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July 24, 2000


TIME magazine cover story: Golden Rice and Potrykus


AgBioView - http://www.agbioworld.org, http://agbioview.listbot.com

Time magazine puts the success icon of biotech crops—the golden rice—with
its creator Ingo Potrykus on its cover. See the Story below which was
alerted to me by Wayne Parrott
who notes that "Overall a positive article, but being Time, cannot help
but highlight the problem presented to monarchs, the potential allergies,
and the genetic pollution of non GM crops by GM crops."

Time is also running a poll and I encourage you to vote on it at:



Grains Of Hope Genetically engineered crops could revolutionize farming.
Protesters fear they could also destroy the ecosystem. You decide


At first, the grains of rice that Ingo Potrykus sifted through his
fingers did not seem at all special, but that was because they were still
encased in their dark, crinkly husks. Once those drab coverings were
stripped away and the interiors polished to a glossy sheen, Potrykus and
his colleagues would behold the seeds' golden secret. At their core, these
grains were not pearly white, as ordinary rice is, but a very pale
yellow--courtesy of beta-carotene, the nutrient that serves as a building
block for vitamin A.

Potrykus was elated. For more than a decade he had dreamed of creating
such a rice: a golden rice that would improve the lives of millions of the
poorest people in the world. He'd visualized peasant farmers wading into
paddies to set out the tender seedlings and winnowing the grain at harvest
time in handwoven baskets. He'd pictured small children consuming the
golden gruel their mothers would make, knowing that it would sharpen their
eyesight and strengthen their resistance to infectious diseases.

And he saw his rice as the first modest start of a new green revolution,
in which ancient food crops would acquire all manner of useful properties:
bananas that wouldn't rot on the way to market; corn that could supply its
own fertilizer; wheat that could thrive in drought-ridden soil.

But imagining a golden rice, Potrykus soon found, was one thing and
bringing one into existence quite another. Year after year, he and his
colleagues ran into one unexpected obstacle after another, beginning with
the finicky growing habits of the rice they transplanted to a greenhouse
near the foothills of the Swiss Alps. When success finally came, in the
spring of 1999, Potrykus was 65 and about to retire as a full professor at
the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. At that point, he
tackled an even more formidable challenge.

Having created golden rice, Potrykus wanted to make sure it reached those
for whom it was intended: malnourished children of the developing world.
And that, he knew, was not likely to be easy. Why? Because in addition to
a full complement of genes from Oryza sativa--the Latin name for the most
commonly consumed species of rice--the golden grains also contained
snippets of DNA borrowed from bacteria and daffodils. It was what some
would call Frankenfood, a product of genetic engineering. As such, it was
entangled in a web of hopes and fears and political baggage, not to
mention a fistful of ironclad patents.

For about a year now--ever since Potrykus and his chief collaborator,
Peter Beyer of the University of Freiburg in Germany, announced their
achievement --their golden grain has illuminated an increasingly polarized
public debate. At issue is the question of what genetically engineered
crops represent. Are they, as their proponents argue, a technological leap
forward that will bestow incalculable benefits on the world and its
people? Or do they represent a perilous step down a slippery slope that
will lead to ecological and agricultural ruin? Is genetic engineering just
a more efficient way to do the business of conventional crossbreeding? Or
does the ability to mix the genes of any species--even plants and
animals--give man more power than he should have?

The debate erupted the moment genetically engineered crops made their
commercial debut in the mid-1990s, and it has escalated ever since. First
to launch major protests against biotechnology were European
environmentalists and consumer-advocacy groups. They were soon followed by
their U.S. counterparts, who made a big splash at last fall's World Trade
Organization meeting in Seattle and last week launched an offensive
designed to target one company after another (see accompanying story).
Over the coming months, charges that transgenic crops pose grave dangers
will be raised in petitions, editorials, mass mailings and protest
marches. As a result, golden rice, despite its humanitarian intent, will
probably be subjected to the same kind of hostile scrutiny that has
already led to curbs on the commercialization of these crops in Britain,
Germany, Switzerland and Brazil.

