Ingo Potrykus is a co-inventor of golden rice, which is genetically engineered to combat blindness and death in children by supplying 60 percent of the vitamin A they need in a typical daily helping of rice. His project has been opposed from the outset by environmental groups.
Andy Coghlan: Why did you develop golden rice?
Ingo Potrykus: I got involved because I'm concerned about food security. I realized it's not just about calories, but also about the quality of food. I started working on it in the early 1990s with Peter Beyer. We started on the problem of iron deficiency, but that work didn't pan out, so we switched to tackling vitamin A deficiency.
By 1999 we had solved the problem. It was a surprise it worked because from the outset it looked totally crazy.
AC: But environmental groups, including Greenpeace, opposed it?
IP: They were against it from the beginning. They said it was fool's gold because children would need to eat several kilograms of it to get their daily requirement. Children only eat around 300 to 400 grams a day. We worked out that Greenpeace wasn’t right, and that the rice contained enough to meet children's needs, but we couldn't prove that because we didn't then have data from an actual trial.
AC: That didn't kill off the project, though?
IP: Indeed no. The next big step was in 2005 when a group at biotech company Syngenta replaced one of the genes intended to produce beta carotene. The original gene, which makes an enzyme called phytoene synthase, came from the narcissus flower, and they replaced it with one from maize that is far more efficient. It produced 20 times more beta carotene, the molecule from carrots that combines with a second molecule of itself once inside our bodies to make a molecule of vitamin A. It was a big success.
But again, we couldn't prove we had enough to meet children's needs, so the Greenpeace myth about golden rice being useless lived on. They continued to say that the problem was solvable by other means.
AC: Do they have a point? Why couldn't children just be given vitamin A capsules, or other foods that contain it?
IP: The capsules are already being given through programs of the World Health Organization and charities such as Helen Keller International. They've been running the programs for 15 years, but they cost tens of millions of dollars a year. The problem is that besides the expense, you need the infrastructure to distribute the capsules. We're aiming for people who can't be reached this way, poor farmers in remote places.
As for the possibility of eating foods that supply vitamin A, such as liver, leafy green vegetables, and eggs, the people we're targeting are too poor to buy them. Some kitchen garden projects provide them, but despite these interventions we still have 6,000 children dying every day. These are not enough. Our aim is to complement, not replace, these programs.
AC: There's a project in Uganda and Mozambique to combat vitamin A deficiency by supplying sweet potatoes conventionally bred to contain extra beta carotene. Over two years it doubled vitamin A intake in women and children compared with those who ate conventional sweet potatoes. Could this be done with rice?
IP: Sweet potatoes naturally contain beta carotene, so you can use traditional breeding to improve the content. Rice contains no beta carotene, so it's impossible to introduce it without genetic engineering. Because the sweet potato project does not involve genetic modification, Greenpeace doesn't complain about it despite the aim being identical to ours. But the experience with sweet potatoes shows that what we're trying to achieve with rice is realistic. As soon as people get the potatoes, it improves their vitamin A status.
AC: So where has the project got to now?
IP: It took a long time, but by conventional breeding we bred our new golden rice with varieties to suit individual tastes in different countries. This is now completed in the Philippines, Indonesia, India, China, Vietnam, and elsewhere in Asia.
AC: Is it always golden, and what does it taste like?
IP: It always has a beautiful yellow color, and it tastes just the same as usual. Because it's an integral part of the data needed to satisfy regulation authorities, professional taste panels have also tested it.