In A Grain Of Golden Rice, A World Of Controversy Over GMO Foods : The Salt : NPR

by DAN CHARLES

There's a kind of rice growing in some test plots in the Philippines that's unlike any rice ever seen before. It's yellow. Its backers call it "golden rice." It's been genetically modified so that it contains beta-carotene, the source of vitamin A.

Millions of people in Asia and Africa don't get enough of this vital nutrient, so this rice has become the symbol of an idea: that genetically engineered crops can be a tool to improve the lives of the poor.

It's a statement that rouses emotions and sets off fierce arguments. There's a raging, global debate about such crops.

But before we get to that debate, and the role that golden rice plays in it, let's travel back in time to golden rice's origins.

It began with a conversation in 1984.

The science of biotechnology was in its infancy at this point. There were no genetically engineered crops yet. Scientists were just figuring out how to find genes and move them between different organisms.

Some people at the Rockefeller Foundation thought that these techniques might be useful for giving farmers in poor countries a bigger harvest.

So they set up a meeting at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), in the Philippines, to talk about this.

Gary Toenniessen, who was in charge of the foundation's biotechnology program at the time, says that a lot of people at this meeting were very skeptical about biotechnology. They were plant breeders, masters of the traditional way to improve crops.

One evening, after the formal sessions, "a group of these breeders were sitting around at the guesthouse at IRRI, having a beer or two," says Toenniessen. After listening to their skepticism for a while, Toenniessen spoke up. If this technology did actually pan out, he said, and you could put any gene you wanted into rice, which one would you pick? "What's your favorite gene?"

They went around the room. Breeders talked about genes for resisting disease or surviving droughts.

They came to a breeder named Peter Jennings, a legendary figure in these circles. He'd created perhaps the most famous variety of rice in history, called IR 8, which launched the so-called Green Revolution in rice-growing countries of Asia in the 1960s.

"Yellow endosperm," said Jennings. (The endosperm of a grain of rice or wheat is the main part that's eaten.)

"That kind of took everybody by surprise. It certainly took me by surprise. So I said, 'Why?' " Toenniessen recalls.

Jennings explained that the color yellow signals the presence of beta-carotene — the source of vitamin A. Yellow kinds of corn or sorghum exist naturally, and for years, Jennings said, he had been looking for similar varieties of rice. Regular white rice doesn't provide this vital nutrient, and it's a big problem.

"When children are weaned, they're often weaned on a rice gruel. And if they don't get any beta-carotene or vitamin A during that period, they can be harmed for the rest of their lives," says Toenniessen.

Toenniessen was persuaded, and the Rockefeller Foundation started a program aimed at creating, through technology, what Jennings had not been able to find in nature.

A global network of scientists at nonprofit research institutes started working on the problem.

The first real breakthrough came in 1999. Scientists in Switzerland inserted two genes into rice that switched on production of beta-carotene. A few years later, other researchers created an even better version.

A single bowl of this new golden rice can supply 60 percent of a child's daily requirement of vitamin A.

"It's a great product. And it's beautiful! It looks just like saffron rice," says Toenniessen, who's now a managing director at the Rockefeller Foundation.

Others, though, don't find it beautiful at all.

For instance, consider what happened just a few months ago. Some U.S.-funded researchers published the results of a nutritional study showing that people's bodies easily absorb the beta-carotene in golden rice. They'd carried out that study among children in China.

The result seemed like great news. But the environmental group Greenpeace immediately called it a scandal.

"People are angry, really furious about these tests, using Chinese children as guinea pigs," says Wang Jing, a campaigner for Greenpeace in China.

The Chinese government reacted quickly. It punished three Chinese co-authors of the study, removing them from their jobs.

In a report on the case, Chinese authorities say that the researchers didn't get all the approvals they needed before carrying out the study. Also, the researchers told the children, and their parents, that this was a special kind of rice high in beta-carotene, but they didn't always say it was genetically modified.

via In A Grain Of Golden Rice, A World Of Controversy Over GMO Foods : The Salt : NPR.