As a scientist and humanitarian, Swiss plant biologist Ingo Potrykus is right up there with Jonas Salk, who introduced the first polio vaccine; Maurice Hilleman, who invented dozens of vaccines, including 8 of the 14 that are currently recommended; and Norman Borlaug, the “Father of the Green Revolution,” who saved perhaps a billion lives and improved the health of uncountable others.
Or, more accurately, he would be if wrong-headed government regulation had not stalled his once-in-a-lifetime, life-saving innovation.
Potrykus is the co-creator of Golden Rice, a collection of new rice varieties biofortified or enriched, by the introduction of genes that express beta-carotene, the precursor of vitamin A. (It is converted in the body, as needed, to the active form.)
Why are these new varieties so important? After all, most physicians in North America and Europe never see a single case of vitamin A deficiency in their professional lifetimes. The situation is very different in poor developing countries, however. Vitamin A deficiency is epidemic among the poor, whose diet is heavily dominated by rice (which contains neither beta-carotene nor vitamin A) or other carbohydrate-rich, vitamin-poor sources of calories.
In developing countries, 200–300 million children of preschool age are at risk of vitamin A deficiency, which can be devastating and even fatal. It increases susceptibility to common childhood infections such as measles and diarrheal diseases and is the single most important cause of childhood blindness in developing countries. Every year, about 500,000 children become blind as a result of vitamin A deficiency, and 70% die within a year of losing their sight.
Why not simply supplement children’s diets with vitamin A in capsules or add it to some staple foodstuff, the way that we add iodine to table salt to prevent hypothyroidism and goiter? A good idea in theory, except that neither the resources—hundreds of millions of dollars annually—nor the infrastructure for distribution are available.
Genetic engineering offers a better, cheaper, more feasible solution: Golden Rice, which actually incorporates beta-carotene into the genetically altered rice grains. The concept is simple: Although rice plants do not normally synthesize beta-carotene in the endosperm (seeds) because of the absence of two necessary enzymes of the biosynthetic pathway, they do make it in the green portions of the plant. By using genetic engineering techniques to introduce the two genes that express these enzymes, the pathway is restored and the rice grains accumulate therapeutic amounts of beta-carotene.
Golden Rice is the prototype of second-generation agbiotech products, which provide direct benefits to consumers, as opposed to plants that offer only improvements in agronomic properties that are important to farmers.