A Golden Opportunity to Rethink Genetically Modified Foods

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Using DNA analysis, Swedish scientists recently discovered that genetic modification—a transgenic process routinely maligned as "unnatural" by its critics—actually took place under perfectly natural conditions about 700,000 years ago. The cross occurred between sheep's fescue and meadow grass, and the vector of transmission was likely a parasite or pathogen. Professor Bengt O. Bengtsson, one of the researchers involved in the study, was unmoved by the revolutionary finding. "We have suspected this for some time," he noted.

But even Professor Bengtsson, who is generally supportive of transgenic technology, sympathizes "with the unease over the increased use of patents and monopolizing practices in plant breeding." He and others would prefer to see "free and commercially independent research on plant genetics ... carried out in universities" for the common good.

Could Golden Rice, in addition to helping the poorest Asians improve their health, also be a golden opportunity for rethinking the promise of this deeply misunderstood technology?

This is a genuine concern. And it's one that prevents many critics of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) from backing this powerful and potentially beneficial technology. It will therefore be very interesting to watch the fallout over Golden Rice, a genetically modified rice that will likely become available to Asians in the next year or two.

Golden Rice was created a decade ago by the German academics Ingo Potrykus and Peter Beyer for purely humanitarian reasons. By genetically modifying rice to produce beta-carotene, which the body processes into vitamin A, they employed an otherwise controversial technology to create a crop capable of reducing blindness and death among the world's poorest children. The scientists initially predicted it would take three years to take their engineered rice from lab to market.

But the legal complexities of their discovery—they inadvertently infringed upon over 70 patents—were Byzantine. This multifaceted infringement led Potrykus and Beyer to settle on a public-private partnership with the biotech giant Syngenta. Syngenta, in a trendsetting move, agreed to usher Golden Rice through an international legal maze while providing considerable research support—support that eventually led to major improvements in Golden Rice (most notably, it increased the amount of bioavailable vitamin A). Today, Potrykus and Beyer, after 10 years of clearing regulatory hurdles and undoing Greenpeace propaganda, are finally about to make Golden Rice available to the world's poorest farmers.

Golden Rice is a product that should push critics of transgenic seeds to rethink their categorical opposition to this highly politicized technology. Instinctively, they'll surely balk at the mere mention of Syngenta, which (along with Monsanto) is often accused of trying to corner the world's food supply. But in this case the charge doesn't stick.The relationship between Syngenta and farmers is not only mediated by the non-profit Golden Rice Humanitarian Project, but it's carefully designed to avoid the agricultural dependencies characterizing GM corn, soy, and cotton. As Dr. Adrian Dubock, project manager for Golden Rice Humanitarian Project (and one time Syngenta scientist) explains, "with Golden Rice you have a project now that is demonstrably public sector where the [genetic] trait will be provided free of charge, there's no license fee, it's for poor farmers, it's for health." One should always be suspicious of any public-private relationship, but this deal seems to be genuinely geared to make Golden Rice freely available to those who need it. Plus, no matter what the depth of your doubt, consider the payoff: a chance for millions of potentially sight-impaired children to see.

It's always been my contention that public discussions of food and agriculture tend toward simplistic extremes. They thus motivate concerned citizens to take sides rather than appreciate the complexities of an issue. This obscures solutions that, while never ideal, have the potential to achieve measurable humanitarian and environmental gains. Golden Rice provides a novel opportunity for concerned consumers to split some important hairs when it comes to transgenic seeds.

Not only might Syngenta's interest in public-private partnerships become a replicable model of technology transfer (Monsanto recently developed a GM cowpea), but we're starting to hear more about applications of transgenic technology that are consistent with the underlying goals of sustainable agriculture: increased nitrogen uptake, drought resistance, and traits that allow for a more diversified agricultural base in poor countries. Could it be that Golden Rice, in addition to helping the poorest Asians improve their health, is also a golden opportunity for rethinking the promise of this deeply misunderstood technology? Or will our distrust of corporate involvement continue to prevent the invention and distribution of seeds that could help the world's poorest farmers help themselves?

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James McWilliams is an associate professor of history at Texas State University, San Marcos, and author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly.

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