The hostility is understandable. Most of the genetically engineered crops
introduced so far represent minor variations on the same two themes:
resistance to insect pests and to herbicides used to control the growth of
weeds. And they are often marketed by large, multinational corporations
that produce and sell the very agricultural chemicals farmers are spraying
on their fields. So while many farmers have embraced such crops as
Monsanto's Roundup Ready soybeans, with their genetically engineered
resistance to Monsanto's Roundup-brand herbicide, that let them spray weed
killer without harming crops, consumers have come to regard such things
with mounting suspicion. Why resort to a strange new technology that might
harm the biosphere, they ask, when the benefits of doing so seem small?

Indeed, the benefits have seemed small--until golden rice came along to
suggest otherwise. Golden rice is clearly not the moral equivalent of
Roundup Ready beans. Quite the contrary, it is an example--the first
compelling example--of a genetically engineered crop that may benefit not
just the farmers who grow it but also the consumers who eat it. In this
case, the consumers include at least a million children who die every year
because they are weakened by vitamin-A deficiency and an additional
350,000 who go blind.

No wonder the biotech industry sees golden rice as a powerful ally in its
struggle to win public acceptance. No wonder its critics see it as a
cynical ploy. And no wonder so many of those concerned about the twin
evils of poverty and hunger look at golden rice and see reflected in it
their own passionate conviction that genetically engineered crops can be
made to serve the greater public good--that in fact such crops have a
critical role to play in feeding a world that is about to add to its
present population of 6 billion. As former President Jimmy Carter put it,
"Responsible biotechnology is not the enemy; starvation is."

Indeed, by the year 2020, the demand for grain, both for human
consumption and for animal feed, is projected to go up by nearly half,
while the amount of arable land available to satisfy that demand will not
only grow much more slowly but also, in some areas, will probably dwindle.
Add to that the need to conserve overstressed water resources and reduce
the use of polluting chemicals, and the enormity of the challenge becomes
apparent. In order to meet it, believes Gordon Conway, the agricultural
ecologist who heads the Rockefeller Foundation, 21st century farmers will
have to draw on every arrow in their agricultural quiver, including
genetic engineering. And contrary to public perception, he says, those who
have the least to lose and the most to gain are not well-fed Americans and
Europeans but the hollow-bellied citizens of the developing world.

Going for the Gold It was in the late 1980s, after he became a full
professor of plant science at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology,
that Ingo Potrykus started to think about using genetic engineering to
improve the nutritional qualities of rice. He knew that of some 3 billion
people who depend on rice as their major staple, around 10% risk some
degree of vitamin-A deficiency and the health problems that result. The
reason, some alleged, was an overreliance on rice ushered in by the green
revolution. Whatever its cause, the result was distressing: these people
were so poor that they ate a few bowls of rice a day and almost nothing

The problem interested Potrykus for a number of reasons. For starters, he
was attracted by the scientific challenge of transferring not just a
single gene, as many had already done, but a group of genes that
represented a key part of a biochemical pathway. He was also motivated by
complex emotions, among them empathy. Potrykus knew more than most what it
meant not to have enough to eat. As a child growing up in war-ravaged
Germany, he and his brothers were often so desperately hungry that they
ate what they could steal.

Around 1990, Potrykus hooked up with Gary Toenniessen, director of food
security for the Rockefeller Foundation. Toenniessen had identified the
lack of beta-carotene in polished rice grains as an appropriate target for
gene scientists like Potrykus to tackle because it lay beyond the ability
of traditional plant breeding to address. For while rice, like other green
plants, contains light-trapping beta-carotene in its external tissues, no
plant in the entire Oryza genus--as far as anyone knew--produced
beta-carotene in its endosperm (the starchy interior part of the rice
grain that is all most people eat).

It was at a Rockefeller-sponsored meeting that Potrykus met the
University of Freiburg's Peter Beyer, an expert on the beta-carotene
pathway in daffodils. By combining their expertise, the two scientists
figured, they might be able to remedy this unfortunate oversight in
nature. So in 1993, with some $100,000 in seed money from the Rockefeller
Foundation, Potrykus and Beyer launched what turned into a seven-year,
$2.6 million project, backed also by the Swiss government and the European
Union. "I was in a privileged situation," reflects Potrykus, "because I
was able to operate without industrial support. Only in that situation can
you think of giving away your work free."

