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Order rice in a restaurant, and the server may ask if you want white or brown. Here's another choice which could become available to people in some parts of the world: yellow rice. It's promoters call it golden rice, and it's been genetically modified to contain beta carotene. That's the source of vitamin A. Millions of people in Asia and Africa don't get enough vitamin A, so this rice tests a controversial idea that genetically engineered crops can improve the lives of the poor. NPR's Dan Charles reports.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: There's a raging, global debate over genetically modified crops, and golden rice is now caught up in it. But the story of this rice starts long before that debate ever got going. It started with a conversation in 1984.

GARY TOENNIESSEN: This was really at the beginning of biotechnology.

CHARLES: Gary Toenniessen was in charge of the Rockefeller Foundation's biotech program at the time. There were no genetically engineered crops yet. Scientists were just figuring out how to find genes and move them around. But the Rockefeller Foundation thought maybe these techniques could be used to give farmers in poor countries a bigger harvest.

It set up a meeting at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines to talk about it. But a lot of people at this meeting were skeptical. They were plant breeders, masters of the traditional way to improve crops.

TOENNIESSEN: And there was a group of these breeders that were sitting around at the guesthouse at IRRI, the Rice Research Institute, actually having a beer or two.

CHARLES: Toenniessen joined them, and he said, OK. I know you all are skeptical, but what if this technology did work? What if you could really put any gene you wanted into rice? Which one would you pick?

TOENNIESSEN: What's your favorite gene?

CHARLES: They went around the room. Breeders talked about genes for resisting disease or surviving droughts. They came to a breeder named Peter Jennings, a kind of legendary figure in these circles. He'd created perhaps the most famous variety of rice in history, IR 8, which launched the so-called Green Revolution in Asia in the 1960s.

TOENNIESSEN: And he said yellow endosperm.

CHARLES: The endosperm of a grain of wheat or rice is the part you eat.

TOENNIESSEN: That kind of took everybody that was there a little bit by surprise. It certainly took me by surprise. And so I said: Why?

CHARLES: Jennings explained that yellow signals the presence of beta-carotene, the source of vitamin A. There are yellow kinds of corn or sorghum, and he'd been looking for varieties of rice with naturally yellow grain, too, because regular white rice does not provide this vital nutrient, and it's a big problem.

TOENNIESSEN: When children are weaned, they're often weaned on a rice gruel. And if they don't have any beta-carotene or vitamin A during that period, they can be harmed for the rest of their lives.

CHARLES: So the Rockefeller Foundation started a program trying to create, with biotechnology, what Jennings could not find in nature. A global network of scientists at nonprofit research institutes started working on the problem. The first real breakthrough came in 1999. Scientists inserted two genes into rice that switched on production of beta-carotene. A few years later, other researchers created an even better version.

A single bowl of this new golden rice can supply 60 percent of a child's daily requirement of vitamin A.

TOENNIESSEN: It's a great product. And it's beautiful. It looks just like saffron rice.

CHARLES: Others, though, do not find it beautiful at all. Consider what happened just a few months ago. Some U.S.-funded researchers published the results of a nutritional study showing that people's bodies easily absorb the beta-carotene in golden rice. They'd carried out that study among children in China. The result seemed like great news. But the environmental group Greenpeace immediately called it a scandal.

Wang Jing works for Greenpeace in China.

WANG JING: People are angry, are really furious about these tests, using Chinese children as guinea pigs.

CHARLES: The Chinese government reacted quickly. It punished three Chinese coauthors of the study, removing them from their jobs. Chinese officials say the researchers didn't get all the approvals they needed. Also, the researchers only told the children and their parents that this was a special kind of rice high in beta-carotene, not that it was genetically modified.

JING: They actually, on purpose, hide the fact that golden rice is a genetically modified crop.

CHARLES: And for some people, this makes all the difference in the world. This is where golden rice gets caught up in the bigger argument over genetically engineered crops - specifically, the argument over who benefits from them. Neth Dano, who works in the Philippines for the ETC Group, an advocate on behalf of small farmers, says the main purpose of genetically modifying crops has been profit, not helping people.

NETH DANO: A handful of corporations in developed countries have reaped billions of profits from selling genetically modified seeds and their proprietary herbicides.

CHARLES: And all that time, she says, these companies have claimed that this technology would benefit the poor.

DANO: The poor have always been at the center of each and every assertion about the importance of genetically modified organisms to mankind.

CHARLES: So this is the real significance of golden rice, she says. It gives biotech companies a chance to say, see? Biotechnology is good for the poor.

DANO: Some proponents are already announcing that the debate is over, that the golden rice product is actually the clincher.

CHARLES: Golden rice is not all public relations, Dano says. It is supposed to help people, but she doesn't think it will be a very good way to help them. She thinks it will be more expensive and less effective than traditional nutrition programs. It's mainly going to help the image of biotechnology, she says.

This mixture of motives - technology promotion and humanitarianism - also shows up in the biography of the man who's now leading the golden rice effort.

GERARD BARRY: I'm Gerard Barry.

CHARLES: Gerard Barry spent more than 20 years in St. Louis working for Monsanto, the company that pioneered genetically engineered crops. He's listed as first inventor on some of Monsanto's most valuable patents. He found the gene that could made crops immune to the weed-killer Roundup. That gene is now in soybeans and corn grown on hundreds of millions of acres.

But along the way, Barry also got interested in rice.

BARRY: It was very exciting. Actually, it was probably my favorite crop ever to work on.

CHARLES: Why?

BARRY: Well, because you got to meet really passionate people. I mean, rice is something that's vital to large numbers of people. I mean, a couple of billion people a day eat it.

CHARLES: Ten years ago, Barry left the corporate world and moved to the nonprofit International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, the place where the idea of golden rice was born in the first place. His job is now to shepherd it down the home stretch to the finish line. Part of the job is old-fashioned plant breeding, transferring the beta-carotene genes into rice varieties that farmers like to grow.

But before farmers can get their hands on golden rice, government regulators in each country need to agree that it's safe. Barry's network of researchers will apply for approval in the Philippines later this year. After that, they'll do the same in Bangladesh. That's only their very first step. They'll have to roll out a marketing campaign on behalf of golden rice, and it has to reach the poorest people in the most remote villages.

BARRY: Golden rice will be good for everybody, but some people need it more. And our job is to make sure the people who need it more have access to it and understand the value, and ask for it, ultimately.

CHARLES: It will be the final test of that 30-year-old brainstorm, the idea that genetically altered rice really could be a cheap, self-multiplying source of a vital nutrient. Dan Charles, NPR News.

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