SAN DIEGO — “Golden rice” has come to represent all the hopes and fears about biotechnology, but despite all the controversy, not a single genetically engineered rice seed has been planted in the ground, its inventors said Monday.
It will probably take another five to 10 years before poor subsistence farmers can begin growing the crop in large amounts, and that’s “if everything goes right,” said Ronald Cantrell, executive director of the International Rice Research Institute.
Its many proponents see the rice, infused with two daffodil genes and a bacteria gene to add vitamin A, as a panacea for starving populations in developing nations where rice is a staple.
Traditional rice lacks vitamin A, and as many as two million children die each year because of vitamin A deficiencies. Another 500,000 go blind.
Biotechnology researchers say genetic engineering is the only practical way to fortify the rice.
“It was clear from the beginning that biotech was needed instead of typical crop breeding,” Swiss plant cell professor Peter Beyer, one of the two inventors of golden rice, said Monday at the annual Biotechnology Industry Organization conference.
“No rice anywhere has vitamin A.”
Opponents call it science run amok. They say no plants should be genetically changed to include elements of other organisms, and particularly not rice. Once the plants are released into the environment, cross-pollination with traditional rice could have unpredictable long-term impacts on the food billions of people eat every day.
“The purported benefits of golden rice are completely fabricated,” said Brian Tokar, a member of Biojustice, a group opposed to genetic engineering.
Tokar dismissed the golden rice project as merely a public relations ploy to improve biotech’s media image.
“The way to cure blindness and hunger should not come from big agribusiness,” he said.
Still others praise the science but say the distribution system is flawed — that governments and nonprofit agencies are too big and bureaucratic to properly handle getting the seeds to poor farmers once the product is perfected.
Villoo Morawala-Patel, who owns an India biotech start-up that works on the aroma of Indian rice, says golden rice’s keepers should turn to companies like hers to help distribute the seeds.
Still, Beyer and other major supporters of the rice cautioned that years of fine-tuning must be done before poor subsistence farmers will be able to use it on a wide scale.
Today, golden rice is grown only in a few greenhouses, including at the Rice Research Institute’s headquarters in the Philippines.
“Golden rice is still in the developmental stages and a lot of work is still needed to get into the fields,” said Sivramiah Shantharam, a spokesman for Syngenta, which owns the commercial rights to the rice.
First order of business: engineering the rice to survive in the tropical climates where it can benefit the most, such as Asia, which grows 500 million tons of traditional rice annually.
Right now, the golden rice can only grow in temperate climates such as California’s.
Cantrell said it will probably take three years for the research institute to develop a rice that can grow in the Philippines.
Beyer and co-inventor Ingo Potrykus also are working on genetically fortifying the rice with iron and vitamin E.
Critics argue that even vitamin-fortified rice will come nowhere close to easing the world’s hunger pains, and that people would need to eat dozens of pounds of golden rice a day to meet their daily vitamin needs.
Consequently, the two European scientists are also having problems raising the needed capital to continue their work. Public funding in Europe also is dwindling in part because of the outcry there over genetically modified foods.
“Elected officials are quite reluctant to fund us,” Beyer said.
So Beyer has turned some of his attention to private companies, partnering recently with Syngenta, which agreed to allow governments and nonprofit agencies to freely distribute golden rice throughout the poorest countries.
Syngenta hopes to generate its profits in industrialized countries such as the United States, if the rice meets regulatory approval.
Beyer is meeting with other scientists this week to prepare a pitch for more research money from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Currently, the Rockefeller Foundation funds Beyer’s work and has promised to do so for the next 18 months, he said.
Outside the convention center Monday, police outnumbered protesters. The crowd of protesters listening to music, dancing and performing street theater numbered no more than 50 — at times even less.
Elsewhere, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals staged a protest at a Burger King restaurant in the nearby city of Mira Mesa.
Police there also outnumbered the 80 protesters who turned up. Two demonstrators were arrested after they stood on the counter and made speeches.