That indeed is what Potrykus announced he and Beyer planned to do. The
two scientists soon discovered, however, that giving away golden rice was
not going to be as easy as they thought. The genes they transferred and
the bacteria they used to transfer those genes were all encumbered by
patents and proprietary rights. Three months ago, the two scientists
struck a deal with AstraZeneca, which is based in London and holds an
exclusive license to one of the genes Potrykus and Beyer used to create
golden rice. In exchange for commercial marketing rights in the U.S. and
other affluent markets, AstraZeneca agreed to lend its financial muscle
and legal expertise to the cause of putting the seeds into the hands of
poor farmers at no charge

No sooner had the deal been made than the critics of agricultural
biotechnology erupted. "A rip-off of the public trust," grumbled the Rural
Advancement Foundation International, an advocacy group based in Winnipeg,
Canada. "Asian farmers get (unproved) genetically modified rice, and
AstraZeneca gets the 'gold.'" Potrykus was dismayed by such negative
reaction. "It would be irresponsible," he exclaimed, "not to say immoral,
not to use biotechnology to try to solve this problem!" But such
expressions of good intentions would not be enough to allay his opponents'

Weighing the Perils Beneath the hyperbolic talk of Frankenfoods and
Superweeds, even proponents of agricultural biotechnology agree, lie a
number of real concerns. To begin with, all foods, including the
transgenic foods created through genetic engineering, are potential
sources of allergens. That's because the transferred genes contain
instructions for making proteins, and not all proteins are equal.
Some--those in peanuts, for example--are well known for causing allergic
reactions. To many, the possibility that golden rice might cause such a
problem seems farfetched, but it nonetheless needs to be considered.

Then there is the problem of "genetic pollution," as opponents of
biotechnology term it. Pollen grains from such wind-pollinated plants as
corn and canola, for instance, are carried far and wide. To farmers, this
mainly poses a nuisance. Transgenic canola grown in one field, for
example, can very easily pollinate nontransgenic plants grown in the next.
Indeed this is the reason behind the furor that recently erupted in Europe
when it was discovered that canola seeds from Canada--unwittingly planted
by farmers in England, France, Germany and Sweden--contained transgenic

The continuing flap over Bt corn and cotton--now grown not only in the
U.S. but also in Argentina and China--has provided more fodder for debate.
Bt stands for a common soil bacteria, Bacillus thuringiensis, different
strains of which produce toxins that target specific insects. By
transferring to corn and cotton the bacterial gene responsible for making
this toxin, Monsanto and other companies have produced crops that are
resistant to the European corn borer and the cotton bollworm. An immediate
concern, raised by a number of ecologists, is whether or not widespread
planting of these crops will spur the development of resistance to Bt
among crop pests. That would be unfortunate, they point out, because Bt is
a safe and effective natural insecticide that is popular with organic

Even more worrisome are ecological concerns. In 1999 Cornell University
entomologist John Losey performed a provocative, "seat-of-the-pants"
laboratory experiment. He dusted Bt corn pollen on plants populated by
monarch-butterfly caterpillars. Many of the caterpillars died. Could what
happened in Losey's laboratory happen in cornfields across the Midwest?
Were these lovely butterflies, already under pressure owing to human
encroachment on their Mexican wintering grounds, about to face a new
threat from high-tech farmers in the north?

The upshot: despite studies pro and con--and countless save-the-monarch
protests acted out by children dressed in butterfly costumes--a conclusive
answer to this question has yet to come. Losey himself is not yet
convinced that Bt corn poses a grave danger to North America's
monarch-butterfly population, but he does think the issue deserves
attention. And others agree. "I'm not anti biotechnology per se," says
biologist Rebecca Goldberg, a senior scientist with the Environmental
Defense Fund, "but I would like to have a tougher regulatory regime. These
crops should be subject to more careful screening before they are

Are there more potential pitfalls? There are. Among other things, there
is the possibility that as transgenes in pollen drift, they will fertilize
wild plants, and weeds will emerge that are hardier and even more
difficult to control. No one knows how common the exchange of genes
between domestic plants and their wild relatives really is, but Margaret
Mellon, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists' agriculture and
biotechnology program, is certainly not alone in thinking that it's high
time we find out. Says she: "People should be responding to these concerns
with experiments, not assurances."

