides. This GM rice should
reduce Vitamin A deficiency in poor countries, reducing cases of blindness,
unhealthy skin and weak immune systems, and leading to premature death to the
billions of people that have a rice-filled diet. Vitamin A deficiency alone affects 250 million
children in the world. This rice ensures that food will be nutritious in the
future, when demand will exponentially increase. However, only one country has started
distribution and production of this rice, in the Phillipines.
So, why is this so called
‘miracle’ rice not being eaten at billions of peoples’ homes?
First, we shall look at how the first
strain of rice was created. This was done by adding 2 beta-carotene
biosynthesis genes: the first is phytoene synthase (from daffodils) and the
second is carotene desaturase (from the bacterium Erwinia uredovora). They
combine to give lycopene, a red compound found in tomatoes. However, in 1999
the strain of GM rice was modified so that did not require lycopene, so
produced B-carotene from inside the rice grain. The combination of PSY and CRTI
gives the rice a yellow look, a clear indicator that it contains Vitamin A.
This is known as genetic engineering (making certain products more useful).
This was first thought out in 1984, and successfully created in 1999.
The carotene contains many
molecules and enzymes and with at least one B-ionone ring have vitamin A
activity. This means the rice has mechanisms for carotene sequestration, e.g.
crystallization, oil deposition and protein-lipid sequestration. Putting this
gene into rice which is usually low in carotene took until the 1990s to
perfect. The synthesis of lycopene via PSY and CRTI in the rice provides the
substrate for these enzymes, which enables the formation of PSY and CRTI, which
produces vitamin A.
Production chain of
carotenoids ( +B-carotene)
However, this 1st
strain of golden rice did not provide enough vitamin A to negate vitamin A
deficiency. Therefore, a second strain of golden rice was created in order to
produce higher B-carotene levels to combat this.
This is because, in
multi-step biosynthetic pathways to create this rice, there is a step which
limits the rate of a substance produced, which will decrease the amount of
B-carotene produced. This can be prevented by either increasing the
concentration of rate-limiting enzyme or by using an enzyme that is more active,
i.e. it catalyzes faster. It was established that in this case the PSY was
limited. Experimentation with PSY genes from different sources identified that
maize and rice genes are the most efficient in rice.
This led to the second
generation of Golden Rice, which produced over 30 times more B-carotene than
the first strain, which means that a diet containing GR2 is much more likely to
reduce vitamin A deficiency related diseases. This also gives GR2 a much
stronger yellow color than GR1.
Since the discovery of GR2,
there are now 5 rice field trial sites in the Philippines which aim to start
the distribution of golden rice in the country by 2017, and Bangladesh will be
next with aims of 2018.
This does sound like a breakthrough in
technology. However, not everyone is happy with this. Protests against this
rice, by people especially in the Greenpeace group, are threatening its use in
the Philippines and elsewhere. Reports of Greenpeace followers destroyed
one production field in the Philippines. Greenpeace has been a major scaremonger and
leader in creating doubt in this produce, especially against the use of
(destruction of the GM rice fields in the
In addition, even though this project has
been backed by more than 100 of the world’s most
distinguished scientists, problems still arise. The lack of acceptance boils
down to two beliefs that do not relate to the science of the GM rice:
uncertainty and fear. There is also the concern about whether the growing of
GM-rice could spread to the conventional crop of rice. The biggest scare was
that several years ago in China, researchers
involved with Golden Rice committed
an ethical breach by feeding the GM-rice grain to children without informing
their parents/guardian first. When this became public, China shut down the
research completely, drastically undermining the GM crops’ reputation.
In countries such as Brazil
and Paraguay, the increasing use of soybean monocultures has already led to
widespread deforestation, which sparked protests. People use similar arguments
that mass-producing GM rice could lead to mass deforestation.
On the other side, amongst
the opposition, there are many, many supporters of The Golden Rice Project, who
constantly praise this miracle crop. Supporters of the project also reject the opposition’s
concern over the fact that this project has partners in the biotech industry
companies that make profit. It has freedom to operate under humanitarian use,
therefore the technology can be provided free of charge in developing
countries, meaning costs will not be an issue to the local farmers either.
The Golden Rice project also received the blessing from
the Pope and received the 2015 Patents for Humanity award In June 2016, 110
Nobel Laureates (winners of Nobel Prizes), amongst 5591 scientists and ordinary
people, signed a letter against Greenpeace’s opposition to genetically modified
organisms. Sir Richard Roberts, winner of the Nobel Prize in physiology or
medicine, also the leader of this campaign, stated that: “We call upon
Greenpeace to cease and desist in its campaign against Golden Rice
specifically, and crops and foods improved through biotechnology in general.”
(blessing of the Golden rice project).
However, the opposition retaliated by arguing that even
after 24 years of research and billions of dollars spent, the project is still
years away from completion and the release to countries. They argue that many
research questions remain about golden rice.
Even further, Masipag,
the network for Philippine farmers and scientists, say that caution is needed.
Chito Medina, the
leader of Masipag, asks: “Is Golden Rice food, medicine or both? If it is both,
then the health department should be doing safety studies. So far only feeding
studies have been going on, showing that the Vitamin A is absorbed by the body,
but there are no safety data showing whether chemicals may have been produced
in the process of genetic engineering.” To Masipag, the test field’s
destruction in the Philippines made clear that golden rice simply isn’t welcome
there. Medina said that their network itself wasn’t officially part of the
destruction, but some of its members were there at their own will.
Therefore, after these countless debates, the progress in
The Golden Rice project remains at a snail’s pace, whilst millions of people
die due to Vitamin A deficiency. After such a massive leap in discovery, but a
small step in distribution, it is almost a waste of an opportunity to solve a vast
problem in the world, with GM rice distribution only just commencing in the
Philippines and beginning in Bangladesh in 2018.
And the textbook.