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To help malnourished people: Benefits of Golden Rice not yet recognized

It could be another five years before farmers in developing countries can grow Golden Rice to help malnourished people, according to the German biochemist who started work on the project 15 years ago.

“I'm hoping we can be effective in one or two countries by 2010, said Peter Beyer, professor from the University of Freiburg, Germany.

Beyer came to the LSU AgCenter's Rice Research Station last summer to collect maturing Golden Rice for nutritional analysis. Field trials for Golden Rice, a genetically modified plant, started last year at the Rice Station at Crowley, La. It was the first time the new variety was grown outside of greenhouses anywhere in the world.

Golden Rice got its name from the yellowish color in the rice from its high level of beta carotene, a nutrient converted to vitamin A after it is eaten.

People deficient in vitamin A can develop blindness and become more susceptible to disease and infection. The Humanitarian Board overseeing the Golden Rice project estimates that as many as 500,000 people become blind annually because of a vitamin A deficiency.

Work started on the project in 1990 after its proposal by the Rockefeller Foundation. Beyer said the LSU AgCenter's Rice Research Station was chosen for trials because it was recommended by the agricultural company Syngenta. Beyer said the recommendation was a good one.

“When possible, I would prefer to have these field trials at this station,” Beyer said.

David Boethel, LSU AgCenter vice chancellor for research, said the program speaks well for the Rice Research Station's stature.

“The fact that our Rice Research Station was chosen to conduct these trials is a testament to the respect the research programs at the Rice Station have among the international rice research community,” Boethel said.

“The Rice Research Station has a great deal of experience and expertise in research with transgenic rice,” Steve Linscombe, the LSU AgCenter's regional director for Southwest Louisiana, said. “We feel our contributions to this research can expedite delivery of this technology to areas where it can have the greatest benefit while perhaps changing some perceptions on the value of GMOs (genetically modified organisms).”

This year, the second planting of the rice at the Rice Station is being analyzed by nutritionists from Tufts University who will determine the shelf life for the beta carotene in Golden Rice. The original version drew criticism that large amounts of it would have to be eaten to get enough vitamin A to overcome a deficiency. Beyer said the current form of Golden Rice has an increased amount of beta carotene — perhaps 23 times as much as the original form. That advancement was accomplished by using a gene from maize.

For the initial version, Beyer used two daffodil genes to produce beta carotene in rice. Opposition came quickly from critics who said Golden Rice may be tainted because a chemical in daffodils includes a poisonous alkaloid, Beyer said. But Beyer said the poisonous substance is not expressed by the daffodil genes used in Golden Rice.

The new form of rice, which uses American long-grain rice as a basis, has to be developed into a pure line that produces a consistent and uniform plant. Beyer said efforts also will be made to develop Golden Rice to contain iron to combat anemia, which is suffered by as much as a third of the world's population.

The German scientist said once those steps are accomplished, the new rice will be crossed with rice varieties suited for India and Southeast Asia because “Golden Rice is intended for developing countries.”

Since the project is a humanitarian endeavor, numerous companies such as Syngenta have waived 70 intellectual property rights for technology used to develop this genetically modified rice, Beyer said.

Once Golden Rice is released, farmers will not have to pay a technology fee for the seed, and they will be allowed to keep seed to plant for the next crop.

Beyer said the United States was chosen to start the process to avoid governmental red tape that would have bogged down the project in many other countries. He admits that, after 15 years of work, he gets frustrated with the regulations that have hindered progress.

“The regulations in many countries, I think, are overdoing it,” he said.

China is eager to adopt genetically modified plants, he said, but that's not the case for European nations.

“I am not worried about the science,” he said. “I'm worried about the bureaucracy.”

Under current regulations, Beyer said, some countries would have had to ban potatoes and tomatoes because they are the result of genetic alterations through selective breeding or deliberate mutations.

Beyer said needless regulations and unfounded fears are standing in the way of helping millions of malnourished people. “We have millions of people losing their sight and quality of life from vitamin A deficiency,” he said. “It's the same as several tsunami waves a year.”

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