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.…

The battle for hearts, minds… and stomachs

A series on the historical, philosophical, and scientific foundations of the GM crop debate.

Heralded as both the cause and the solution of the world’s food production problems, genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, have become a hotly debated topic since they were first approved for use and human consumption in North America in the mid-1990s. The poles of the debate include staunch advocates of GM crops and environmental dissenters: large agribusinesses, such as Monsanto, who argue for the safety and utility of GMOs, and organizations such as Greenpeace International who maintain that the threat posed by GMOs is unprecedented and must be avoided at all costs. Ad campaigns, activist rallies, and glossy brochures abound in defense of each position.

In the midst of this debate it is easy to get lost in a mass of scary hypotheses, burdensome statistics, and confusing scientific terms. Yet, basic issues are left painfully undiscussed: what does it mean for a crop to be ‘genetically modified’ (is genetic modification a problem? If so, why?); what is the historical place of GMOs in agriculture (aren’t all crops ‘genetically modified’?); what is the role of private corporations in their production and distribution (are GMOs produced by evil multi-national corporations bent on world domination?); and what are the intellectual property structures that influence the creation of GMOs (you can patent a plant?).…