And that is beginning to happen, although--contrary to expectations--the
reports coming in are not necessarily that scary. For three years now,
University of Arizona entomologist Bruce Tabashnik has been monitoring
fields of Bt cotton that farmers have planted in his state. And in this
instance at least, he says, "the environmental risks seem minimal, and the
benefits seem great." First of all, cotton is self-pollinated rather than
wind-pollinated, so that the spread of the Bt gene is of less concern. And
because the Bt gene is so effective, he notes, Arizona farmers have
reduced their use of chemical insecticides 75%. So far, the pink bollworm
population has not rebounded, indicating that the feared resistance to Bt
has not yet developed

Assessing the Promise Are the critics of agricultural biotechnology
right? Is biotech's promise nothing more than overblown corporate hype?
The papaya growers in Hawaii's Puna district clamor to disagree. In 1992 a
wildfire epidemic of papaya ringspot virus threatened to destroy the
state's papaya industry; by 1994, nearly half the state's papaya acreage
had been infected, their owners forced to seek outside employment. But
then help arrived, in the form of a virus-resistant transgenic papaya
developed by Cornell University plant pathologist Dennis Gonsalves.

In 1995 a team of scientists set up a field trial of two transgenic
lines--UH SunUP and UH Rainbow--and by 1996, the verdict had been
rendered. As everyone could see, the nontransgenic plants in the field
trial were a stunted mess, and the transgenic plants were healthy. In
1998, after negotiations with four patent holders, the papaya growers
switched en masse to the transgenic seeds and reclaimed their orchards.
"Consumer acceptance has been great," reports Rusty Perry, who runs a
papaya farm near Puna. "We've found that customers are more concerned with
how the fruits look and taste than with whether they are transgenic or

Viral diseases, along with insect infestations, are a major cause of crop
loss in Africa, observes Kenyan plant scientist Florence Wambugu. African
sweet-potato fields, for example, yield only 2.4 tons per acre, vs. more
than double that in the rest of the world. Soon Wambugu hopes to start
raising those yields by introducing a transgenic sweet potato that is
resistant to the feathery mottle virus. There really is no other option,
explains Wambugu, who currently directs the International Service for the
Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications in Nairobi. "You can't control
the virus in the field, and you can't breed in resistance through
conventional means."

To Wambugu, the flap in the U.S. and Europe over genetically engineered
crops seems almost ludicrous. In Africa, she notes, nearly half the fruit
and vegetable harvest is lost because it rots on the way to market. "If we
had a transgenic banana that ripened more slowly," she says, "we could
have 40% more bananas than now." Wambugu also dreams of getting access to
herbicide-resistant crops. Says she: "We could liberate so many people if
our crops were resistant to herbicides that we could then spray on the
surrounding weeds. Weeding enslaves Africans; it keeps children from

In Wambugu's view, there are more benefits to be derived from
agricultural biotechnology in Africa than practically anywhere else on the
planet--and this may be so. Among the genetic-engineering projects funded
by the Rockefeller Foundation is one aimed at controlling striga, a weed
that parasitizes the roots of African corn plants. At present there is
little farmers can do about striga infestation, so tightly intertwined are
the weed's roots with the roots of the corn plants it targets. But
scientists have come to understand the source of the problem: corn roots
exude chemicals that attract striga. So it may prove possible to identify
the genes that are responsible and turn them off.

The widespread perception that agricultural biotechnology is
intrinsically inimical to the environment perplexes the Rockefeller
Foundation's Conway, who views genetic engineering as an important tool
for achieving what he has termed a "doubly green revolution." If the
technology can marshal a plant's natural defenses against weeds and
viruses, if it can induce crops to flourish with minimal application of
chemical fertilizers, if it can make dryland agriculture more productive
without straining local water supplies, then what's wrong with it?

Of course, these particular breakthroughs have not happened yet. But as
the genomes of major crops are ever more finely mapped, and as the tools
for transferring genes become ever more precise, the possibility for
tinkering with complex biochemical pathways can be expected to expand
rapidly. As Potrykus sees it, there is no question that agricultural
biotechnology can be harnessed for the good of humankind. The only
question is whether there is the collective will to do so. And the answer
may well emerge as the people of the world weigh the future of golden