Going for Golden Rice
Around the world, the amount of land planted to genetically modified crops keeps on growing. Sixteen countries worldwide now grow GM, and three quarters of GM farmers are in the world's poorest regions. In 2002, India, Colombia and Honduras all approved the commercial growing of GM crops for the first time (1). But the environmentalist critics of GM food and technology argue that GM will be catastrophic for the developing world. They accuse the USA of 'dumping' GM grain on Africa, and claim that the spread of GM will tighten multinationals' grip on poor economies while contaminating indigenous plant varieties.
The decision by famine-stricken African countries in July 2002 to refuse food aid from the USA because it contained GM seed brought these issues to a head. Mozambique, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Swaziland have since accepted America's offer, on the condition that the food is milled beforehand - which will cut its storage life from 10 months to three, up the cost by millions of dollars, and delay shipments (2). Zambia still rejects the aid outright.
At first glance, it seems outrageous that leaders would allow their people to go hungry rather than letting them eat GM food. But in the context of the negative image of GM technology promoted by those who oppose it, such reactions become more understandable (3).
The European Union is the developing world's largest market for agricultural exports (4) - and European food retailers increasingly turn down GM products in favour of non-GM foods, to satisfy what they think is consumer demand. As a result, African states are concerned that they will be unable to sell produce to Europe once they let GM into their country.
Developing countries also suspect that using GM technology will make them dependent on restrictive seed licences. Under TRIPS (Trade Related Aspects of Individual Property Rights), the World Trade Organisation's agreement on patents, farmers who grow GM crops have to buy them anew each year. This hasn't stopped farmers worldwide from going over to GM, since it is cheaper, and safer, for them to pay the licence fee than to remain reliant on pesticides and herbicides to protect their crops.
But poor nations lack both the finances and the resources to adapt GM technology to their own needs, let alone to negotiate and pay for the patent rights. Various studies have pointed to the potential benefits of GM for developing nations (5), but almost every aspect of the new technology has already been patented by one of the big seed companies.
Maybe one solution, if the developing world is to make the most of GM, is to make the technology more readily available. This is already the case with Golden Rice - a rice variety bred to help combat vitamin A deficiency. This deficiency blinds 500,000 children in over 70 countries every year. Even mild vitamin A deficiency weakens the immune system, making children more susceptible to measles and other infections which, in the developing world, can be fatal.
Yet Golden Rice is attacked because it is funded by big food companies; because it only contains one essential vitamin instead of all of them; because it will contain only 20% of the adult recommended daily allowance, or alternatively so much that children could suffer overdoses; and because it provides an alternative source of vitamin A instead of traditional plant sources, which apparently threatens biodiversity (6). Golden Rice is being bred to contain enough beta-carotene to provide a useful vitamin A supplement for malnourished children - just as milk, butter, margarine and breakfast cereals, all fortified with vitamins A and D, have done for children in wealthy countries for decades (7).
Critics of Golden Rice recommend that instead, third world families should grow and eat more green vegetables, and use vitamin supplements as a cheap source of vitamin A. But dark green vegetables supply beta-carotene, the precursor of vitamin A, in a form which is poorly metabolised by the body. And while vitamin supplementation programs are relatively easy and cheap to initiate, in practice they often fail to reach children in the developing world after the first year of life.
When Golden Rice finally gets a commercial release in 2007, it will come free to all those in the developing countries who earn less than $10,000 a year. 'We are aiming the benefits of Golden Rice at the poorest of the poor who cannot get anything other than rice, green chillies and salt, if at all', says Dr CK Rao, of the Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education in Bangalore. The seed cost $2.6million to develop, and it will cost a further $10million to adapt it to local conditions (8), which, in the grand scheme of things, is not a huge amount of money.
Golden Rice is the best known of the 'second generation' of GM crops. Unlike FlavrSavr tomatoes and other early attempts to recoup the cost of development by targeting wealthy consumers, several laboratories are now concentrating on improved subsistence crops that will grow in soil that is too parched, salty, high in aluminium or otherwise infertile to grow very much. And as the technology develops, more possibilities are discovered. The banana, which scientists recently claimed could become extinct within 10 years because it is 'genetically decrepit', could be saved by producing a new GM variety.
There are other possibilities in the pipeline: a gene with tolerance to the aluminium toxicity that can increase yields by over 30 percent; a GM rice variety resistant to the tungro virus; blight-resistant potato varieties bred in Peru; virus-resistant sweet potatoes in Kenya, and so on (9). Now, stung by criticism and concerned for their image, some companies are offering to relax restrictions on patents to those who most need them (10). This could be good news for poor countries. Those who want to see the developing world actually develop should demand more of this, and more public funding for biotechnology.
Too often, GM is caricatured as a useless gimmick dreamed up to increase market share for corporations. Yet considering the untapped possibilities of this new science, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that critics of GM are missing the point.
(1) World planting of biotech crops up 12 pct in 2002, Reuters, 17 January