The 'Golden Rice' - a big illusion?

A new variety of rice genetically engineered to incorporate provitamin A is being held out as the panacea for the widespread problem of vitamin-A deficiency. Florianne Koechlin challenges this claim and suggests that there are more practical and viable methods to tackle this deficiency.

A TEAM from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich has developed a strain of transgenic rice containing provitamin A. Three gene-constructs were inserted into the rice genome which complete the biochemical pathway needed for vitamin-A production in the rice grain. The work had been funded by the Rockefeller Institute (USA) and the European Union.

Vitamin-A deficiency (VAD) is known to cause partial or full blindness (Xerophthalmia) and to exacerbate illnesses such as diarrhoea or measles in children. VAD is associated with malnutrition and afflicts in the first place the very poor in Asia, Africa and Latin America. The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and World Health Organisation (WHO) estimate that about 250 million people (mainly small children and pregnant women) are threatened by VAD (1995).

'We can help these people in the future', says Ingo Potrykus, principal investigator of the team, and he and his colleagues are determined to give the transgenic rice free of charge and without any restrictions to 'the poor farmers in developing countries'.

An article on the provitamin-A rice appeared in the journal Science on 14 January 2000 (p. 303); Science sent a pre-print of the article to 1,700 journalists around the world and Mary Lou Guerinot, who wrote the commentary in Science, remarks: 'One can only hope that this application of plant genetic engineering to ameliorate human misery without regard to short-term profit will restore this technology to political acceptability.'

One of the most comprehensive interventions to reduce VAD was the international 10-year project the UN and FAO started together in 1985. Further plans were decided on at the World Summit for Children (1990) and the World Food Summit (1996).

Three strategies are used to fight VAD:
1. Food fortification (e.g. margarine containing vitamin A in the Philippines; sugar fortified with vitamin A in some Latin American countries).
2. Supplementation: Administration of high-dose vitamin-A capsules twice a year and,
3. Food-based projects or dietary approaches, information on nutrient habits. Vitamin A is found in meat, fish, eggs and milk products. Provitamin A is found in plants, especially in green leafy vegetables and fruit.

In most countries the first two strategies have priority. They are easy to administer and show fast results. The third strategy, which is more complex, was neglected for a long time, but it is becoming increasingly important.

Following are some examples of food-based projects:

In Bangladesh there is a very high prevalence of VAD. FAO started a food-based project (concentrating on home gardens) in 1993, together with Helen Keller International (HKI) and 14 NGOs: the introduction of small home gardens with vitamin-rich vegetables and fruits, the taking-up and improvement of traditional cultivation methods, discussion-rounds, education programmes, etc. Families without any land were helped to grow vines up the sides of their houses and plant beans, pumpkins and bottle-gourds in the vines - all of which have commonly eaten leaves. Women, having noticed improvements in their children's health, started to work for the project, which spread like a snowball-system. From the very beginning the projects were integrated in the communities and supported by NGOs. Around 600,000 households (or over three million persons) are part of the project (1998).

The project was monitored scientifically by the UN and HKI. Of course there were also drawbacks, but MW Bloem and his team from HKI (1996) confirmed that:
1. The level of health of the participants had improved.
2. Only small plots of land are needed to provide sufficient vitamin A.
3. A surprising finding was that the greater the variety of fruits and vegetables a person ate, the better was the uptake of provitamin A. An increase in the number of varieties seemed to bring about significant improvement, independent of the quantity of food eaten (possible reasons: better bioavailability, synergy effects). Families with scattered gardens most often plant the biggest variety of fruits and vegetables and had a better uptake of provitamin A. It is mainly the very poor families, who cannot afford their own home gardens, who cultivate scattered gardens.

