10 key facts about Golden Rice, a GMO that can save the lives and sight of millions of children

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Credit: Uday Foundation
Credit: Uday Foundation
“This rice could save a million kids a year,” read a famous Time magazine cover from July 2000. The report covered a revolutionary breakthrough—the first rice that could produce a key nutrient to help alleviate severe vitamin A deficiency in developing countries. Unfortunately, this achievement had to wait more than 20 years to obtain the first commercial approval, which happened in the Philippines last month.

The path that this humanitarian crop has traveled hasn’t been easy, and it has also been the victim of much misinformation and excessive regulation. Here I share 10 key facts about golden rice:

1. It’s as natural as any GMO

Contrary to the unfortunate popular image that relates “toxic chemicals,” nuclear danger or mad scientists when it comes to genetic modification of crops, golden rice was developed by inserting something as natural as a gene from corn and another from a very common bacteria related to the plant world.

The first version of Golden Rice (GR1) was obtained by inserting a gene (psy) from the narcissus flower and another (crtl) from the bacterium Erwinia uredovora. Both genes make it possible to complete an unfinished biochemical pathway that doesn’t allow the production of beta-carotene -a precursor of vitamin A in the human body- in the grains of a rice plant. Although the final amount of beta-carotene produced was very low, this advance showed that genetic engineering could overcome a great wall to conventional breeding, since there is no variety of rice with even a minimum level of beta-carotene in their grains to breed it with selection and crossing. Even if traditional breeding was possible, the process would be long and would take many generations to stabilize at an acceptable level. It was necessary to insert the genes of another species, and genetic engineering made it possible.

The second version of Golden Rice (GR2) was obtained by replacing the psy gene from narcissus with one from corn. These genes were expressed exclusively in the grain, not in the whole plant. This approach managed to increase the beta-carotene content 23 times compared to the first version.

How were the corn and Erwinia genes inserted? As in a large part of GM crops, integrating into plasmids of a natural soil bacterium (A. tumefaciens) that inserts them into plants. Again, nature provides a tool that scientists take advantage of and apply in the lab. Credit: IRRI

2. Just a cup can save children’s lives and eyesight

Some activists keep repeating that a pregnant woman or a child should eat huge amounts of golden rice to produce the required daily level of vitamin A. They do this by taking calculations from the first version (GR1), which was a proof of concept, not a final product. With the level achieved in the second version (GR2), the one used for breeding with local varieties in Asian countries, only 100 gr of uncooked Golden Rice could supply up to 89–113% and 57–99% of the estimated average requirement (EAR) of vitamin A for preschool and school-aged children in Bangladesh and the Philippines, respectively.

In addition, Golden Rice has the advantage that its beta-carotene is highly assimilable. For example, it has been shown that compared to spinach, a vegetable recognized as a rich source of vitamin A, beta-carotene in golden rice is converted by the body to vitamin A approximately five times more efficiently.

Vitamin A deficiency remains the leading cause of preventable childhood blindness and increased risk of infection in more than 190 million children worldwide.  This rice is certainly not the “magic bullet”, but it’s a viable tool that can help eradicate it. Critics often mention that this can be achieved with international food aid programs that provide supplements through pills or the fortification of local foods in the processing phase. However, the success of these efforts has been limited, due to inconsistent external financing, purchasing power, and limited access to markets and hospitals in poor countries. Let’s integrate all possible solutions, and not leave one out.

From left to right: common rice, GR1 and GR2. You can see how the orange color in the grains intensifies as the accumulation of beta-carotene increases, and hence, the reason for its name. Credit: Golden Rice Humanitarian Board

3. Golden Rice is a safe food

All commercial GM crops have been shown to have no difference in food safety or environmental impact compared to their conventional versions. And more than 250 scientific and technical institutions recognize this.

In the same way, golden rice has been proven in several studies—here are some  from 2019 and 2020 – and even clinical trials of children and adult consumption, that show in addition to being an effective source of beta-carotene, the new proteins expressed in this rice are not similar to any known allergen or toxin, and they disintegrate in the digestive system.

Activists sometimes mention that there may be a risk of “hypervitaminosis” from consuming a food that is “high in retinol or vitamin A”. Is this true? Ignoring the curious angle about this statement considering that previously, activists repeated that Golden Rice had negligible amounts of vitamin A precursors, it should be made clear that Golden Rice doesn’t have high levels of vitamin A, but of beta-carotene, a pigment that functions as a precursor of the vitamin, and that the human body transforms it as needed. If there is an excess of beta-carotene, it’s simply stored in the fatty tissue or eliminated in the urine. And no toxicity from high levels of beta-carotene has been reported, something that I doubt occurs in countries with micronutrient malnutrition.

Credit: IRRI

4. It is a public sector effort

Although much of the current commercial GM crop has been developed by the private sector—excessive regulations have made that easier, but it’s another matter—Golden Rice is a crop that was born in the public sector and has been worked on since then as a tool for humanitarian purposes.

