4 Golden Rice: a case study

4.4 The ongoing story

At the time of writing (2006), the Golden Rice tale is an unfinished story. Some of the developments of the last five years are summarised here.

One area of ongoing scientific dispute is the question of whether the enriched rice can contribute significantly to the alleviation of vitamin A deficiency. We have seen that Shiva estimated that at best 100 g of rice a day would provide 4.4% of the recommended daily allowance. More sophisticated theoretical models, published since that time, have taken into account differing levels of rice consumption amongst different sectors of the population in Asia. They have estimated that Golden Rice might provide between 1 and 15% of the RDA. These are theoretical studies; as yet, the rice has not been produced in sufficient quantities to test how much vitamin A it might provide when cooked and eaten. When expressed as a proportion of the RDA, the quantities of vitamin A supplied appear modest. However, when vulnerable people like children and nursing mothers are suffering from poor diets, even such modest increases might have a significant impact on health.

It remains a point of contention, however, whether the money spent on developing Golden Rice might not be better spent elsewhere. One alternative would be to integrate vitamin A supplementation with vaccination campaigns. Such campaigns have proved effective in reducing the effects of childhood VAD in Vietnam and the Philippines. We have seen that ecological campaigners like Shiva argue for educational campaigns to encourage the growth and consumption of green vegetables as a source of vitamin A.

Since the initial publication of the breakthrough, Potrykus and others have continued to work on the project. Recent results have seen the technology used on the more widely consumed Indica rice varieties rather than the short-grain Japonica variety used in the initial work. Like many other biotechnologists, they have also moved away from using antibiotic resistance markers, reflecting the concern that the resistance might be transferred to wild bacteria.

This is an interesting instance of the way that public concerns can influence the way that science is carried out. There is little direct evidence that such transfer of antibiotic resistance has taken place, but public concern over the issue has been widespread since the early days of genetic modification. The response of scientists has been to develop a range of other selection markers.

Potrykus and his co-workers have established a Golden Rice Humanitarian Board to facilitate the development of related research in developing countries. Whilst the invention of Golden Rice is registered as belonging to Potrykus and colleagues, many of the basic techniques they used are under patent. Various corporations from the agricultural biotechnology sector, who hold patents on some of the techniques used, have granted licences that allow ‘freedom-to-operate for humanitarian purposes’. This is agreed to mean that farmers and traders in developing countries can earn no more than $10 000 per annum from Golden Rice. Various projects are currently underway in the Philippines, Vietnam, India, China, Indonesia and South Africa, but as yet the rice has not been grown commercially.

Recently, a group of scientists working for Syngenta have produced what they call ‘Golden Rice 2’. Their work suggested that the relatively low levels of β-carotene produced in the original Golden Rice might be caused by low levels of phytoene. By testing a series of genes coding for phytoene synthase from several different species, they have found that an enzyme from maize gives levels of β-carotene that are up to 23 times greater.

This is where the story has reached in early 2006. You will have the opportunity to explore the story further in Activity 5.

Activity 4

You should allow 0 hour(s), 30 minute(s).

Throughout this unit you have explored issues where scientific and social controversies are intertwined. The themes of communication and ethical issues have featured particularly prominently in the Golden Rice case study. Write briefly (a maximum of 200 words) about the way the communication theme has arisen here. You should focus on the forms of communication involved, and what the communicators were trying to achieve.

Discussion

The Golden Rice case study involved various forms of communication. The scientists published in a prestigious peer-reviewed journal. The story appeared widely in the international media. Biotechnology firms published advertisements and activists used the Internet to make their case. Whilst scientific papers may have appeared neutral, in the other cases, the communication has been quite explicitly part of an ongoing political debate. Both sides of this debate were trying to affect the future prospects of GM crops as a whole. The supporters of GM crops see this case as useful evidence that genetic modification can have humanitarian benefits. The opponents dismiss Golden Rice as a ‘Trojan horse’, i.e. the introduction of an apparently benign GM product in order to ease the subsequent passage of more profitable crops. In their attempts to prove or disprove the usefulness of the rice, both sides of the debate have introduced quantification, in the form of Retinol Equivalents and Retinol Activity Equivalents, into their communications.

Activity 5

You should allow 0 hour(s), 45 minute(s).

You now have the option of going to the following web sites for an overview (at the time of writing early 2006) of developments in the Golden Rice story and of the contrasting views evident. These are of course just a small selection of what’s available but we did find them informative when we were following the debate.

The Golden Rice Project

Institute of Science in Society

BBC News