GMO foods can pack a nutrient punch

Robert Zeigler: GMO foods can pack a nutrient punch

In developing countries, genetically modified foods with added nutrients could help save hundreds of thousands of children each year, contends veteran agriculture researcher Robert Zeigler, head of the International Rice Research Institute.

Robert Zeigler
Robert Zeigler

Amid the ongoing worldwide controversy about GMO (genetically modified organism) safety, is there a future for food crops genetically engineered to boost nutrition in developing countries?

Robert Zeigler, director general of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines, certainly hopes so. Zeigler has conducted agricultural research in developing countries for more than 30 years, and today he is a leading advocate for the use of genetic modification, as well as conventional plant breeding, to help address micronutrient deficiencies in some of the world’s poorest communities. His organization is currently coordinating research for Golden Rice, a crop that has been modified with corn genes to infuse the rice with beta-carotene, which is converted to vitamin A when consumed.

We have actually done preliminary research which shows that many people are willing to try [Golden Rice], especially if there is a nutritional benefit.”
—Robert Zeigler

In many parts of the developing world, says Zeigler, the basic micronutrient vitamin A is rare and difficult to obtain for millions of children and pregnant women, resulting in the deaths of about 670,000 children each year while another 350,000 go blind, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

“Most of them live in far-flung areas that are difficult to reach with existing programs,” says Zeigler. “Others lack vitamin A due to poor diets—they simply can’t afford to buy meat and other animal-based food products, and they may not have adequate access to fruits and vegetables that contain beta-carotene [which is converted to vitamin A when consumed].”

Although Golden Rice is still undergoing research and testing and is not yet available for public cultivation or consumption, Zeigler sees it as a potent weapon in the fight against vitamin A deficiency.

“We know it will have to take a few more years,” says Zeigler. “We can’t say with absolute certainty when Golden Rice will be available—I wish we could—but for Golden Rice to be approved for release, we need to conduct all the required biosafety studies mandated by the regulatory system before it receives food, feed and cultivation approvals. So it will take some time.”

Global research efforts yield Golden Rice

The development of Golden Rice began in the 1990s when scientists in Europe—along with their counterparts in laboratories and on model farms around the world—attempted to take a new approach to solving the problem of micronutrient deficiency. In addition to getting vitamin capsules to poor children, they wanted to find a way to breed staple crops that included these vital vitamins and micronutrients.

“Imagine a new breed of crops capable of alleviating malnutrition in even hard-to-reach rural populations—crops such as rice loaded with iron, wheat strengthened with zinc, and sweet potato packed with pro-vitamin A. These staples could be grown on family plots throughout the developing world,” predicted the 2004 study “Breeding Crops for Better Nutrition: Harnessing Agricultural Technology to Improve Micronutrient Deficiencies” by the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, D.C.

One of the products of this research was Golden Rice, first developed by Professor Ingo Potrykus at the Institute for Plant Sciences in Switzerland and Professor Peter Beyer of the University of Freiburg in Germany.

“[The professors’] desire to donate Golden Rice as a gift to resource-poor farmers in developing countries led them to establish a public-private partnership with Syngenta to help further develop Golden Rice,” explains Zeigler.

Scientists at Syngenta, one of the world’s largest agribusiness companies, carried out additional laboratory, greenhouse and field research to help raise the beta-carotene levels substantially beyond a 1999 prototype. In 2005, this new version of Golden Rice was announced.

“Syngenta also arranged royalty-free access to the patents and intellectual property, held by several biotechnology companies, for a number of key technologies used in Golden Rice,” says Zeigler. “This allows IRRI and others to develop Golden Rice on a not-for-profit basis.”

Beyond Golden Rice

IRRI is also researching rice that contains enhanced iron and zinc micronutrients in the grain, says Zeigler, and a number of other genetically modified crops with improved nutrient content are in the global pipeline:

  • BioCassava Plus (BC Plus): Coordinated by the St. Louis, Mo.-based Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, this research project aims to reduce micronutrient malnutrition by increasing the nutritional value of cassava, a staple crop consumed by more than 700 million people worldwide. BC Plus is focused on Africa, primarily Nigeria and Kenya, where cassava is a major staple food and other nutritious food is scarce, unavailable or too expensive.
  • The Africa Biofortified Sorghum (ABS) Project: Researchers are seeking to develop a more nutritious and easily digestible sorghum variety that contains increased levels of essential amino acids—especially lysine—higher levels of vitamin A and more available iron and zinc. The ABS Project’s success could improve the health of a target 300 million people who depend on sorghum as a staple food in Africa.
  • Vitamin A-enriched GM banana: At Australia’s Queensland University of Technology (QUT), researchers have engineered bananas to boost the amount of beta-carotene, which is converted to vitamin A in the body. In the United States, Iowa State University has begun human testing on the bananas.

Rough road to acceptance?

The stakes are high for Golden Rice and these other similar innovations, says Zeigler. Researchers have conducted their work as an extraordinary global debate takes place about genetically modified food and Golden Rice in particular. The most extreme Golden Rice opponents see it as a Trojan horse that will open the door to dangerous modifications of staple crops that can never be reversed. The most extreme proponents, however, accuse the other side of helping to kill hundreds of thousands of children by trying to delay a measure that will get lifesaving vitamin A to them.

In August 2013, a rice field at IRRI containing experimental Golden Rice was destroyed by a group that opposed its development. The incident sent shock waves through the scientific community that backs the research and has served as a rallying point for those who oppose Golden Rice.

Despite the controversy, though, Zeigler believes Golden Rice and other similar crops will eventually gain widespread acceptance.

“We have actually done preliminary research which shows that many people are willing to try [Golden Rice], especially if there is a nutritional benefit,” he says. “This includes standard preliminary consumer research across different parts of the Philippines. Similar studies will be conducted throughout the development phases of the project, and results will be used to plan effective deployment of Golden Rice, especially for those most in need.”

Floyd Whaley

Based in the Philippines, Floyd Whaley specializes in international development issues. His work has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, Reuters news service and many other media outlets.

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