Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Sanity and Progress At Last

Going Dutch

It's taken thirty years, but it looks as if the GM food revolution is happening.  First, some context.  Genetic modification of food (both animal and vegetable) has been in existence since the time humans were first created.  In New Zealand, our agricultural industries have thrived and become more and more productive due to genetic engineering.

New Zealand gardens have bloomed with ever increasing numbers of rose varieties, all the product of genetic engineering.  Genes of plants and animals have been altered due to the selective breeding of species.  But as soon as it became technically feasible to alter the genetic structure of foods by splicing genes together in a laboratory Greenist luddites, inflamed with visions of an imminent holocaust, shut down research centres, destroyed experiments, and used fear and manipulation of the public mind to stop deploying genetically modified crops. 
Protesters destroy GM crops.
Protesters destroy GM crops. Photograph: David Hoffman Photo Library / Al/Alamy

"Keep NZ GE free" was the slogan.  It sprouted up on bumper stickers everywhere.  Eventually sanity has prevailed--at least in more advanced and enlightened countries, such as the Philippines and India.  This is one of the more encouraging pieces you will read in the newspapers this year.  It appeared in The Guardian.
Scientists say they have seen the future of genetically modified foods and have concluded that it is orange or, more precisely, golden. In a few months, golden rice – normal rice that has been genetically modified to provide vitamin A to counter blindness and other diseases in children in the developing world – will be given to farmers in the Philippines for planting in paddy fields.

Thirty years after scientists first revealed they had created the world's first GM crop, hopes that their potential to ease global malnutrition problems may be realised at last. Bangladesh and Indonesia have indicated they are ready to accept golden rice in the wake of the Philippines' decision, and other nations, including India, have also said that they are considering planting it.

"Vitamin A deficiency is deadly," said Adrian Dubock, a member of the Golden Rice project. "It affects children's immune systems and kills around two million every year in developing countries. It is also a major cause of blindness in the third world. Boosting levels of vitamin A in rice provides a simple, straightforward way to put that right."  Recent tests have revealed that a substantial amount of vitamin A can be obtained by eating only 60g of cooked golden rice. "This has enormous potential," said Dubock.
This has been a long time coming.  It could have happened decades ago--improving, if not saving the lives of thousands upon thousands of vulnerable children.  But fear and apocalyptic scaremongering had paralysed regulators and politicians.
But scientists' satisfaction over the Golden Rice project has been tempered by the fact that it has taken an extraordinarily long time for the GM crop to be approved. Golden rice was created late last century, but its development and cultivation has been opposed vehemently by campaigners who have flatly refused to accept that it could deliver enough vitamin A, and who have also argued that the crop's introduction in the developing world would make farmers increasingly dependent on western industry. The crop has become the cause célèbre of the anti-GM movement, which sees golden rice as a tool of global capitalism.
Read that last paragraph again.  It avers that one objection was based on quasi-scientific grounds: Golden Rice would never deliver enough vitamin A (now thoroughly debunked).  The second objection was purely ideological and political.  Golden rice was seen as a tool of "global capitalism"!  It's better to have humans go blind and starve than subject them to "global capitalism"--whatever that might be.  All ideas have consequences.  In this case, the consequences of a very bad ideology have been deadly and cruel.

Thankfully, some Greenists are recognizing the errors of their previous position.  Hats off to these folk.
This view is shared by Mark Lynas, the environmental campaigner and one of the founders of the anti-GM crop movement. He has publicly apologised for opposing the planting of GM crops in Britain. "The first generation of GM crops were suspect, I believed then, but the case for continued opposition to new generations – which provide life-saving vitamins for starving people – is no longer justifiable. You cannot call yourself a humanitarian and be opposed to GM crops today."
One wonders if dyed-in-the-wool Greenists in New Zealand, such as Sue Kedgely and Jeanette Fitzsimmons who have viewed GM food as the ultimate anathema, together with the current crop of Green politicians, will likewise recant their errors.  Unlikely.  They have now moved on to other cause c'elebres, such as windmills and green energy.  GM is so passe.  So last century.

Peter Beyer, the inventor of Golden Rice, recounts how the "approval process" worked.
The reactions of bureaucracies to golden rice were also described by Beyer as "hard to believe". "We have had to undergo endless trials and tests and endure endless amounts of bureaucracy. Yet new breeds of standard crops have no such problems, even though they are often created by exposing them to doses of radiation. This is done to create new mutant breeds which you can then grow to see if any have features you like. None of the regulations that we had to meet in creating golden rice were imposed on these plant breeders. Yet this is the standard means by which new crops, including organic crops, are created. It is manifestly unbalanced."

This point was backed by Dubock. "All the time we have been required to show that there are no risks associated with growing golden rice, but at no point did we get a chance to point out its benefits. Everything is about risk assessment and nothing is about benefits assessment." 
The focus upon risks, not weighed against benefits shows that the whole approval process was deliberately slanted to shut GM engineered food down.  Now, thankfully, it is being exposed as apocalyptic luddite ignorance.
The fate of golden rice is therefore important, as Professor Jonathan Jones of the John Innes Centre points out. "When I started making GM plants 30 years ago I did wonder if there might be "unknown unknowns". But the evidence now is clear. GM food and crops are as safe as non-GM food and crops".
Of course, not all countries and cultures have rice as their staple food.  But the successes with Golden Rice have prompted other food engineers to come up with modified bananas.
The Golden Rice project has had one beneficial knock-on effect, however. It has triggered a series of similar crop modification programmes that aim to tackle vitamin A deficiency through use of other GM foodstuffs. One example is provided by the golden banana, which has been created by scientists led by Professor James Dale of Queensland University in Australia.

"In Uganda, where the banana is a key source of nutrition, there is considerable vitamin A deficiency and also iron deficiency in diets," he said. "The former not only causes blindness but leaves children less able to fight disease which, in Africa, is particularly serious. The latter, iron deficiency, causes blood disorders."

To put this right, Dale and his team have found ways to boost beta-carotene levels in bananas. Now they are working on boosting iron levels as well. The team expects to have a golden banana that will raise both iron and vitamin A levels, though that will take until the end of the decade. "People in Uganda eat up to a kilogram of mashed banana a day, so we don't need to get a great deal of beta-carotene in our bananas," said Dale.
No doubt some will say, "Ugh--how shocking.  Golden bananas."  Imagine the grotesqueness of peeling a banana only to find that has the colour of a carrot.  Playing fast and loose with the natural order will end up destroying us all.  Mmmmm.
 The result of the team's work will be similar to golden rice: peeled, the pale fruit will be carrot-coloured. And if that sounds strange, it is worth noting that carrots were not originally orange. In the 17th century they were mostly yellow or purple, but were bred to be orange by Dutch farmers in tribute to the ruling House of Orange.  
How about that.  For centuries we have been happily munching on genetically modified carrots, and the world has not come to an end.  But it does confirm one canard: the Dutch have a lot to answer for.

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