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[SANET-MG] food revolution where nobody came
from the August 15, 2005 edition -
A food revolution beckons, but few show up
By Peter N. Spotts | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
It's the kind of breakthrough scientists often dream about.
They have unraveled the complete genetic blueprint for rice - the staple
for more than half of the world's population. The development - a key to
future genetic blueprints for other cereals and grains - should make it
far easier to engineer better, more nutritious crops that could trigger
a second "green revolution," whose predecessor - using more traditional
farming and breeding approaches - is said to be running out of gas.
There's just one problem. It's not clear the world is ready for another
food revolution if it involves splicing foreign genes into crops.
"The initial expectation that this technology would be rapidly adopted
turned out to be a bit optimistic," says Michael Rodemeyer, executive
director of the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology. "We're in a
stall in the development of new GM foods."
To be sure, farmers are producing more bioengineered crops every year.
Farmers have found many of these genetically modified crops quite
useful. GM soybeans are cheaper to grow; GM papaya has saved Hawaiian
growers from a virus that had made their traditional crop unmarketable.
But these remain first-generation GM varieties with only indirect
The next generation - offering consumers better-tasting, more
nutritious, or longer-lasting food - is taking longer than the
industry's optimists expected, Mr. Rodemeyer adds.
The reasons are legion, analysts say.
Outside the United States, public reluctance and activist campaigns
citing everything from environmental concerns to the extensive clout of
multinational corporations have slowed the introduction of GM crops.
This resistance led Monsanto last year to shelve the first commercially
available genetically engineered wheat. US wheat growers worried that
GM-wary global customers would buy elsewhere.
Within the US, where farmers plant more than 167 million acres of GM
crops, public unease has been less evident. But some analysts expect
that to change as companies genetically engineer crops to make them more
nutritious or harness crops to produce compounds for drugs.
Second-generation GM crops also pose a tougher scientific challenge than
the first-generation did. The traits researchers want to enhance are
likely to involve several genes and complex interactions between the
plant and its environment.
In this political and scientific environment, rice is poised to become
the latest "crop célèbre" in the ongoing debate over conventional and
genetic-engineering approaches to feeding the world.
The new rice genome, pulled together by researchers worldwide under the
umbrella of the International Rice Genome Sequencing Project, was
completed three years ahead of schedule. Researchers say much of the
credit for the speed goes to Monsanto for making available the rice data
it had. Scientists picked rice as the first cereal crop to sequence
because of its genome's relative simplicity. Other, more complex cereals
share rice's genes, often in the same positions in long DNA assemblies
known as chromosomes. Thus, rice has the potential to become a Rosetta
stone for reading other key cereal genomes.
"That's one of the exciting aspects" about having the rice genome in
hand, says Sally Leong, a research chemist with the US Department of
Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service lab in Madison, Wis. And the
international nature of the project has helped build capabilities within
some key developing countries.
Now comes the tricky part, scientifically associating the genes or gene
combinations with specific plant traits and processes. As that
information becomes available, traditional breeders can use it to
identify useful genes and then trace their movement through several
generations. By using seedlings alone, researchers speed up traditional
breeding. Rice genetically engineered by inserting foreign genes,
however, may face a tougher challenge.
Several charitable foundations and international research institutes are
working to enhance the level of "micro- nutrients" - trace minerals such
as zinc and iron - as well as vitamin A in rice. The enhanced rice could
help in the fight against malnutrition.
Yet golden rice so far has languished, partly because of environmental
concerns. Some of the countries that could most benefit have imposed
regulatory barriers that are too costly for the public project, says
Jorge Mayer, golden-rice project manager at the University of Freiburg,
In the US, meanwhile, a California biotech company proposing to grow GM
rice on a 200-acre plot in Missouri was sent packing in April. The rice
had been modified to produce two synthetic human proteins for
pharmaceuticals. Anheuser-Busch, worried about contamination of
conventional rice, threatened to boycott all Missouri-grown rice used in
its brewing activities if the project was approved.
In the quest to ease global malnutrition, too much emphasis is being
placed on genetic engineering without a sufficient look at the risks and
alternatives, says Doreen Stabinsky, a geneticist by training who serves
as a science adviser to Greenpeace. "We need a realistic assessment of
what the technology can and can't do."
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