The first golden rice was developed by Ingo Potrykus—from ETH Zürich—and Peter Beyer -from the University of Freiburg- and although a partnership was made in 2004 with Syngenta -which had the necessary capacities- to develop the second version of the rice, the company released the use of the technology for humanitarian purposes without patent or royalty cost. That event allowed countries to integrate it into their rice breeding programs and develop local public varieties of golden rice.

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Some foundations and government institutions have provided resources or capacities for the international Golden Rice project. This effort has been led in Asia by the Rice Research Institute (IRRI), based in the Philippines. Also, public entities in Bangladesh and Indonesia have bred their own Golden Rice varieties, and it’s important to emphasize that all the organizations involved have declared no commercial interest in golden rice.

This means that, for example, a local variety of golden rice seeds in Bangladesh or the Philippines, would be sold at the same price as conventional rice, and farmers can save part of the crop to replant without problems.

Ingo Potrykus and Peter Beyer, the inventors of golden rice, at the time of the first field trials in 2004 at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. Credit: Golden Rice Humanitarian Board

5. It’s received official consumption approvals

To date, regulatory agencies’ evaluations in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the Philippines have declared Golden Rice a safe food for human consumption. This reaffirms the food safety and potential that studies have shown.

In commercial propagation approvals, after the Philippines, Bangladesh could be the second country to approve Golden Rice. Previously it was thought that they would be the first after an imminent consumption and commercial approval at the end of 2019, which is still on hold. Indonesia, India or China also could be future countries to join this group.

6. “Super rice” is coming

Entities related to the golden rice project, such as ETH Zurich and IRRI, haven’t  focused solely on ​​beta-carotene. They also work with genetic engineering to increase the levels of iron and zinc in the rice grain -using bean/apple genes, other very important nutrients for child development and general health, but unfortunately, with low consumption in developing countries. Some research groups also use gene editing to increase the same nutrients.

It should be noted that IRRI is working on interesting advances such as the development of varieties with a low glycemic index, which would help prevent diabetes, extreme climate tolerance including heat and salinity, or the famous “C4 rice”, which expresses a more efficient photosynthetic pathway that could increase yields by 50% higher in grains.

7. Opposition and boycott from Greenpeace and activists

The fear of new foods is not something new and GM foods, including Golden Rice, haven’t been oblivious to this effect. Since the 1990s when the first GMOs came onto the market, activists and interest groups have spread fear and misinformation.

A central NGO due to its international popularity has been Greenpeace, which when defending glaciers, endangered species or human responsibility in climate change can be very rigorous in citing the scientific consensus, but for genetic engineering they completely forget it. For two decades, they have spread myths and terror campaigns about golden rice to the press, politicians and local environmental/consumer groups.

Regrettable events occurred in 2013 when some 400 people broke through the fences and vandalized IRRI’s experimental Golden Rice fields in the Philippines. Others include the local protests in recent years carried out by a network of local NGOs against the approval of golden rice.

2013 vandalism attack on IRRI golden rice field trials. Credit: Slate.com

8. Support of 150+ Nobel Prize winners

The opposition reported above led to several Nobel Laureates in 2016 publishing an open letter to governments recognizing the safety and potential of GM crops and Golden Rice, and  condemning the opposition of and calling for a boycott of Greenpeace. The document, currently signed by more than 150 Nobel Laureates, ends with a harsh phrase: “How many poor people in the world must die before consider this a ‘crime against humanity’?”

The tone of the Nobelists’ letter is not exaggerated. There are studies with estimates of the loss of life and human development due to the delay in the approval of Golden Rice. Even some, like the prominent geneticist George Church, go further by stating: “Every year that you delay it [golden rice], that’s another million people dead. That’s mass murder on a high scale. In fact, as I understand it there is an effort to bring them to trial at The Hague for crimes against humanity.”

9. Golden Rice receives international recognition

Golden Rice was recognized among the 10 top biotechnology projects, within the most influential projects of the last 50 years by the Project Management Institute (PMI) in 2019. For its potential, it shares a reputation in the ranking along with revolutionary advances such as the human genome project, in vitro fertilization, cloning Dolly the sheep, and laboratory-grown organs, among others.

10. Bonus track: Divine approval

In a meeting between Ingo Potrykus and Pope Francis in 2013, Potrykus presented him with a sample of Golden Rice, which was blessed by the religious authority. So, for Roman Catholics at least, this crop has “divine approval.” It’s worth mentioning that although the Catholic Church doesn’t have an official statement, this rice, and GMOs in general, are supported by the Vatican Academy of Sciences.

Pope Francis blessing a sample of golden rice. Credit: Golden Rice Humanitarian Board

Daniel Norero is a science communications consultant and fellow at the Cornell Alliance for Science. He studied biochemistry at the Catholic University of Chile. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNorero

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