Sanet folks -
Please read all three postings off of Klaus Ammann's (Botanical Garden,
University of Bern, Switzerland) e-newsletter that presents various
aspects of the GM and high/low input agriculture debate. The first quote
that introduces golden rice with various 'sides' of the issue, the second
quote is an interesting cautionary perspective from Dr. Vandana Shiva,
and the last quote is from Alex Avery, son of Dennis Avery, of the Hudson
Institute who amply demonstrates his intellectual and ethical prowess.
Through these three reports, I am reminded of a brilliant assessment of
genetic engineering, recently explained to me by Ann Clark. She spoke
about the situation in the midwest, where government policies and
programs and University extension have encouraged the corn/soybean
alternation in the midwest which is a pretty poor rotation in terms of
weed, insect and disease control. The same agencies and policies have
also encouraged conservation tillage/no till with the subsequent heavy of
herbicides and insecticides. All of this has served to destroy much of
the microbial life in the soil. Now when corn residue lies on the ground
surface, it is not decomposed as it should be, allowing the overwintering
of increasingly larger populations of corn borers. The solution? Not
solving the management problems that lead to this pest problem. Instead
we have Bt corn. Attempting to solve a management problem with an
inappropriate solution that is doomed for failure as inevitable pest
resistance increases. There are many arguments against GM technology for
a variety of other reasons - health, ecological, moral etc. - but the
biggest argument I see is that it is being used to deal with problems
that would be much better solved by changing the current agricultural
system to one that encourages a healthy mix of soil microbial life, that
reduces reliance of toxic pesticides that enter the food, water, air, and
soil, and that carefully uses sustainable agricultural practices to
produce a variety of high quality, highly nutritional crops for human
Golden rice will not solve malnutrition, which is the result of far more
than Vitamin A deficiency. Instead it may actually increase reliance on
a protein deficient diet that lacks other essential nutrients.
Developing high iron rice may improve nutritional iron for a short period
of time, until the soil is mined out of available iron - what then?
Didn't we learn from childhood that good nutrition results from eating a
healthy balance of foods from all food groups? Or does that philosophy
only apply to us rich folks who can afford to buy any food we want out of
Trying to solve a management problem with an inappropriate genetic
solution without making any effort to correct or even identifying the
underlying problems. Thanks, Ann for clarifying for me the biggest lie
in the whole GM debate! Mary-Howell Martens
from Michela Wrong - 24 Feb 2000 19:28GMT:
For some he is misguided; for others, a naive scientist exploited by a
cynical industry. But for Professor Ingo Potrykus, the process he has
pioneered in his greenhouses on the outskirts of Zurich, possesses
of the miraculous.
"It is one of the dreams that have come true," he says in his
German-accented English. "Many dreams have not come true. But this one
I won't hide that I am proud of it."
The achievement in question is a grain genetically engineered to contain
beta-carotene, the pigment that yields Vitamin A. It has been called
rice", in tribute to both its yellow colour and its promise. The
does indeed represent a stunning scientific breakthrough: Vitamin A
deficiency kills an estimated 2m children each year and blinds many more.
But scientific innovation is not the only reason why government
industry representatives and consumer groups heading to Scotland for an
international conference on genetically modified crops next week are
for details of the 66-year-old researcher's work. Funded by the
Foundation and eagerly awaited by developing countries haunted by famine,
golden rice has been described as the "secret weapon" of the
"The first wave of GMOs flopped," says Margaret Mellon of the Union of
Concerned Scientists, a Washington lobby group worried about the rapidity
GM takeup. "Now some people are hoping the second wave will take up the
flag and lead the parade. Golden rice is part of an exercise to make the
The fundamental flaw of the first GM crops, engineered to resist
spray and insect attack, was that while they promised farmers in the
developed world higher yields and lower costs, they had nothing to offer
consumers to compensate for perceived risks to health and the
As biotech firms patented genes, bought seed firms, flirted with
"terminator" technology, which would have prevented poor farmers from
reusing seeds, and sued those who poached their intellectual property,
developing world governments and environmentalist groups united against
they saw as a corporate attempt to control the food chain. The dispute
rapidly became black and white: ordinary citizens in both south and north
pitted against faceless western companies and their apologists in
Prof Potrykus's golden rice looks set to redraw those battle lines.
than benefiting farmers in the industrialised west, it has been developed
specifically to improve the health of the world's poorest. Instead of
charged a big "technology fee" to use the GM grain, growers will be given
the rice, and attendant intellectual property rights, for free by
research centres operating under the aegis of the International Rice
Prof Potrykus's research was funded not by a biotech giant but by the
government and the Rockefeller Foundation, whose scientist Norman Borlaug
won the Nobel Prize in 1970 for his role in the "green revolution" - new
hybrid seeds that have doubled and trebled grain yields in the developing
world. And golden rice's champion is not some profit-hungry executive but
Professor Gordon Conway, president of the Washington-based Foundation and
man who has dedicated his career to combating world hunger.