In Thailand the 'door opener' for a food-based project was the vitamin-A-rich, green leafy vegetable, ivy gourd (Smitasiri, 1992). Ivy gourd is cultivated with relative ease and grows wild in many communities. The three-year project (1988-1991) consisted of a collaborative, rather than 'top-down' approach, and put much weight on social marketing, developing many innovative and low-cost approaches: radion broadcasts (involving eight main channels), posters, comics and T-shirts with the ivy gourd and video and cassette tapes. Mothers, school teachers and health and agricultural workers participated, as did Buddhist monks. A prominent monk made a recording to encourage people to support the project. Theatre groups and puppet shows involved the kids. Well-known folk-singers produced tapes which sang the virtues of the ivy gourd. Regular monitoring and yearly collection and evaluation of all information helped in the implementation of new and/or corrective activities and the evaluation of the effectiveness.

In Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and many other African countries, the seasons are usually very short. Drying of nutrient fruits and vegetables is traditional, and low-cost solar drying techniques can guarantee minimal loss of provitamin A during the drying process. Dried mango-slices do retain high levels of provitamin A for as long as six months.

In the final FAO report of the 10-year project, there was a consensus that the food-based approach, though widespread, needs much enhancement. Food-based approaches improve the nutrition in general. John R Lupien, director of the Food and Nutrition Division of FAO in Rome, concludes: 'A single nutrient approach towards a nutrition-related public health problem is usually, with the exception of perhaps iodine or selenium deficiencies, neither feasible nor desirable.' The statement of Franz Simmersbach, FAO is even clearer. 'It is as if Vitamin-A research makes researchers blind!' Simmersbach adds: 'Unless you give priority to operational field work, research and programmes related to food and nutrition education, the children we identified as being in need will not profit from all of this in time.' (FAO, 1996)

Bruno de Benoist, from WHO in Geneva, is convinced that a holistic approach, including both food fortification (for a first input) and dietary approaches, is necessary. He and others believe that the vitamin-A rice could perhaps be of additional help, among many other approaches.

Barbara Underwood, one of the leading experts in VAD, advocates for a new paradigm: 'The current usual paradigm of food, nutrition and health institutions must change from a vertical approach to a holistic, flexible system approach that includes empowering communities to be involved, as well as monitoring and adjusting the system to the dynamics of local changes.' She adds: 'Lessons learned from successful interventions in developing countries indicate that sustainable solutions are attainable only if all stakeholders are successfully engaged in partnerships that include the poor.'

Much success has already been achieved. Donald McLaren from the International Center of Eye Health, London, and an expert in VAD since the late 1960s, remarks that great progress has been made in this area: 'For example, the number of young children with xerophthalmia has fallen by about two-thirds in the past 20 years.'

Bruno de Benoist from WHO is more cautious. He confirms that in some countries (such as Indonesia, India and Bangladesh) the number of afflicted children has dropped significantly, although exact trends are hard to predict because of the absence of figures.

And according to the World Bank, investments in all three programmes to prevent vitamin-A deficiency are among the most cost-effective of interventions to improve health. (For example, the abovementioned three-year project in Thailand to promote production and consumption of vitamin-A-rich foods was estimated to have a per-capita cost of US$0.42; see FAO and ILSI (1997.)

The 'golden rice' - a big illusion?

Besides being an isolated and single-nutrient approach, the transgenic-rice project raises other doubts as well:

1. Biology
The provitamin-A rice only exists in a laboratory. There is no evidence of whether the plant shows the expected properties in different eco-systems (it is a common observation that transgenic plants, while they may perform well in laboratories, fail in nature, especially if they contain not one but three, added gene-constructs). Furthermore the uptake of provitamin A depends on many factors. Provitamin A has to be absorbed by the guts and then built up to vitamin A in the body. This only functions in the presence of fat or oil, because provitamin A is only fat-soluble. Poor people's diets often lack fat; they would excrete the provitamin A undigested. Worm infections or diarrhoea can lead to vitamin-A deficiency.

According to de Benoist from WHO, bad hygienic conditions and dirty water are important factors for the incidence of VAD.

