Should we ease the regulation of genetically engineered crops?

Rice genetically engineered to produce β-carotene (provitamin A) was named golden rice because of its distinctive golden colour.

Ingo Potrykus, chairman of the Golden Rice Humanitarian Board and one of the developers of the genetically engineered (GE) crop golden rice, writes that he holds the strict regulation of GE crops responsible “for the death and blindness of thousands of children and young mothers.” [Potrykus, Ingo. Nature Vol 466, 29 July 2010. p 561]. In an opinion piece published in the July 29th, 2010 edition of the journal Nature, Potrykus argues that the existing regulation of genetically engineered crops is pushing their development into the hands of private industry and is stifling the creation of varieties geared toward humanitarian aid by the public sector.

Potrykus is one of the developers of the genetically engineered crop called golden rice, which is designed to produce the precursors to vitamin A (β-carotene) in its endosperm. Wild-type rice varieties produce β-carotene in their green tissues, but not in the portions that are consumed by humans.  Golden rice was designed to help alleviate vitamin A deficiency – which can lead to loss of eyesight and eventually death—by engineering a rice variety that produces β-carotene in consumable rice grain.

Golden rice has met with regulatory challenges since its inception. Having been successfully developed in 1999, Potrykus does not believe the crop will be approved for use until 2012 – nearly 15 years after it was ready to leave the lab. Without overhauling the existing regulatory systems – which include everything from patents to field trial approvals – Potrykus fears other humanitarian crops, including golden cassava, golden banana, as well as iron-zinc,-and-protein-rich rice will be condemned to the same fate as golden rice, ready to help but prevented from doing so.

So, what do you think? Are the current controls over GE crops too tight? Should regulatory approvals be eased for the public sector? As always, it’s debatable.

by

Rebecca Moore
Rebecca Moore is a fourth year Ph.D. student at the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology (IHPST) at the University of Toronto. She completed her undergraduate degree at the University of Guelph in history and microbiology and her MA at the University of Toronto in the history and philosophy of science. After working as the coordinator of a science communications program at the University of Guelph, Rebecca returned to the IHPST to complete her Ph.D. Rebecca is currently using the tools of the history and philosophy of science to look at the contemporary issue of genetically modified (GM) crops. She is especially interested in the intellectual property structures that allow for the patenting of GM crops and the popular understanding of the gene and its influence on the patenting process.

4 Comments

  • Mike Thicke
    Mike Thicke Reply

    I’m worried about Potrycus’s implication that we face a choice between introducing GE crops to deal with malnutrition and doing nothing to deal with malnutrition. Introducing a crop like Golden Rice patches only one aspect of the problem caused by a lack of diversity in the diets of these people. To quote:

    ‘Malnutrition is a problem of poverty, not technology,’ Day-cha Siripat of Thailand’s Alternative Agriculture Network was quoted as saying in the statement.

    Indeed, UN reports say a good amount of the answer to malnutrition lies in food diversification. Green leafy vegetables, oranges and red palm oil are good sources of vitamin A. The reintroduction of vegetables rich in micronutrients has also worked in countries like Thailand and Bangladesh.

    ‘Farmers’ own experiences of diversification show that there are many ways to address Vitamin A deficiency in Asia without isolating the problem from socio-political realities,’ the three Asian NGOs pointed out.

    If we introduce Golden Rice, I wonder what the next health problem will be? It seems a kind of science fetishism to me to think that we can solve these problems with purely technological means, rather than tackling the underlying social problems.

  • Curtis Forbes
    Curtis Forbes Reply

    When it comes to “reintroducing” vegetables rich in micronutrients instead of making GMO supercrops rich in them, I think that is always a better plan. But sometimes vitamin-rich vegetables are incapable of growing in the arid circumstance where famine is occurring, so the lack of diversity in the diets of “these people” results from a lack of local farming possibilities. In those cases, we are, barring some social-economic change at the global level, faced with a choice between doing nothing and introducing a GMO. A more hearty brand of tomato, for instance, might be worth developing through genetic modification; even if it doesn’t provide additional micronutrients like golden rice, it would be a dietary improvement for many people unable to currently grow tomatoes locally. If, for another example, quinoa could be made to grow outside of the Andes through genetic modification, many issues of malnutrition could also be alleviated by letting people grow quinoa locally, it’s being a complete protein and all.