It was Prof Conway, who is due to address the Edinburgh conference
sponsored by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development,
who last year persuaded Monsanto to turn its back on "terminator"
technology. But his criticism of Monsanto's marketing techniques has
dimmed his belief that biotechnology is key to global food security. The
Rockefeller Foundation has poured $100m into the plant biotechnology
research that gave birth to golden rice.
Whereas early genetically mod ified crops involved splicing a single gene
into a plant's DNA, golden rice involves the transfer of three - two from
daffodil and one from a bacterium - a leap most scientists believed was
still years away.
Soon Prof Potrykus hopes to cross golden rice with a grain implanted with
three genes boosting iron content, to produce a rice that would also
anaemia, the other great curse of rice-dependant populations. Given its
potential, GM advocates are counting on the grain to at best seize the
high ground from the anti-GM campaigners and at worst introduce some
subtlety to an overly simplistic debate.
"One can only hope," said a recent article in Science magazine - one in a
rash of papers on the topic - "that this application of plant genetic
engineering to ameliorating human misery without regard to short-term
will restore this technology to political acceptability."
However, some critics of GM technology remain hostile. They view the
interest in a grain that has still to make the transfer from greenhouse
field trial, let alone to commercial cultivation, as the symptom of an
industry bent on bypassing discussion of the fundamental issues - ranging
from gene transfer and the spread of antibiotic resistance to corporate
control of the food chain and the ethics of gene-patenting.
"The timing of this is so clear," says Charlie Kronick, head of
UK's genetic engineering campaign. "People are talking about the
benefits of the second generation of GM crops when almost no questions
raised by the first have been answered. You don't have to be paranoid to
think the tactics are deliberate."
Dr Mellon points out that the world already possesses the scientific
know-how required to rid the developing world of Vitamin A deficiency and
"There are 10 simple steps we could take right now to feed a billion
people, from building roads, to distributing iron tablets, to encouraging
people to grow gourds in their back yards."
If that knowledge is not applied, it is because of unsustainable farming
practices, poor education and wealth inequalities, she argues - problems
unlikely to be solved by an enriched grain variety created in a Swiss
"Instead of staging an international conference to discuss those
we stage conference after conference about biotechnology,"
Dr Mellon argues.
"If we are interested in the problem, not the technology, then we are
about things in a very curious way."
But the sceptics appear in danger of being outflanked, with the informal
alliance forged between environmental groups and developing countries
looking particularly vulnerable.
Developing nations rail at the scramble for gene patents, accusing
companies of ap-propriating developing world biodiversity. But equally,
do not share western environmentalists' concerns, seeing in biotechnology
solution to famine and malnutrition.
China has embraced GM cotton with such enthusiasm, it is now the world's
fourth-largest user of GM seeds. India is testing insect- resistant
and tomato and is working on GM rice, cotton and peas.
"It is going to be harder for the environmentalists to say they are
battling for the poor if they're fighting something that benefits the
says Gary Toenniessen, director of food security at the Rockefeller,
acknowledging the looming ideological rift.
"But those groups were naive if they thought Third World countries were
their side to start off with."
The man who risks becoming the accidental hero of a biotech industry is
unrepentant. "The reaction that really matters comes from the developing
countries," says Prof Potrykus.
"They are saying 'we don't have to be told by spoilt white countries what
do', and rightly so. If you have blind children in the street and a
technology that can help, then you have no doubts."
GENETICALLY ENGINEERED VITAMIN `A' RICE: A BLIND APPROACH TO BLINDNESS
14 Feb 2000
Genetically engineered Vitamin A rice has been proclaimed as a miracle
cure for blindness - "a break through in efforts to improve the health of
billions of poor people, most of them in Asia".
More than $100 have been spent over 10 years to produce a transgenic rice
at the Institute of Plant Sciences at the Swiss Federal Institute of
Technology in Zurich. The Zurich research team headed by Ingo Potrykens
Xudong Ye introduced three genes taken from a daffodil and a bacterium
a rice strain to produce a yellow rice with high levels of beta-carotene,
which is converted to Vitamin A within the body.
