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March 30, 2005


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"Someone said that just eating a carrot a day would give as much beta carotene. Maybe it would. But would they all eat that carrot daily? Perhaps they’d be more likely to eat the rice?"

We're talking about the third world here. They don't have any carrots. They have rice. Rice is the staple food, in many cases the only food, in many places in the developing world. If we can give them an improved strain of rice they can grow in their own fields, problem solved. Well, one problem solved.

It's often not a problem getting the people to eat a carrot, it's a problem getting the carrots to the people, and storing them long enough.

I've still got mixed feeling about GM crops. The round-up ready beans and corn have saved many of my friends a lot of money, and allowed them to farm with fewer and safer herbacides. I try to weight the benifits of this type of modification with the fear that the genes will spread to other crops, or regions, but still have a hard time finding a good argument for, or against them.

I'm one of these people who's nervous about genetically modified food. But if GM food can feed people who are starving, or as in this case, help prevent blindness, then I'm all for it.

If Golden Rice has now justifiably entered the category of "miracle crops", it still has to jump through a large number of hoops before it does much good.

First, no one strain of rice is good to grow everywhere.

Second, will the yield (and thus price to the impoverished) be close to that of regular strains of rice?

Third, will it gain acceptance among the people we'd want to benefit? Different cultures have very strong preferences as to the types of rice they will consume.

Fourth, there's an extensive history of miracle crops failing to pan out. A few do, but the vast majority are quicly forgetten.

GM crops opponents were justifiably annoyed that a dubiously useful product was trumpeted as a solution to major medical problems without consideration of the real-world obstacles listed above. Considering how inexpensive vitamin supplements are, and how many ways they could be distributed, it's hardly necessary to put them in rice. Consider iodine, for example. We don't need to genetically engineer iodine retention into crops: iodized salt does a fine job at a
negligable cost.

I'd advise using the precautionary principle in modifying the genome of a food plant to contain a nutrient. Case in point- we used to think of Vitamin E as d-alpha-tocopherol. Recently, we discovered that Vitamin E *activity* requires a whole family of tocopherols- beta, delta, gamma, etc. (similar to the way ascorbic acid requires cofactors such as the bioflavonoids in citrus to produce Vitamin C *activity*, hence the reason why ascorbic acid alone cannot cure scurvy, but lemons can). Furthermore, as it turns out, administering just d-alpha-tocopherol for long periods is actually damaging as it drains the levels of the other tocopherols since they are not also being artificially supplemented. Now suppose that we, prior to our later discovery, discovered a region of people we found to be deficient in Vitamin E and proceeded to modify their staple crop to include d-alpha-tocopherol. We would certainly not be doing them a favor! Even now, how can we be sure that what we have discovered thus far is the final answer on Vitamin E? We are always learning new things. It's best not to mess with the food genome.

You say,

"I could never quite figure why the anti-GM group got so angry about Golden Rice"

Well, re: the new rice:

"a scientist with the British arm of the biotech company Syngenta, developed the crop"

Thats why they are so angry. They don't hate the product, just the inventor. Willing to sacrifice lives for misguided principle. I suppose if the children of the Greenpeace activists were going blind, they would think again about their opposition.

Eco imperialism at its finest.

Dana Hata:

You raise a good point. That's why we need field tests to see if there is a benefit, before implementation on a large scale.

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