The long march of ‘biofortified’ GM foods

Crops engineered for high vitamin yields still face years of testing


In 1992, a pair of scientists had a brain wave: How about inserting genes into rice that would boost its vitamin A content? By doing so, tens of millions of poor people who depend on rice as a staple could get a vital nutrient, potentially averting hundreds of thousands of cases of blindness each year.

The idea for what came to be called “golden rice” — named for its bright yellow hue — was proclaimed as a defining moment for genetically modified food.

Backers said the initiative ushered in an era when GM crops would start to help the poor and malnourished, rather than benefit only farmers and biotech firms.

“It’s a humanitarian project,” said one of the co-inventors of golden rice, Ingo Potrykus, professor emeritus at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH), in a recent interview.

Yet the rice is still a long way from appearing in food bowls — 2016 has become the latest date sketched for commercialization, provided the novel product gets the go-ahead.

With $30 million invested in it so far, the odyssey speaks tellingly of the technical, regulatory and commercial hurdles that have beset the dream of “biofortified food.”

First, it took scientists years to find and insert two genes that modified the metabolic pathway in rice to boost levels of beta carotene, the precursor to vitamin A.

After that came the biosafety phase, to see if the rice was safe for health and the environment — and whether beta carotene levels in lab plants were replicated in field trials in different soils and climates.

There were also “bioefficacy” experiments to see whether the rice did indeed overcome vitamin deficiency, and whether volunteers found the taste acceptable.

These tests are still unfolding in the Philippines, Indonesia and Bangladesh, said Bruce Tolentino, deputy director general of the Philippines-based International Rice Research Institute (IRRI).

“We have been working on this for a long time, and we would like to have this process completed as soon as possible,” he said. But “it depends on the regulatory authorities. That is not under our control.”

Antonio Alfonso at the Philippine Rice Research Institute, which partners IRRI in the not-for-profit development of golden rice, said “it will be two or three more years before we can apply for commercialization.”

The rice’s yield may also have to be tweaked to boost its appeal to farmers, he said.

Coming on the heels of golden rice is the “superbanana” developed by the Queensland University of Technology in Australia with the help of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. It too is genetically designed to be enriched with beta carotene.

Some bananas were sent to the United States in June for a six-week trial to measure by how much they lifted vitamin A levels in humans.

If all goes well, they will start to be grown commercially in Uganda in 2020.

Project leader James Dale said the so-called cooking bananas that are grown as the staple food in East Africa are low in vitamin A and iron.

“Good science can make a massive difference here,” he said.

Other research into biofortified food has looked at boosting levels of important micronutrients in cassava and corn, also called maize, but progress has also been faltering.

It took 15 years of enclosed research in the lab for British scientists this year to decide to seek permission for field trials of a plant called false flax (scientific name Camelina sativa). Engineered to create omega-3 fat, the plant could be used as feed in fish farming. It would spare the world’s fish stocks, which provide food pellets for captive salmon, trout and other high-value species.

Environmental groups object to GM-fortified foods. Some have dubbed golden rice “fool’s gold.”

Greenpeace, the most vocal and influential of the critics, says the risks of GM contamination to other plants and its effects on health may not emerge for years.

There are also suspicions that developing countries are being used as a technological test bed — and contentions that malnutrition will not be ended by a magic bullet fired from a gene lab.

“This whole vitamin A issue is a red herring,” said Janet Cotter, a scientist with Greenpeace at the University of Exeter, southwestern England. “Access to a better and diverse diet is what people need, not a technical fix, (not) something based solely on rice or bananas.”

Andrea Sonnino, chief of the Research and Extension Unit at the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), said ensuring food security and a decent diet are very complex. GM crops have a part to play in the solution, but not exclusively so.

“We have to go with a set of possible answers to problems that in many cases are technological and in many cases are not — they are social, economic and so on,” he said. “We have to work in different ways, and not only on the technological front.”