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Science

Genetically modified plants - technology's ugly duckling

Genetically modified food has never enjoyed the best reputation. Such is the depth of opposition to GM, even ideas that seem to promise a better future have been viewed with the utmost suspicion.

Few developers of genetically modified food enjoy a reputation for being one of the good guys. Even those that apparently seek to make the world a better place have their opponents.

Take German biologist Ingo Potrykus. When he was developing Golden Rice in the 1990s, he carried out his work in a grenade-proof greenhouse. That's how much he worried about the level of hostility to his apparently altruistic project, aimed at slashing vitamin A deficiency among children.

The World Health Organization estimates that 124 million children don't get enough vitamin A and between one and two million die each year for lack of the nutrient. Many of them live in parts of the world where there's very little eat to eat other than rice. And that's where Golden Rice comes in.

Most in the West would derive vitamin A from dairy products or from a breakdown of the beta carotene in carrots. However, beta carotene - a yellow pigment - isn't normally found in rice (although it is in rice plant leaves). So Potrykus looked for a way to put it in - using genetics.

Golden Rice and normal rice. (Photo: Albert-Ludwigs-Universität)

Golden Rice is colored because it contains beta carotene, a source of vitamin A

It wasn't simple. Sequences from a daffodil, pea, bacterium and virus were needed to make it work. Eventually, in 1999, and after years of effort, seeds were produced that glowed with the yellow color of beta carotene.

A tortuous route to trial

It would seem like the perfect solution, and the idea was to distribute the new plant to low-income farmers across the developing world. However, after legal wrangles over existing patents and opposition from activists across the world, it is still not commercially available.

The environmental group Greenpeace believes Golden Rice is still far from being a finished product, in any case. It says Golden Rice can easily contaminate other rice crops, thus compromising them, and that it may not even prove nutritious. What's more, claims Greenpeace, the rice is merely being used as a vehicle to pave the way for more profitable "Genetically modified organisms" (GMOs).

Ideology versus the poor?

In late June 2016, a group of 113 Nobel Laureates signed an

open letter to Greenpeace

urging them to drop their campaign "against 'GMOs' in general and Golden Rice in particular. How many poor people in the world must die before we consider this a 'crime against humanity'?"

Greenpeace, though,

stuck to its guns

.

"Rather than invest in this overpriced public relations exercise, we need to address malnutrition through a more diverse diet, equitable access to food and eco-agriculture," it said.

Former director of Greenpeace Stephen Tindale told the BBC's Panorama program he had changed his mind about genetically modified plants, saying that damning them was a "morally unacceptable" position that put ideology ahead of the poor.

"The reason I’ve decided to speak out on GM now is because I think it is necessary for people like me who’ve opposed it to say things have changed," he told the program.

Hope for Uganda's green bananas?

Feelings about genetically modified crops have been particularly split in Uganda, where matoke - a type of green cooking banana - is a staple and the most important source of carbohydrates.

Disaster struck in August 2001, when the bacterial disease Banana Xanthomonas Wilt (BXW), which turns the fruit mushy and inedible inside, spread rapidly. There was up to 100 percent crop loss in the areas where it struck. It was seen as a major threat to food security of some 14 million people in Uganda alone.

Scientists looked to develop a BXW resistant banana strain using genes for "novel plant proteins" from the green pepper, but the technology could not be deployed immediately because of regulations.

Uganda's Biosafety Bill, necessary to establish a proper regulatory system for GM crops, was stalled in parliament, amid fears about the dangers posed by genetic engineering.

Matoke being cooked. (Photo: Layla Ndinda)

Matoke is a staple for many people in Uganda and across East Africa

The NGO Action Aid's Ugandan branch was against the modified crop, saying that the new banana types were capable of causing cancer. It commissioned radio commercials warning of the dangers. The claims were later

retracted by Action Aid

, which said it had never itself made health claims about GM food.

It was, however, enough to stall the process for a long time. Growers hope that approvals will be in place in time to allow commercialization and distribution of the new crop to farmers by 2020.

Papaya success, and failure

For Filipino papaya farmers in Hawaii's fruit-growing Puna region, the emergence of the ringspot virus was a nightmare. Their share of the state-wide market plummeted and the virus was widespread. Once plants are infected, they can never recover.

Many farms were abandoned and the land no longer used when scientists began testing the new transgenic "Rainbow papaya." It worked by inoculating the fruit against the virus.

Scientists transferred ringspot virus genes into papaya DNA, so that the fruit would produce viral proteins that mimicked ringspot's viral coat. The plant's own defenses would kick back with an immune response before the virus could ever take hold.

Papayas on bamboo. (Photo: picture-alliance/Bildagentur-online/Stock Connect)

The Papaya crop in Hawaii was given a genetic vaccination against ringspot virus

It proved a salvation for many farmers, who had been close to being "wiped out." Scientists in Thailand, Venezuela, and elsewhere worked on replicating the Hawaiian story, tailoring it for their own specific types of papaya.

But with pressure from anti-GMO activists, which included the destruction of research projects, the Venezuelan efforts ran into trouble. In 2000, the Venezuelan test crop was burned to the ground, and research there ceased.

"The genetic material of the papaya is frozen and locked, waiting for better times," said former resistant papaya researcher Guido Nunez in an interview supporting his team's crowdfunding application to tell their tale in a documentary. "The research, not only in papaya, but in GM plants, stopped in Venezuela."

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