The rice is being promoted as a cure for blindness since Vitamin A
deficiency causes vision impairment and can lead to blindness . According
to the UN, more than 2 million children are at risk due to Vitamin A
The work in Zurich was funded by grants from the Rockefeller Foundation
the agency which had launched the chemical agriculture in Asia through the
Green Revolution which led to erosion of biodiversity and erosion of
diverse sources of nutrition for the poor. In addition, the Swiss
Government and the European Community has also supported the research.
It will however take millions more in dollars and another decade of
development work at the International Rice Research Institute to produce
Vitamin A rice varieties that can be grown in farmers fields.
Is the "golden" rice a miracle that is the only means for preventing
blindness for Asia or will it introduce new ecological problems like the
Green Revolution did and create new health hazards like other genetically
The genetic engineering of Vitamin A rice deepens the genetic
of the Green Revolution. Instead of millions of farmers breeding and
growing thousands of crop varieties to adapt to diverse ecosystems and
diverse food systems, the Green Revolution reduced agriculture to a few
varieties of a few crops (mainly rice, wheat and maize) bred in one
centralised research centre (IRRI for rice and CIMMYT for wheat and
The Green Revolution led to massive genetic erosion in farmers fields and
knowledge, erosion among farming communities, besides leading to large
scale environmental pollution due to use of toxic agrichemicals and
wasteful use of water.
Genetically engineered rice as part of the second Green Revolution is
repeating the mistakes of the Green Revolution while adding new hazards in
terms of ecological and health risks.
The "selling" of Vitamin A rice as a miracle cure for blindness is based
on blindness to alternatives for removing vitamin A deficiency and
blindness to the unknown risks of producing Vitamin A through genetic
The first deficiency of genetic engineering rice to produce Vitamin A is
the eclipsing of alternative sources of vitamin A. Per Mr. Pinstrup
Head of the International Rice Research Institute has said that Vitamin A
rice is necessary for the poor in Asia, because "we cannot reach very many
of the malnourished in the world with pills". However, there are many
alternatives to pills for Vitamin A supply. Vitamin A is provided by
egg yolk, chicken, meat, milk, butter. Beta-carotene, the vitamin A
precursor is provided by dark green leafy vegetables, spinach, carrot,
pumpkin, mango and drumstick.
Women farmers in Bengal use more than 100 plants for green leafy
The lower cost, accessible and safer alternative to genetically
rice is to increase biodiversity in agriculture. Further, since those who
suffer from vitamin A deficiency suffer from malnutrition generally,
increasing the food security and nutritional security of the poor through
increasing the diversity of crops and diversity of diets of poor people
suffer the highest rates of deficiency is the reliable means for
Sources of Vitamin A in the form of green leafy vegetables are being
destroyed by the Green Revolution and Genetic Engineering which promote
use of herbicides in agriculture. The spread of herbicide resistant crops
will further aggravate this biodiversity erosion with major consequences
for increase in nutritional deficiency. For example, bathua a very popular
leafy vegetable in North India has been pushed to extinction in Green
Revolution areas where intensive herbicide use is a part of the chemical
Environmental costs of vitamin A rice.
Vitamin A from native greens and fruits is produced without irrigation
wastage of scarce water resources. Introducing Vitamin A in rice implies a
shift from water conserving alternatives for Vitamin A to water a
system of production since so called high yielding rice varieties are
highly water demanding. Vitamin A rice will therefore lead to mining of
ground water or intensive irrigation from large dams with all the
associated environmental problems of water-logging and salinisation.
Further, as in the case of other genetically engineered crops, rice with
Vitamin A will have impact on the food web. The ecological impact on soil
organisms and other organisms dependent on rice in the food chain should
part of the biosafety analysis of genetically engineered rice before it is
released for production. Research has already shown that indigenous rice
varieties support far more species than Green Revolution varieties. How
will genetically engineered rice impact biodiversity and the potential for
disease and pest vulnerability?
Health risks of vitamin A Rice.
Since rice is a staple eaten in large quantities in Asian societies,
vitamin A rice could lead to excessive intake of vitamin A especially
those who do not suffer from vitamin A deficiency. Excess vitamin A can
lead to hypervitaminosis A or vitamin A toxicity. Such toxicity is known
occur due to over ingestion of vitamin A rich food eg. Polar bear liver or
by food faddism by over solicitous parents, or as side effects of
Vitamin A toxicity can lead to abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting,
dizziness, popillidena, bulging fontanelle.
Chronic toxicity of vitamin A can occur after ingestion of large
quantities of vitamin A for protracted periods. Chronic at toxicity is
characterized by bone and joint pain, hyperotosis, hair loss, dryness and
fissures of lips, a nausea intraeranial hypertension, low grade fever,
pruritis, weight loss, hepatosplenomegaly.
Natural sources of vitamin A are consumed seasonally and in small
quantities as greens, relishes, fruits and hence do not carry the risks of
vitamin A toxicity. Rice eating regions have been found to be associated
with higher malnutrition than wheat eating regions, especially after the
Green Revolution which destroyed fish and plant biodiversity necessary for
a balanced diet. These regions also have higher prevalence of water borne
diseases like diarrhoea, amoebiasis hepatitis A and E, dysentery, and
vector borne diseases like malaria, which unlike in earlier years when it
was a less hazardous form of malaria caused by plasmodium vivax is
increasingly becoming falciparum malaria. These health problems are known
to involve damage to the lever. The additional risks of vitamin A toxicity
under these conditions of vulnerable health situation of the poor in Asia
needs to be assessed with care before a large scale push is given to
genetically engineered rice.
Further, the globalisation of agriculture is leading to an increase in
malnutrition in the Third World, as the most fertile ecosystems are
diverted to luxury export crops, and as domestic markets are destroyed due
to dumping of subsidised agricultural commodities. In India, per capita
consumption of cereals has declined by 12 per cent in rural areas over the
past two decades. The shift from policies based on the "right to food" to
free trade policies will push millions into hunger and poverty.
Genetically engineered rice is part of a package of globalised
which is creating malnutrition. It cannot solve the problems of
deficiency but it can introduce new risks of food safety. Since the
A in rice is not naturally occurring and is genetically engineered, novel
health risks posed by vitamin A rice will need to be investigated before
the rice is promoted by IRRI and aid agencies or commercialised.
The risk assessment for living modified organisms intended for direct use
as feed is given in Annexe II of the recently finalized Biosafety Protocol
under the Convention on Biological Diversity.
The risk assessment of vitamin A rice should therefore involve the
a) An identification of any novel genotypic and phenotypic
associated with the vitamin A rice that may have adverse effects on
biological diversity in the likely potential receiving environment, taking
also into account risks to human health.
b) An evaluation of the likelihood of these adverse effects being
taking into account the level and kind of exposure of the likely potential
c) An evaluation of the consequences should these adverse effects be
The risk assessment also needs to take into account the vectors used, the
insects, the ecological differences between transgenic vitamin A rice, and
conventional rice varieties. The diverse contexts in which the rice is to
be potentially introduced also needs to be taken into account. This
includes information on the location, geographical, climatic and
characteristics, including relevant information on biological diversity
centres of origin of the likely potential receiving environment.
It is these potential risks which have put a question mark on genetic
engineering in agriculture. The genetically engineered vitamin A rice is
now being used as a Trojan horse to push genetically engineered crops and
Mr. Pinstrup Anderson, the IRRI Director has suggested that the "vitamin
rice could provide a public relations boost for plant biotechnology, which
has been criticised by some environmentalists and consumer activists for
promoting "Franken foods"". It has yet to be established that genetically
engineered rice is not a Franken food.
But one thing is clear. Promoting it as a tool against blindness while
ignoring safer, cheaper, available alternatives provided by our rich
agrobiodiversity is nothing short of a blind approach to blindness
FROM ALEX AVERY, SON OF DENNIS AVERY,
CENTER FOR GLOBAL FOOD ISSUES, HUDSON INSTITUTE
"This was the best thing you've sent in (the Vandana Shiva article) a
Hilarious!! I couldn't stop laughing. Are these people serious? Please
"LET THEM EAT...?" ANTOINETTE LIVES!
While the proposed solution to the chronic vitamin A deficiency among
certain poor Asian populations from Margaret Mellon of the Union of
Conceited Scientists was hilarious (i.e. that we merely build an entire
network of roads and infrastructure so that we can then simply distribute
iron tablets to supplement the vitamin A they'll all get from the--duh,
didn't they think of that!--gourds they planted in their bounteous
gardens), I was left literally rolling on the floor after reading Vandana
Shiva's suggestion that the whole problem would go away if they simply ate
more liver, eggs, chicken, milk, butter and vegetables (quote below). I
think I'll start calling her Vandana Antoinette!
To top it all off, Ms. Antoinette has the audacity to suggest that golden
rice is a bad idea because it could poison people--people who have chronic
vitamin A deficiencies!!!!!!! And they call our side
food proponents) arrogant!
Center for Global Food Issues
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