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Golden rice (Part 2).

There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why... I dream of things that never were, and ask why not? - Robert Kennedy

The risks that can come from genetically modified crops (GMOs), such as Golden Rice, are of three kinds, namely: 1) risks of the technology to human and animal health, e.g. presence of allergens and poisons, 2) risks to the environment e.g. creation of super weeds which can overwhelm natural vegetation, and 3) risks incidental to the technology, such as potential domination of world agriculture by the multinationals who have proprietary rights over the technology.

There are two key genes involved in the genetic engineering of Golden Rice, namely: 1) phytoene synthase (designated Psy) and 2) phytoene desaturase (designated Crt1). Psy was isolated from corn while Crt1 from a common soil bacterium Erwinia uredovora. Both Psy and Crt1 are found in the carotenoid biosynthetic pathway common to all green plants. The bacterium gene Crt1 was used because it was found to be more efficient than its counterpart genes with the same function found in higher plants. In other words, these two novel genes introduced into the rice plant to allow beta carotene accumulation in the rice grain are also commonly found in green plants (e.g., vegetables, fruits and legumes) that we consume every day. Humans have been safely consuming these nutritious plants without any known bad effects. The beta carotene produced is converted as needed by the body into vitamin A, which is essential for human nutrition.

Is there a risk for these genes to transfer to wild relatives of rice? In the natural environment, it is very rare for cultivated rice to cross-breed with its wild relatives. Even in the laboratories of the University of the Philippines Los BaAaAaAeA~os (UPLB) and International Ri Research Institute (IRRI), the embryos of rice artificially pollinated with wild relatives only survive with extreme difficulty and have to be "rescued" by elaborate methods of transfer into test tubes.

In any case, what is the consequence of unintended gene transfer of Golden Rice genes to wild rice? The wild rice grain may become yellow because of the added beta carotene but it will not confer any biological advantage to the plant which will enable it to crowd out other vegetation. The birds which eat the yellow wild rice grains will have enhanced beta carotene in their diets. But I suppose that's no big deal.

The transcendental risk of multinational control of global rice trade because of Golden Rice is imaginary, not real. Golden Rice is just one option among so many. Our farmers are wise enough to decide if they want to plant Golden Rice seeds that they can source and replant from their own harvests. Consumers, for their part, can always opt to consume Golden Rice or not. And the local rice traders will always look at market conditions to decide if they want to buy and sell Golden Rice.

In the first place, the technology developers, scientists Ingo Potrykus and Peter Beyer, and the private company Syngenta, have given the rights to use the Golden Rice technology for free to IRRI, PhilRice, Bangladesh Rice Research Institute, and other public agricultural research agencies in Asia. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, and USAID, funders of the international consortium developing Golden Rice for humanitarian purposes, do not expect to be repaid.

There is no point in burying our heads in the sand, ignoring the realities of genetic engineering technology. GMOs are not inherently good or bad. Under the biosafety protocols adopted by all countries, including the Philippines, each GMO is separately looked into and critically assessed for its risks as well as benefits to human beings and to the environment.

Genetic engineering, in the end, is simply an additional alternative technology that can be used toward achieving specific purposes. There is no reason why we should unilaterally deprive our farmers and consumers of the benefit of modern science. The more pragmatic approach is to invest in our own scientists and research institutions to master the new technology to reduce our dependence on foreign sources. For example, since nobody else grows abaca except Indonesia and Ecuador, we cannot expect multinationals to invest in virus-resistant GMO abaca. We have to do it ourselves, if we can.

The future of our very first Pinoy GMO, Bt eggplant, is now pending before the courts. Invoking the Writ of Kalikasan to stop all research on GMOs because they will disturb the balance in nature is naAaAaAeA ve, anti-progres and against our national interest. Will Bt eggplant modify the balance in the natural environment? Yes, of course, as a result of almost every farm activity! We cultivate the fields to eliminate the weeds that naturally compete with our crops for water, nutrients and sunlight. The eggplant that farmers plant will no longer be susceptible to attacks of fruit and shoot borer, its number one pest.

If we come to think of it, modifying the balance in nature for man's purposes is the essence of the whole of agriculture and medicine! We vaccinate ourselves so that we will be immune to the pathogens that naturally harm us. We take in dewormers to get rid of the parasites in our guts. Diabetics inject insulin, which is being produced through recombinant DNA technology, to manage the disease. Ebola vaccine is being developed through genetic engineering.

However, the balance in nature is dynamic and ever shifting all the time. The advantages that man creates for his own ends are not all permanent. In the case of resistance, insects and pathogens can mutate to overcome the resistance of the hosts. Or other insects and pathogens take their place. This is part of the whole evolutionary process.

Meanwhile, the further development of Golden Rice continues. The beta carotene genes inserted into the rice genome have been found effective. The phytoene synthase gene from corn in the newer version of Golden Rice produced 23 times more beta carotene than the gene from daffodil in the original Golden Rice. The beta carotene in Golden Rice is effectively converted into vitamin A in the gut of humans and was even found better in providing vitamin A than the beta carotene from carrots, spinach, fruits and leafy vegetables, according to published studies.

However, the new Golden Rice varieties must have high yields and good eating quality, adaptation to local growing conditions, and resistance to prevailing insect pests and diseases. Otherwise, farmers will not plant them. Hence, the need for multi-locational agronomic tests which, unfortunately, objectors to GMOs abetted by Greenpeace are vandalizing.

These research on Golden Rice conducted by PhilRice and IRRI hopefully will yield a commerciable product soon unless the courts again unwisely intervene.

***

Dr. Emil Q. Javier is a Member of the National Academy of Science and Technology (NAST) and also Chair of the Coalition for Agriculture Modernization in the Philippines (CAMP). For any feedback , email eqjavier@yahoo.com.

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Title Annotation:Business News
Publication:Manila Bulletin
Date:Oct 18, 2014
Words:1166
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