Beta-carotene enriched Golden
Rice is a very argued topic, with people taking drastic sides. This GM rice should
reduce Vitamin A deficiency in poor countries, reducing cases of blindness,
unhealthy skin and weak immune systems, and leading to premature death to the
billions of people that have a rice-filled diet. Vitamin A deficiency alone affects 250 million
children in the world. This rice ensures that food will be nutritious in the
future, when demand will exponentially increase. However, only one country has started
distribution and production of this rice, in the Phillipines.
So, why is this so called
‘miracle’ rice not being eaten at billions of peoples’ homes?
First, we shall look at how the first
strain of rice was created. This was done by adding 2 beta-carotene
biosynthesis genes: the first is “phytoene synthase” (from daffodils) and the
second is “carotene desaturase” (from the bacterium “Erwinia uredovora”). They
combine to give lycopene, a red compound found in tomatoes. However, in 1999
the strain of GM rice was modified so that did not require lycopene, so
produced B-carotene from inside the rice grain only. The combination of “PSY”
and “CRTI” gives the rice a yellow look, a clear indicator that it contains
Vitamin A. This is known as genetic engineering (making certain products more
useful). This was first thought out in 1984, and successfully created in 1999.
The carotene contains many
molecules and enzymes. This, and with at least one B-ionone ring, ensures that
it has vitamin A production. This means the rice has mechanisms for “carotene
sequestration”, e.g. crystallization, oil deposition and protein-lipid
sequestration. Putting this gene into rice, which is usually low in carotene,
took until the 1990s to perfect. The synthesis of lycopene via “PSY” and “CRTI”
in the rice provides the substrate for these enzymes, which enables the formation
of “PSY” and “CRTI”, which causes the production of vitamin A.
Production chain of
carotenoids ( +B-carotene)
However, this 1st
strain of golden rice did not provide enough vitamin A to negate vitamin A
deficiency. Therefore, a second strain of golden rice was created in order to
produce higher B-carotene levels to combat this.
This is because, in
multi-step biosynthetic pathways to create this rice, there is a step which
limits the rate which a substance produced at, which will decrease the amount
of B-carotene produced in total. This can be prevented by either increasing the
concentration of rate-limiting enzyme or by using an enzyme that lets its
substrate bind to its active sites quicker and form enzyme-substrate complexes
at a faster rate, therefore making it catalyze faster. In various experiments
it was found that PSY was limited. This experimentation with PSY genes from different
sources concluded that the maize and rice genes are the most efficient at
producing vitamin A in rice.
This led to the second
generation of Golden Rice, which produced over 30 times more B-carotene than
the first strain, which means that a diet containing GR2 is much more likely to
reduce vitamin A deficiency related diseases. This also gives GR2 a much
stronger yellow color than GR1.
Since the discovery of GR2,
there are now 5 rice field trial sites in the Philippines, which aim to start
the distribution of golden rice in the country by 2017, and Bangladesh will be
next with aims of 2018.
This does sound like a breakthrough in
technology. However, only the majority of people are happy with this. Protests
against GM rice, especially by people in the Greenpeace group, are threatening
its use in the Philippines and other countries. Reports cited that
Greenpeace followers destroyed a production field in the Philippines. This is because Greenpeace
has been a major scaremonger creating doubt in genetically modified
breakthroughs, especially against the use of biotechnology.
(destruction of the GM rice fields in the
In addition, even though this project has
been backed by more than 100 of the world’s most
distinguished scientists, there are problems that still alarm people. This
leads to the idea that there are two factors: uncertainty and fear. There is
also the concern about whether the growing of GM-rice could spread to the
conventional crop of rice that had been grown for centuries and is eaten by
both the local population and the worldwide community. The biggest scare was
that several years ago in China, scientific researchers
sampling populations with Golden Rice committing
an ethical breach of the law by feeding GM-rice to children without letting
their parents/guardian know first. When this outbreak became public, China shut
down the research completely, critically undermining the crops’ reputation.
In countries such as Brazil
and Paraguay, the increasing use of soybean monocultures had led to widespread
deforestation in the past, which sparked numerous protests. People use similar
arguments that mass-producing GM rice could lead to mass deforestation in the
future, where sustaining enough produce to feed the population whilst being
environmentally friendly will rise to the next level of difficulty.
On the other side, amongst
the opposition, there are numerous supporters of “The Golden Rice Project”, who
constantly praise this miracle crop. Supporters of the project also reject any concern over
the fact that this project has partners in the biotech industry that strive to make
profit. It has the freedom to run under humanitarian use, therefore the
technology needed to grow the crop can be provided and delivered free of charge
in developing countries. This means costs will never be an issue for the local
farmers, meaning they can all grow the crop.
The Golden Rice project also received the blessing from
the Pope and received the “2015 Patents for Humanity award”. In June 2016, over
100 Nobel Laureates (winners of Nobel Prizes), alongside 5591 scientists and
ordinary people, signed a letter against Greenpeace’s opposition to genetically
modified organisms. Sir Richard Roberts, the leader of the campaign, stated
that: “We call upon Greenpeace to cease and desist in its campaign against
Golden Rice specifically, and crops and foods improved through biotechnology in
(blessing of the Golden rice project).
However, the opposition retaliated by arguing that even
after 24 years of research and the billions of dollars spent, the project is
still years away from full completion and the release to various countries.
They point that many research related queries remain about GM rice.
Even further, “Masipag”,
the network established for Philippine farmers and scientists, say that more caution is needed.
“Chito Medina”, the
leader of Masipag, asks: “Is Golden Rice food, medicine or both? If it is both,
then the health department should be doing safety studies. So far only feeding
studies have been going on, showing that the Vitamin A is absorbed by the body,
but there are no safety data showing whether chemicals may have been produced
in the process of genetic engineering.” This, according to Masipag, including
the fact that a test field had been destroyed, made clear that golden rice is
isn’t welcome there, any may never be. Medina claimed that their network itself
had no part in the destruction, but some of its own members were there at their
Therefore, after these countless debates, the progress in
The Golden Rice project remains at a snail’s pace, whilst millions of people
die due to Vitamin A deficiency. After such a massive leap in discovery, but a
small step in distribution, it is almost a waste of an opportunity to solve a vast
problem in the world, with GM rice distribution only just commencing in the
Philippines and beginning in Bangladesh in 2018.
And the textbook.