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The endless debate over genetic engineering

A scientist shows "Golden Rice" (L) and ordinary rice at the laboratory of the International Rice Research Institute in Los Banos, Laguna so
A scientist shows "Golden Rice" (L) and ordinary rice at the laboratory of the International Rice Research Institute in Los Banos, Laguna so

By Richard Schiffman

Last month a popular do-gooder website featured a curious headline: "400 Farmers Destroy Life-Saving Rice Crops, and That's a Good Thing."

The story went on to describe how a mob in the Philippines — not farmers, as the headline wrongly claimed, but a motley group of city kids and political activists — trampled a test plot of Golden Rice, a blazingly yellow, genetically modified variety that contains snippets of DNA extracted from maize and a bacterium. Golden Rice was designed to be high in beta-carotene, a precursor of Vitamin A that is lacking in the diet of many in Asia and beyond. Upwards of a million deaths and perhaps as many as half a million cases of childhood blindness annually are caused by a deficiency of Vitamin A.

The incident in the Philippines wasn't the first time that protestors have destroyed fields of genetically modified (GM) crops. Others trampled include grape vines in France, sugar beets in Oregon, potatoes in Belgium, wheat in Australia — the list goes on.

But the attack on the potentially lifesaving rice seems especially cruel. And it has reignited the interminable debate over genetic engineering.

These crops were originally talked about as an answer to world hunger. By combining genetic materials from different species, wheat, for example, could be made to withstand high temperatures or drought; or bananas could be crossed with a virus to function as a vaccine for those who consumed it.

Critics of this technology, however, warn that it potentially produces new proteins that may be allergenic, or otherwise harmful to human health. Supporters counter that this is also true of conventional cross-breeding, which has been going on for centuries.

Scientific opinion remains divided on the degree of risk, but the majority of U.S. researchers say there is as yet no convincing evidence of adverse health effects. Because of the relative newness of the technology, however, most scientists agree that rigorous tests need to be conducted on a case by case basis to insure safety.

The key problem, though, is that the Food and Drug Administration depends on producers of GM foods to evaluate the safety of their own products. There is no independent scientific verification of these industry assessments.

So some public interest groups, not surprisingly, are skeptical of this self-regulation and have proposed more stringent rules. The American Academy of Environmental Medicine is now calling for a moratorium on genetically modified foods pending long-term independent studies to assess their effect on human health.

But for many, this controversy over genetic engineering transcends scientific questions and touches on fundamental beliefs about the integrity of nature and the limits of human technology. Some, like the protestors in the Philippines, appear to have an almost religious conviction that messing with building blocks of life is just plain wrong — even when it creates a potential lifesaver like Golden Rice.

The basic research on Golden Rice goes back a decade and a half and has been fostered by a virtual who's who of multinational agro-giants like Monsanto and Syngenta and global NGOs including the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Nonetheless, the project remains highly controversial. Now, more than 10 years after it was touted as a quantum leap in agriculture in a Time magazine cover story, Golden Rice has not yet made it into the dinner bowls of those who need it.

The technological as well as patent and regulatory barriers to its development and use have proven thornier than expected. Public resistance has also been stiffer. The activist group Greenpeace battled successfully to block the world's biggest rice producer, China, from adopting the genetically modified grain. Even moderate critics like natural food guru Michael Pollan have questioned its efficacy.

Pollan recently wrote in the New York Times that Golden Rice is not the "killer app that everyone thinks it is." He argues, sensibly, that without efforts to improve overall diet and tackle Third World poverty, simply adding beta-carotene to rice won't go very far toward ending malnutrition. He also points out that brown rice, nutritionally superior to Golden Rice, is largely shunned in rice-eating lands, and there is little reason to think that a bizarrely colored, genetically modified variety will fare any better.

"I'm not afraid of it," says Pollan. "I just think it's another glittering Western techno fix." Better to encourage people to eat a variety of vitamin-rich fruits and vegetables, he concludes, than to manipulate rice into producing a single micronutrient that nature never intended it to carry.

The fact remains, however, that lots of people in the Global South can't afford a balanced diet, or don't have access to markets where good-quality produce can be purchased. Vitamin A supplementation has already been shown to lower child mortality by a quarter to a third. So isn't it time to give Golden Rice a chance?

Yet this may not happen any time soon. Opposition to genetically modified foods has been mounting. More than 60 nations, including the European Union, China, Russia and Brazil, have either banned or restricted their sale. Here in the United States, the state legislatures in Connecticut and Vermont have called for the labeling of all GM foods, and 28 other states are now considering similar legislation.

Ironically, much of the fiercest opposition to this technology is in the Third World — which could benefit the most from it. Indian biologist Vandana Shiva called Golden Rice "a Trojan horse," whose real aim is to win public support for genetic engineering. She calls it a "hoax" perpetrated by Western corporations to rip off poor farmers and consolidate their control over global agriculture by replacing native varieties with patented genetically engineered seeds, which could not be saved from the harvest but needed to be repurchased from the company every year.

But others are not so cynical. "The guys who developed it did it for the right reasons," says geneticist Richard Jefferson in Grist. "They really were outraged by micronutrient deficiencies. They were out there in the rice paddies and in the villages. Every one of the Rockefeller Foundation meetings was in the developing world, and we were out there, learning things with these people."

So no, Golden Rice is not a hoax. But it is a disappointment. Disappointing because it promised a lot, but has so far failed to deliver.

This is also true of all genetic engineering. The "miraculous" technology that Big Ag promised was going to increase agricultural yields, boost nutrition and taste, cut pesticide use, create drought-resistant crops and feed the hungry world has not yet managed to convincingly pull any of these rabbits out of its magician's hat.

Genetic engineering has been a runaway commercial success in the United States — 60 percent to 70 percent of processed foods on American supermarket shelves contain GM ingredients — but it remains a conspicuous public relations failure. It has also been an agricultural failure — accelerating the proliferation of precisely the kind of large-scale chemical-intensive monocultures that many agronomists warn will be unsustainable in the long run.

Despite 20 years of research and 13 years of commercialization, biotechnology has failed to significantly increase U.S. agricultural yields, according to a recent report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, which says that organic agriculture often tops the productivity of GM crops on a per acre basis. Nor has genetic engineering cut the use of agro-chemicals, as promised. Reuters reports that popular genetically modified varieties like Monsanto's Roundup Ready corn and soybeans actually require more herbicide than their conventional cousins, due in part to the development of resistant "superweeds" that need ever-more-toxic dousings to kill them.

But if genetic engineering has not lived up to its own hype, it has accomplished what it set out to do: created virtually indestructible crops designed to withstand the insults of industrial agriculture, and last forever on supermarket shelves.

The technology has been a wildly lucrative profit center for biotech companies like Monsanto, Bayer and Syngenta — and their shareholders. Whether it can profit the rest of us with more abundant, safe and nutritious food remains to be demonstrated.

(Richard Schiffman is the author of two biographies and a journalist specializing in the environment whose work has appeared in the New York Times, The Washington Post, National Public Radio and elsewhere. Any opinions expressed here are the author's own.)

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