    So while using genetic modification to enrich foods may not be the best bet, I think making them more capable of growing in impoverished areas would help alleviate people’s suffering. But, this can, of course, only happen if the seeds are more of less simply be given to them, as there is always very little money to be made off of famine (if I remember correctly, there are actually a number of patents infringed upon during the creation of golden rice, so these humanitarians are clearly not playing the game for money). Of course, such humanitarian crops are not legally permitted, it would seem, or at least their development is legally stifled. That, I think, may be a problem.

    While I’m sympathetic to the idea that striving for technological solutions should not be a replacement for progressive social change, I think one of the more promising aspects of technological innovation is its possibilities for routing around established social orders. Technology can uplift people’s living conditions despite, for example, the underlying fact that these people have continually been exploited and disregarded by the rest of the world. That’s the beautiful part about the technologist’s dream – the idea that we don’t have to “change the world,” but can design a device that will basically do it for us. It’s the easy fix to an intractable problem, and I don’t think easy fixes are necessarily red herrings.

    When someone wants to help alleviate suffering from famine, one can do several things; but instead of donating money to Oxfam, being an activist, or partaking in complicated politicking at difficult to access levels of the global village, a little bit of work in the laboratory and some seed-giveaways might solve many people’s food problems. That’s an amazing possibility I can’t stop thinking about, and I think Potrykus is coming from a similar mindset. Let’s not stop trying to “tackle the underlying social conditions,” but let’s also try to make it legally possible for a technological solution to develop. Diversity of tactics!

  • Allan Olley Reply

    I think regulation is necessary and unfortunately that means that you need lots of money to do tests. Perhaps the barriers are set to high, but I don’t know. In reality I’m skeptical that even if these barriers were removed the technology would magically catch on without massive investment quite possibly as onerous as the regulatory process… So it’s a problem…

    In general finding a quicker way to test stuff would be a huge boon to technology and medicine.

    I would point out that our precautionary tendency here is selective. Most natural products are not tested for their health effects or their possible negative environmental impacts. However natural products can have negative health effects (a natural pea with neurotoxin http://www.croptrust.org/main/grasspea.php?itemid=32 mmm mmm) and introduced (invasive) natural species are known disrupt existing ecosystems (many more introduced species fail to thrive). Ideally we should be running careful studies on all crops for their health and environmental effects. Obviously though we can’t ban all food until the data is in, but conversely because we can’t test all of them it does not follow we should test none of them.

    I would point out there are probably reasons that agricultural diversity is often so low. If diverse crops were equal and superior in all ways and easy to implement it would already be implemented. For example its often stated that more labour is required for diverse crops, in so far as a farmer or farm labourer’s income is a portion of the yield they would make less and so have less to eat or the food would cost more and so anyone else eating it would have less to eat on the same dollar. This could be critical. On the other hand if the lack of diversity is merely due to transition costs I suppose it could be a straightforward answer.

    More likely though absolute productivity must be increased through capital improvements (better farm tools, storage infrastructure etc.) to allow diversity to be pursued more successfully in the poorest regions. A crop that was more nutritious might help but only IF capable of being produced in the same high yield low cost industrial manner…

    • Mike Thicke
      Mike Thicke Reply

      I would point out there are probably reasons that agricultural diversity is often so low. If diverse crops were equal and superior in all ways and easy to implement it would already be implemented. For example its often stated that more labour is required for diverse crops, in so far as a farmer or farm labourer’s income is a portion of the yield they would make less and so have less to eat or the food would cost more and so anyone else eating it would have less to eat on the same dollar. This could be critical. On the other hand if the lack of diversity is merely due to transition costs I suppose it could be a straightforward answer.

      This is an interesting point. I think a plausible story is that the economics of the situation force farmers into a situation where they have to concentrate on a single, or a very limited number, of crops or be out-competed. Since farmers can survive while being malnourished, the market can create a prisoner’s dilemma situation where every farmer would be better off if they all diversified and produced a little less. If one farmer “defects” and un-diversifies then they will be better off (in terms of nutrients as well) because they will reap higher economic returns than their peers and be able to afford a diverse diet. However once farmers start to defect there is a cascade effect where everyone is forced to defect or be forced out of the market, and once everyone is producing the same few crops prices drop due to increased supply, and everyone is locked-into an equilibrium where they are all worse off than when they all produced diverse crops.

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