A Golden Opportunity

 Judge GM crops on their properties, not the technique that made them – and we can start saving lives, says Professor Klaus Ammann

The Biologist Vol 61(3) p8

According to the World Health Organization, 250 million preschool children are vitamin A deficient. Between 250,000 and 500,000 children become blind annually, and half of them die within 12 months of losing their sight[1,2].

Even more shocking is that the deficiency leads to nutritionally acquired immune deficiency[3]. Consequently, providing vitamin A to all children in undernourished settings could prevent an estimated 1.9–2.7 million child deaths annually from otherwise survivable infectious diseases[4].

A variety of biofortified crops are being developed to do this, many using conventional breeding. But the most important of the staple crops that could sustainably provide micronutrients – including rice, cassava, sorghum and cooking banana – can only be improved using genetic engineering techniques.

Golden rice is a variety of rice that has been engineered to biosynthesise beta carotene, a precursor of vitamin A, in the edible parts of rice. There is no rational explanation for the long delay (around 12 years) in getting it to farmers.

The widespread fears about crops like golden rice are built on the erroneous premise that transgenic and non-transgenic crops are fundamentally different . But for decades it has been known that the molecular processes involved are the same[5]. Natural molecular evolution of genetic variants, and genetic engineering, involve the same three processes: small local changes in nucleotide sequence, internal reshuffling of genomic DNA segments, and acquisition of small segments of DNA from another type of organism by horizontal gene transfer.

More countries should follow the example of the Canadians, and regulate crops based on the phenotype and character of the plant, independently of the breeding processes involved. However, green activists such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth continue to push for process-based regulation, ignoring other techniques such as forced mutagenesis.

A varied diet, including fruits, vegetables and especially animal products, is the best way to avoid vitamin A deficiency. But addressing the underlying problem of poverty that prevents this is complex, involving many economic and social factors. Vitamin A capsule programmes cost around $1bn a year, and have undoubtedly saved millions of lives. Nevertheless, they do not change the underlying problem in populations and are not sustainable because of the recurring cost.

Sustainable solutions should include biofortified crops grown by smallholder farmers (as well as at other scales) and plant selection and crop breeding by various methods[6]. It is important to change regulation worldwide, not by lowering safety standards – but by reinstalling good science.

Fifteen years of intensive biosafety research should have diminished concerns about GM crops. Progress would be much faster if irrational fears about transgenic crops could be overcome at all levels, and products are regulated based on their properties, not because of the technique that made them.

1 WHO. Global prevalence of vitamin A deficiency in populations at risk 1995–2005. WHO Global Database on Vitamin A Deficiency edn. (2009).
2 WHO. World Health Organization International. Nutrition Topics, Micronutrient Deficiency, Vitamin A deficiency edn. (2013).
3 Semba R. D. The vitamin A story: lifting the shadow of death. World Review of Nutrition and Dietetics edn (Karger, 2012).
4 Tang, G. et al. Beta-carotene in golden rice is as good as beta-carotene in oil at providing vitamin A to children. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 96(3), 658-64 (2012).
5 Ammann, K. Genomic misconception: a fresh look at the biosafety of transgenic and conventional crops. A plea for a process agnostic regulation. New Biotechnology 31(1), 1-17 (2014).

Klaus Ammann is emeritus professor of biodiversity at the University of Bern, Switzerland.