Claiming that they “were not able to control their emotional outburst,” a mob stormed a rice field this month in the Philippines and laid waste to the seedlings growing there. The mob tore down a fence and swarmed onto the field, uprooted the rice shoots, and then buried them under the dirt to ensure they were dead.
The mob’s target was a field of “Golden Rice,” a version of the crop that has been enhanced through the technology of genetic engineering to produce its own beta carotene. Beta carotene is a source of vitamin A, and is contained in many green, leafy vegetables such as spinach. Vitamin A deficiency is a huge problem in malnourished populations.
The World Health Organization estimates that between a quarter and a half million children go blind each year for want of vitamin A — half of those children will be dead within twelve months. Many of those children have access to rice, but rice on its own doesn’t supply all of the necessary nutrients for a long and healthy life — one crucial deficiency in rice is a lack of beta carotene.
Although conditions have been improving in the Philippines, vitamin A deficiency is still a big problem. Last year, it affected “1.7 million children under the age of five and 500,000 pregnant and nursing women,” according to the International Rice Research Institute. Vitamin A deficiency is the leading cause of preventable blindness and increases the risk of death from disease and infection.
This is exactly the problem that scientists Ingo Potrykus and Peter Beyer hoped to tackle by using the tool of biotechnology to engineer a rice that produces its own beta carotene. The search began in 1982. By 1999, Potrykus and Beyer had come up with a prototype. The two researchers discovered that ordinary rice has all the pathways necessary to produce beta carotene, but it lacks genes to turn that capability on. The new rice was created through genetic engineering, first by moving two genes from a daffodil into the rice and later by incorporating a maize gene and another gene found in a common soil microorganism.
The journey from 1982 to the present involves more than just an intriguing idea. It involved thousands of hours in the lab, mapping the genome of rice and mining other organisms’ genomes for just the right genes to insert in just the right place. The researchers created a fortified rice that never existed before. After the rice was first grown, years of testing followed, to make sure that the rice was safe to eat — then, almost ten more years as environmentalist opposition prevented the rice from reaching those who might want to eat it.
It only took the mob fifteen minutes to destroy the field.
Potrykus stated that he was “outraged” by the destruction. The Golden Rice that was growing in that field was going to be used to determine how much the rice could help in fighting vitamin A deficiency in the malnourished. Bruce Tolentino, from the International Rice Research Institute, said that the now-destroyed Golden Rice field trial posed no risk to anyone. “They’re fenced. They’re covered by nets. They’re protected from rats and birds. And, we hoped, people.” It was just weeks from harvest, and Potrykus admitted that the destruction could set the project back months.
The destruction was orchestrated by two Filipino anti-GMO groups (“GMO” stands for genetically modified organism). A spokesperson for one group said that the vandalism “should serve as a stern warning to those planning to conduct GM field trials.” The group expressed unsubstantiated fears that the rice would “poison” Filipinos and “contaminate” rice fields.
Of course, a movement that resorts to the destruction of a field of harmless rice isn’t too concerned about facts and rational argument. In fact, the message received shouldn’t be that Filipinos “do not want Golden Rice!” as the anti-GMO spokesperson emphatically added to his statement. The message is that anti-GMO activists don’t want anybody to do a whole lot of thinking about the issue — and they are willing to trample on property rights to get their way.