is Emeritus Professor of Plant Sciences at the world renowned Eidgenossiche
Technische Hochschule in Zürich. He is the originator of Golden Rice,
a strain genetically modified to include a vitamin A precursor designed to
reduce the ravages of blindness among many people in poor countries unable
to afford a proper mixed diet with adequate vitamins. Blindness resulting
from vitamin A deficiency affects hundreds of thousands of children for whom
polished rice is a major component of their diet; many die.
In September 2007, World Bank will publish World Development Report 2008: Agriculture for Development (1) which “seeks to assess where, when, and how agriculture can be an effective instrument for economic development, especially development that favours the poor”. Among other topics, it is “likely to focus on strategies for unlocking agricultural growth to reduce poverty”.
In response to a consultation on the forthcoming report, Professor Potrykus recently submitted the following comments which we reproduce with his permission.
“I am retired a full professor of plant sciences from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and I spent my scientific career and that of my research team on developing and using genetic engineering technology to contribute to food security of poor in developing countries. Our best known case is Golden Rice, developed to provide provitamin A to rice-dependent populations, to reduce vitamin A-deficiency, which is responsible for about 6,000 deaths per day. Since my retirement in 1999, I have, as chairman of the Humanitarian Golden Rice Board and Network, focussed on delivering Golden Rice free of charge and limitations to rice farmers in the major rice-dependent countries. Please bear this background in mind when reading my comments.
I am glad to see that the report understands that there are indeed potential benefits of GMOs for the poor.
The key question is "Why the slow progress in transgenics", but the three answers given do not agree with my experience.
It is true that there is not to much work on "pro-poor" traits and crops; however there are hundreds of colleagues in public institutions, both in developing countries and in the West, highly motivated to work on both the traits and the crops, if funding were to be available. It is wrong to expect this kind of work from the private sector; the public sector is not recognizing its responsibility.
It is also true that "perceived risks" are a major barrier and it is good to read that there is no scientific justification for this perception. Indeed, after 25 years of biosafety research and regulation there is a wealth of clear scientific evidence as well as a scientific consensus that there is no inherent and specific risk associated with the technology. If someone claims the contrary, either he/she does not know the scientific literature or is lying .But I agree that there is the perception of risk which has to be accepted as a psychological fact. It should be up to governments to inform their people about what is right and what is wrong. But all this is nevertheless not the major reason for the "slow progress".
Where I can not at all agree is the notion that "weak regulatory capacity" is a major cause. It is true that regulatory authorities may have a negative impact not, however, because of weak capacity, but because of the principle of "extreme precautionary regulation". People involved become frightened of making a mistake, leading to the psychological situation that is better not to take any decision at all rather than one which could be criticised by the GMO opposition.
The overwhelming cause for the "slow progress" is, however, the system of "extreme precautionary regulation" established around the world. Lacking any scientific justification, this regulatory system prevents use of GMO-technology for the benefit of the poor; everywhere it paralyzes public institutions, specifically all those in developing countries.
In the specific case of Golden Rice (http://www.goldenrice.org) , a humanitarian project developed in the public domain, supported by the private sector and with the proven capacity of saving in India alone up to 40 000 lives a year (2), we experienced a delay in the adoption so far of seven years solely because of regulatory requirements. It is probably fair to say that GMO regulation, in the context of Golden Rice, is responsible for the loss of 7 x 40 000 lives in India and, of course, of many more in the other countries.
I am not aware of any hypothetical risk from Golden Rice (or actual risk from any GMO) which would justify this loss of life. The cost of taking a single transgenic event through the regulatory procedures is about US $ 20 million. In summary: compared to introducing a new non-transgenic strain, one single transgenic event with a pro-poor trait and in a pro-poor crop costs about 10 additional years of work and US$ 20 million.
Golden Rice will be in the hands of the farmers from 2012 onwards –13 years after scientific proof-of-concept had been established. No public institution and no scientist in the public domain can afford to spend 10 years of an academic career on a project with so small a chance of publication; no public granting institution is willing to invest such an amount of funds into product development and deregulation of one single event, even if proof-of-concept has been established and the potential is saving of millions of lives.
Present regulations prevent the use of the technology to the benefit of the poor by the public sector and that is why "progress pro-poor of transgenics" is so slow. There will be no progress unless our society reduces regulation to scientifically sound requirements.
Therefore, whoever wants to exploit the great potential of GMOs for the benefit of the poor should not argue for a strengthening of present regulation but request adjustment of regulation to our present state of knowledge – not to that of ideology.
There is no doubt that there are many more potential benefits of GMO-technology for the poor, quite distinct from benefits to industry, nor is there any doubt that this technology is at least as safe as any other agricultural intervention.
I very strongly recommend that WDR2008 maintains an emphasis on the importance of GMOs for development and argues for regulations which enable the exploitation of this technology for the benefit of the poor.
1. World Development Report 2008: Agriculture for Developmen (WDR2008t. The World Bank
2. Alexander J. Stein, J.V. Meenakshi, Matin Qaim, Penelope Nestel, H.P.S. Sachdev and Zulfiqar A. Bhutta (2005). Analyzing the health benefits of biofortified staple crops by means of the disability-adjusted life years approach: a handbook focusing on iron, zinc and vitamin A. HarvestPlus Technical Monograph 4. (http://www.harvestplus.org/pdfs/tech04.pdf)