GM iron-rich rice: will it suffer the same fate as Golden rice?
By Jason Major
Genetically modified rice with sufficient iron levels to meet daily recommended requirements has been developed by Australian scientists.
The iron-rich rice team is based at the Universities of Adelaide, Melbourne and South Australia, and Flinders University, and funded by the Australian Research Council and HarvestPlus, genetically modified rice to increase the amount of iron that is transported to the endosperm of the grain (the part that people eat). This resulted in rice that has up to four times more iron than conventional rice. The rice also has doubled zinc levels. The research is published in the online peer reviewed journal PLoS ONE
The media release on the research from Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics is here
Iron versus Vitamin A
How will this rice fare in the public arena compared to the transgenic Golden Rice, the beta-carotene-rich rice, which is modified to have increased levels of beta carotene, the stuff your body uses to make Vitamin A? This rice has been in the research and testing pipeline for about 12 years and been plagued with controversy, and held from back from any commercial production by numerous regulatory hoops and hurdles. Will the iron-rich rice suffer the same problems? Should it?
This research has only got to the glass house stage and still has field trials and regulatory requirements to get through before it reaches any sort of commercial production, if it does at all. This can all take years.
I have presented workshops and facilitated discussion involving the Golden Rice and iron-rich rice to more than 1000 members of the Australian public over the last 18 months. This public includes retired members of U3A groups, Rotary Clubs, students, teachers, and everyone from plumbers to accountants.
Concerns or not
There is a significant majority of people in favour of such crops being developed. Their reasons for being in favour are simply that if it can help people suffering hunger or malnutrition in the developing world then it is a good thing, though I can recall two people saying that it is acceptable to develop the crop for people in developing countries, so long as I don’t have to eat it. Visualise my raised eyebrow.
Many of these people, the adults anyway, are fully aware of the issues (real or perceived) surrounding GM crops.
Where there are concerns they tend to be for the following reason:
We shouldn’t be growing rice in Australia – always comes up and always related to us not having sufficient water to do it. Obviously this isn’t an issue related to GM rice or GM anything. Nearly everyone drops this as a concern once they realise that both varieties are to be grown in the countries where the malnutrition problems are, not Australia. It is interesting, however, that for many it would remain a concern if such varieties would be grown in Australia, purely for the reasons that we shouldn’t grow rice, full stop.
Why do we need it, and what if it gives us too much iron – on the assumption that it will be grown and eaten by Australians. Again, assuming that the rice is targeted at us well-fed westerners, which it isn’t. If it does enter our food chain it would be marketed as such and according to Alex Johnson the small additions to our diet will have a negligible affect. See his commentary on this on the GM food: a dinner discussion video (it will be in part 2 or 3)
Will they make the seed sterile and force them to buy new seed each year. This is a rare concern, but it occasionally pops up. The short answer is no.
Will the farmers in developing nations be able to afford it? That is, will there be equity of access for such crops? This is probably the biggest concern and also relates to the fear of corporate control of our food supply. This is also the most rationale concern from a personal viewpoint. For these two rice varieties at least, there will be no royalties attached to the product and in the case of the iron-rich rice, no patents – see below a response from Alex Johnson, the program leader for the iron-rich rice research.
A conversation from GM food: a dinner discussion
The following is most of a thread from the discussion board on the GM food: a dinner discussion website. It highlights that last concern about corporate control of our food and its affect on social equity.
Hi, Taiss here. To answer the first post response
If the governments say they won’t fund plant breeding, at least sufficiently to get it to a commercial stage, then how are new crops going to be generated if there is no profit to be made?
It is a very good question, and one that is difficult to answer. While great merit is made of the uptake of GM crops in impoverished countries, the reality is that it often takes a decade or more for those crops to be released in those locations as the said corporation is indeed clawing back those R&D and regulatory compliance costs.
So, if that is the case, then they are hardly in a position to claim that GM is playing a part in global food security. In fact, it is perpetrating what the last poster called the “food drought of commercial making” by keeping those stocks out of the hands of those it could benefit the most in favour of ensuring profits.
If we are to consider the 5 A Food Security Components, we have to ask how GM fits into these arenas …
Availability – will GM technologies increase the availability of food so that there is sufficient food for all people at all times?
Accessibility - will GM technologies increase the physical and economic access to food for all at all times?
Acceptability - will GM technologies ensure access to culturally acceptable food, which is produced and obtained in ways that do not compromise people’s dignity, self-respect, religious beliefs or human rights?
Adequacy - will GM technologies ensure access to food that is nutritious and safe, and produced in environmentally sustainable ways?
Agency Action- will the policies and processes that enable the achievement of GM ensure that they also enable the achievement of food security?
In almost all of these categories, I perceive conflicts of interest with the commercial aims of corporate entities. I admit, it may be a cynical view, but one that is far too often proven in action and rhetoric.
Let’s take one example from the night – “iron enriched rice” we are told will benefit those who have up to 60% of their dietary intake as rice and thus remove iron deficiency as a health issue in those regions. However, what good is this research if the research and subsequent development of the technology is produced in the western world to be sold to a corporate body who will require $30million to meet regulatory compliance to bring it to market – at which point only western farmers can afford to purchase the seed stock with the resulting “iron enriched” cereal being too expensive for the supposed target market? Must they wait ten years before the rice is affordable?
I do believe GM has a role to play … but I do not believe it is a saviour, nor that it meets the 5A criteria … perhaps, for now.
And the reply from Alex
From Alex Johnson, School of Botany, University of Melbourne
There are several non-profit organizations such as HarvestPlus that are working to develop more nutritious food staples for people in developing countries and these organizations (with financial backing from governments such as Canada and Sweden as well as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) have the means to not only develop more nutritious food but also, in the case of GM foods like iron-enriched rice, spend the required millions on regulatory testing to get the products to farmers. These nutritionally improved food staples cannot be patented, will not cost more than traditional food staples, and are being developed for the sole purpose of increasing food security for people in developing countries. Check out http://www.harvestplus.org for more information.
Dr Alexander Johnson
Lecturer, School of Botany
The University of Melbourne
And the conclusion – keep communicating
Based on my anecdotal evidence above, the iron-rich rice should be reasonably well accepted by the general public. Yes, there will be people that will find it unacceptable, and some unacceptable under any circumstances, but at the moment these people appear to be in a minority. I say for now, because public sentiment can swing and there are a few years yet before the iron-rich rice will be potentially ready for commercial production. So the researchers need to continue communicating to the public what they are doing, why and what the implications might be.
And my other question, should this rice suffer the same controversial scrutiny as Golden Rice? I will leave that one for you to ponder. But why should or shouldn’t it? Do you trust the scientists and the science – why or why not? Are you worried about large corporations taking control of it?
For an idea of how acceptable people find specific GM crops see voting results from recent TechNyou events: