Bangladesh may become first country to adopt transgenic rice enriched in vitamin A

This topic is tangentially related to gene-environment interactions, i.e. do genetically modified organisms (GMOs) affect the environment, or other plants growing nearby, or expression of other genes in the genome of the GMO? GMOs have been the subject of much debate, often irrational or (especially in the EU) hysterical about “eating food that has been genetically modified.” However, if you think about it, Mother Nature, over many thousands of years of evolution, has inserted hundreds or thousands of pieces of foreign DNA into “natural” plants — due to such processes as horizontal gene transfer [movement of genetic material between unicellular (e.g. bacteria, yeast) and multicellular organisms (e.g. fungi, grasses, flowering plants, sea squirts, even humans) by processes other than transmission of DNA from parent to offspring; HGT has been an important factor during evolution of many organisms].

Ever since “Golden Rice” first made headlines ~20 years ago, it has been a controversial flashpoint in debates over GMO crops. Advocates have praised Golden Rice as an example of their potential benefit to humanity, whereas opponents of transgenic crops have criticized it as a risky and unnecessary approach to improving health in the developing world.

Bangladesh now appears about to become the first country to approve Golden Rice for planting [see 1-page editorial, attached]. This approval appears to show that agricultural biotechnology can be successfully developed by publicly-funded research centers for

the benefit of humankind. Still — environmental activists have not stopped expressing their strong opposition; the first harvest is not expected until at least 2021, and perhaps later. More research will be needed to demonstrate the extent of real-world benefits from Golden Rice (e.g. remedying health, lowering diseases, improving nutritional status of Third-World country citizens).

Golden Rice was first developed in the late 1990s by German plant scientists — to combat vitamin A deficiency, the leading cause of childhood blindness. Low levels of vitamin A (comprising a group of fat-soluble retinoids, including retinol, retinal, and retinyl esters) also contribute to morbidity and mortality from infectious diseases such as measles and other viruses as well as bacterial inflammatory processes. Spinach, sweet potato, and other vegetables supply ample amounts of vitamin A, but in some countries — particularly those where rice is a major part of the diet — vitamin A deficiency is still widespread. In Bangladesh, for example, vitamin A deficiency affects about one-fifth of all children.

To create Golden Rice, original experiments inserted — into the rice genome — beta-carotene synthesis genes from maize (non-domesticated corn). These GMO plants then paved the way for other researchers to breed the Golden Rice organism into varieties that suit local tastes and geographical growing conditions. Over the past 2 years, regulators in the U.S., Canada, New Zealand, and Australia have approved Golden Rice for consumption. There are no plans to grow Golden Rice in these four countries, but approval in these four Western-World countries will prevent any lawsuits or other legal issues, if Golden Rice somehow accidentally turns up in the food supply of any of these countries [see attached editorial for more].


Science 22 Nov 2019; 366: p. 934 (1-page editorial)

This entry was posted in Center for Environmental Genetics. Bookmark the permalink.