Golden opportunity, red tape

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Former leader of the Soviet Union Joseph Stalin famously said that a single death is a tragedy but a million deaths is just a statistic.  His observation seems to have been proven yet again by the media feeding frenzy over the rescue operation in Chile for 33 copper miners trapped underground for two months.

The human interest in the situation was undeniable, to be sure, but the coverage and the hyperventilation of journalists were out of all proportion to the actual event.  What could be more important than the very survival of 33 hardworking men?  How about the ongoing catastrophe of malnutrition, illness and premature death of millions of children in developing countries from a single preventable cause: vitamin A deficiency.

In developing countries, 200-300 million children of preschool age are at risk of vitamin A deficiency, which 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.

These wholly preventable deaths have been met with total indifference and deafening silence from the media.

What could be done to prevent the ravages of vitamin A deficiency?  One approach would be simply to 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.  That’s a good idea in theory, except that neither the resources — hundreds of millions of dollars annually — nor the infrastructure for distribution are available.

Plant genetic engineering offers a better, cheaper, more feasible solution: “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.)  The concept is simple: Although rice plants do not normally synthesize beta-carotene in the 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.

These new varieties are critical because in many developing countries, 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.  Golden Rice offers the potential to make contributions to human health and welfare as monumental as any in history. With wide use, it could save hundreds of thousands of lives a year and enhance the quality of life for millions more.

But one aspect of this shining story is tarnished.  Intransigent opposition by anti-science, anti-technology activists — Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and a few other groups — has spurred already risk-averse regulators to adopt an overly precautionary approach that has stalled approvals.

There is absolutely nothing about Golden Rice that should require endless case-by-case reviews, bureaucratic dithering and delays. As the scientific journal Nature editorialized in 1992, a broad scientific consensus holds that “the same physical and biological laws govern the response of organisms modified by modern molecular and cellular methods and those produced by classical methods. … [Therefore] no conceptual distinction exists between genetic modification of plants and microorganisms by classical methods or by molecular techniques that modify DNA and transfer genes.”

Putting it another way, government regulation of field research with plants should focus on the traits that may be related to risk — invasiveness, weediness, toxicity, and so forth — rather than on which genetic manipulation technique was used.

In spite of its vast potential to benefit humanity — and negligible likelihood of harm to human health or the environment — Golden Rice remains hung up in regulatory red tape with no end in sight.  In a July commentary in the journal Nature, Potrykus pointed out that Golden Rice has been “stalled at the development stages for more than ten years by the working conditions and requirements demanded by regulations.”

By contrast, plants constructed with less precise techniques such as hybridization or mutagenesis — which, with the exception of wild berries, wild game, wild mushrooms and fish and shellfish comprise virtually everything in European and American diets — are subject to no government scrutiny or requirements (or opposition from activists) at all.  And that applies even to the numerous new plant varieties that during the past half century have resulted from “wide crosses,” hybridizations that move genes from one species or genus to another across what used to be thought of as natural breeding boundaries.

Pulling no punches, Potrykus holds gratuitous regulation “responsible for the death and blindness of thousands of children and young mothers.”  At the very least, the politicians, activists and regulators who have insisted on, implemented and maintained those regulations are guilty of what the legal system calls “reckless disregard for life.”

The hundreds of journalists and pundits rhapsodizing about the rescue of the Chilean miners might want to give some thought to the preventable, ongoing disaster of vitamin A deficiency that is making millions of lives so miserable — and short.  Once they stop hyperventilating, that is.

Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.  He was the founding director of the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology.  His most recent book is “The Frankenfood Myth.”

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