The bioavailability of provitamin A is still poorly understood (e.g. carrots produce provitamin A in a hardly digestible crystal form; they should be cooked, and some oil added, to allow the uptake. On the other hand, provitamin-A absorption is much easier from oranges). Furthermore, evidence is growing that malnutrition with health consequences often also extends to iodine, iron (the main factors), and to vitamins C and D, folate, riboflavin, selenium and calcium. 'There is no 'quick fix' or 'magic bullet' solution,' remarks Lupien from FAO.

2. Patents
Ingo Potrykus plans making the transgenic rice available to poor farmers for free, without any patent claims. He even publicly denounced patenting: 'So many fields of research are blocked by corporate patents. I had to ignore them or I couldn't move at all. Scientists should start now by simply breaking the law,' he says. What company wants the negative publicity of putting me in jail for fighting poverty?' (The Progressive Populist, St. Louis, USA, August 1999).

But there is another side to Potrykus: in former times he used to work at the Novartis-owned Research Institute FMI and he still has very close connections to this company. Database research revealed that Potrykus is named as 'inventor' and thus has interest in 30 plant-related patents, most of them belonging to Novartis. In 1992 'No patents on Life!' Switzerland filed opposition to patent No. EP 0164575:'Direct transformation of genes into plant hereditary material'.

One of the inventors is Potrykus; the patent belongs to Ciba-Geigy, now Novartis. The latest Novartis patent with Potrykus as inventor was issued in February 1999 (No. US 5976880). Furthermore Potrykus admits himself that filed a patent application for the transgenic rice ('before others do it') and that his group used some patented processes to construct the rice (possibly with himself as inventor). It could be that Novartis promises to give up all claims. Novartis plans to merge its agro-division this year with the Swedish-British company AstraZeneca to create a new agro-giant Syngenta. Will this Swedish-British-Swiss company also give up all patent claims say, in seven years, when Thai farmers want to use it in their crops?

3. Culture
The transgenic provitamin-A rice has a deep yellow colour. But for decades Southern people 'learned' that 'whiter than white' (for bread and rice) was the symbol of progress, quality and Western superiority. Now, all of a sudden, scientists expect them to prefer the yellow colour. FAO's experiences with VAD programmes show that a careful appreciation of cultural habits, traditions and beliefs is key to the success of such programmes. These habits and traditions cannot be changed overnight.

Once again we encounter the typical Northern attempt to solve the problems of the South with a technocratic 'magic bullet' approach. But we know from the experience of the last 50 years that this kind of isolated and one-dimensional approach hardly ever works.

Main sources:
Collection of some relevant articles: (see 'topics', then 'Vitamin-A-documents')
Bloem M. W., Huq N., Gorstein J., Burger S., Kahn T., Islam N., Baker S. and Davidson F. 1996. 'Production of fruits and vegetables at the homestead is an important source of vitamin A among women in rural Bangladesh', European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 50, 3, p.62 FAO.1996. Final Summary Report: Ten-year Food-Based Action 1985-1995. Rome
FAO and International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI).1997. Preventing Micronutrient Malnutrition: A Guide to Food-based Approaches. A manual for policy makers and porgramme planners. Washington, DC,USA,ILSI Press
FAO.1998. 'Les activites nutritionelles au niveau communautaire'. Experiences dans les pays du Sahel. No 67. By Adriana Zarrelli. Rome
McLaren D. 1999. 'Vitamin A - the good news',
Smitasiri S., Attig G.A., Dhanamitta S. 1992. 'Participatory action for nutrition education: Social marketing vitamin A-rich foods in Thailand', Ecology of Food and Nutrition, 28, p.199 Underwood B.A. and Smitasiri S. 1999. 'Micronutrient malnutrition: policies and programs for control and their implications', Annual Review of Nutrition, 19, p.303.

Florianne Koechlin is a biologist and the managing director of Blueridge Institute in Switzerland.