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Prof. Potrykus on Golden Rice

8. September 2013

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Ingo Potrykus, Professor emeritus at the Institute of Plant Sciences, ETH Zurich, is one of the world’s most renowned personalities in the fields of agricultural, environmental, and industrial biotechnology, and invented Golden Rice with Peter Beyer. In contrast to usual rice, this one has an increased nutritional value by providing provitamin A. According to WHO, 127 millions of pre-school children worldwide suffer from vitamine A deficiency, causing some 500,000 cases of irreversible blindness every year. This deficiency is responsible for 600,000 deaths among children under the age of 5.

We are delighted Prof. Potrykus kindly agreed to be interviewed by Psiram. (Zur deutschen Version)

Application for approval will soon be filed on the Philippines. How do you assess the prospects, when will this probably be completed?
The admission will happen in two stages. Approval for human consumption in a few months, admission for cultivation six months later. I believe that both target dates will be met.

What will happen then? How will farmers get the rice?
When approval for human consumption has been achieved, Helen Keller International (an NGO specialising on work against vitamin A deficiency for 25 years) will examine and document the effectiveness of Golden Rice in a two-year, large-scale study in the Philippines with financial support by the Gates Foundation. Only after efficacy is documented, farmers will be provided with Golden Rice.

Will the population accept Golden Rice? Here in Germany, the technology is strongly rejected for the most part. Is this similar in Asia, in particular in the Philippines?
This question was carefully examined in a “social marketing” study. The colour is actually perceived as a positive asset when persons know this colour means “provitamin A”, thus representing a health bonus.

When you had the idea for Golden Rice, did you expect so much resistance?
No. There were many negative surprises, although I have been familiar with the GMO issue since 1985.

Critics instead suggest to help people in developing countries to establish their own vegetable gardens and give them access to fruit and vegetables. What do you think?
No one prevents them from doing this. Despite all advancement in this regard, there is the problem of vitamin A deficiency. Prof. Matin Qaim with his assistants has demonstrated that Golden Rice is by far the most cost-effective and sustainable intervention. It will also include those hundreds of millions who cannot be reached by any of the other ways of intervention.

The first version of Golden Rice was criticized for containing too little vitamin A. While this point has meanwhile become obsolete, what did you think of this criticism at that point in time?
It was unjustified from the beginning. On the basis of experimental data on the availability of vitamin A from rice, we can prove today that 100g of our first Golden Rice variant with 1.6 micrograms of vitamin A per gram Endosperm would have been sufficient to compensate vitamin A deficiency. Unfortunately, these data are available only since 2010.

Are there points of criticism, for example by Greenpeace, which you view/viewed as valid?
On Golden Rice? No! On the use of GMOs in general? Yes.

What is the most absurd claim used to attack Golden Rice?
That a daily consumption of as much as 8 kg was needed to achieve the desired effect. It has been proven that 40g per day are sufficient.

Why was this not possible emplyoing other breeding technologies; e.g. about a year ago, cassava and sweet potatoes enriched with provitamin A were brought to market in Africa under the HarvestPlus program. They were created using Smart Breeding without genetic modification. In the HarvestPlus program, rice is also enriched with zinc. Why was genetic modification necessary for the creation of Golden Rice?
Cassava, sweet potatoes, potatoes contain vitamin A naturally in the starch storage tissue. I.e., the genes are there and active. In such cases, traditional breeding can enhance an existing characteristic. In rice, there is nothing to be enhanced. Therefore, growers asked us to try genetic modification.

Or put another way: Would you use genetic engineering again today or would you try to tackle the problem differently?
Everything imaginable has been tried. It was and to this day is only possible with genetic engineering.

In the light of the development of new biotechnological methods which can be used in breeding – Zinc finger nuclease, TALE-Nuklease, Somatic fusion etc. -, do you think it is reasonable and necessary to question the current special status of genetic engineering?

Since at least 15 years there is no scientific justification for a special regulatory treatment of transgenic plants. This was published repeatedly by scientific academies and has since been ignored with remarkable consistency.

Only after having invented Golden Rice, you realized you had applied methods protected by 72 patents. Solving the patent issues was indeed difficult to achieve. What do you think about patents today? Are they necessary for or rather an obstacle to innovation?
Release of the patents was not difficult. Thanks to the help of patent attorneys in our public-private partnership, the total number could be reduced to 12 (the patents valid in our target countries). Six of them were in possession of our partner (Syngenta), while for the remaining six we soon got free licenses for “humanitarian use”.
We were only able to develop Golden Rice because the technology was patented. Thus it was publicly accessible for research. Without patents, the technology would have been secret.

Are there patents you would particularly like to see expire? Which do you regard as particularly restrictive?
No. The patents are not a problem for our humanitarian project. The all-encompassing problem are the laws covering the handling of transgenic plants and the requirements for their approval. They should be repealed immediately. They prevent the use of genetic engineering in the public sector for public good (see Golden Rice) and are responsible for suffering and death of many millions of poor.

What do you think of Germany de facto having abandoned agricultural biotechnology? Won’t we fall behind internationally?
This is one of several very stupid ideological and opportunist decisions that Germany will live to regret. Withdrawing from a future technology in which one used to hold a top position, because one feels one does not need it at the moment, is very, very short-sighted.

How could research on genetic engineering be promoted at universities? Do young scientists in the field of genetic engineering in Germany still have perspectives?
No, in the current political situation, young scientists do not have a perspective.

Why, do you think, do so many people dislike genetic engineering, how could this technology be made more attractive/comprehensible for the general public?
By showing that genetic engineering is used for the benefit of the general public (the public good) by public institutions (universities, public sector) to solve problems of the community – see Golden Rice – and not just to improve the profits of some globally active “multinationals”. For the vast majority, genetic engineering of plants equals profit for Monsanto. This is not the consequence of the technology, but a consequence of an extremely expensive (and unfounded) regulation of technology. It would therefore be necessary to abolish regulation to enable diversity in application, and competition.

And two more questions not refering to genetic engineering:

What about your nesting boxes? Do you still find time for them?
I can no longer take care of the nesting boxes, because at almost 80 years of age, I cannot scramble about in steep terrain.

Which other projects are demanding your time?
Please take a look at www.birdphoto-potrykus.ch. That’s just a part of my bird pictures and movies. Something else which gets more difficult with age. My main hobby is still Golden Rice.

Other notable German interviews with Prof. Potrykus:

More about Golden Rice:

More about GMO:

More about new breeding methods:

ScienceBridge offers advanced training and information about agricultural biotechnology:

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