Ingo Potrykus is the developer of 'Golden Rice' - a new yellow-tinted rice variety genetically engineered to contain beta-carotene, a vitamin-A precursor.
Golden Rice has been promoted as a miracle crop, and Ingo Potrykus portrayed as a scientific hero, but there are many who question its real value and the role played by Potrykus in promoting it.
Potrykus was born in Germany in 1933. He helped develop plant genetic engineering at the Friedrich Miescher-Institute, Basel, where he worked from the mid-1970s. He went on to become Professor of Plant Sciences at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich, from 1987 to April 1999, when he retired.
Prior to his retirement, his research group focused on genetic engineering projects aimed at improving yield stability and food quality in rice, wheat, sorghum and cassava. His best known project is Golden Rice which, via the insertion of a bacterial gene and two daffodil genes, contains provitamin A.
Golden Rice is intended to address a major problem in developing countries arising from vitamin A deficiency (VAD). The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that 230 million children are at risk of VAD. Vitamin A is important for sight, immunity to disease, growth and normal development. VAD is a major cause of blindness, especially among children, and it also exacerbates the effects of measles and diarrhoeal and respiratory illnesses. Over one million VAD-related deaths occur each year. VAD is particularly concentrated in SE Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, as well as in refugeessettlements and among displaced populations. VAD also tends to occur where rice is the major staple food as rice plants do not provide provitamin A.
Potrykus originally approached Nestle about funding his Golden Rice project. When that failed, he approached the Rockefeller Foundation who agreed to do so, as did FAIR, the European Commission's agricultural research programme.
Since his retirement, Potrykus has devoted his time and energy to achieving the introduction of Golden Rice. He is president of the international Humanitarian Golden Rice Board and intends to make the rice freely available to 'national and international agricultural research centres'. Collaboration is already underway with 14 rice institutions in India, China, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and the Philippines.
However, Potrykus and his work remain highly controversial for two reasons: its PR exploitation, and the question of whether Golden Rice provides either the most effective or the most desirable solution to VAD.
The controversy over the PR uses of Golden Rice arose in 2000 when, a year after his official retirement, Potrykus decided it was the time to launch a publicity offensive on Golden Rice. He initially submitted a paper to the journal Nature, with a covering letter pointing up its relevance to the wider GM debate, but Nature rejected it. At that point, Peter Raven, a close ally of Monsanto's, became involved and with Raven's help Potrykus managed to launch his publicity bandwagon.
Potrykus says, 'The press conference in St. Louis, the presentation at the Nature Biotechnology Conference in London, the Science publication with the commentary (Guerrinot 2000), the feature story in TIME Magazine all led to an overwhelming coverage of the "Golden Rice" story on TV, radio, and in the international press.'
His relationship with the biotech industry is a long-standing one. As a result of his research, he is named as 'inventor' and thus has interest in some thirty plant-related patents, most of them belonging to Syngenta/Novartis. Alert to the value of the PR bonanza arising from Golden Rice, the biotech industry was keen to help Potrykus get round the multiple impediments posed by the intellectual property rights (IPR) the industry posessed. Potrykus records how 'only (a) few days after the cover of "Golden Rice" had appeared on TIME Magazine, I had a phone call from Monsanto offering free licenses for the company's IPR involved. A really amazing quick reaction of the PR department to make best use of this opportunity.'
However, the PR exploitation of Golden Rice triggered a number of awkward questions. The journalist Michael Pollan, for instance, wrote in The New York Times magazine, 'A spokesman for Syngenta, the company that plans to give golden rice seeds to poor farmers, has said that every month of delay will mean another 50,000 blind children. Yet how many cases of blindness could be averted right now if the industry were to divert its river of advertising dollars to a few of these programs?' (ie existing, but less well publicised, programs for delivering Vitamin A)
Even Gordon Conway of the Rockefeller Foundation was moved to comment that 'the public relations uses of Golden Rice have gone too far. The industry's advertisements and the media in general seem to forget that it is a research product that needs considerable further development before it will be available to farmers and consumers.'
Pollan responded to another Conway comment, 'We do not consider golden rice the solution to the vitamin-A deficiency problem' , with a question: 'So to what, then, is golden rice the solution?' The answer, Pollan said, was plain: 'To the public-relations problem of an industry that has so far offered consumers precious few reasons to buy what it's selling -- and more than a few to avoid it. Appealing to our self- interest won't work, so why not try pricking our conscience?'
Potrykus himself, in responding to the criticisms of Golden Rice voiced by Greenpeace, claimed to share their disgust 'about the heavy PR campaign of some agbiotech companies using results from our experiments.' However, when asked in an interview by a biotech supporter whether he believed the industry had 'overhyped' the value of golden rice he responded very differently, 'I did not follow the advertisements of the industry, but it is difficult to overhype the value of golden rice.'
In reality, it was Potrykus himself who had encouraged the PR use of Golden Rice as a lever for promoting genetic engineering. He has said that he saw the publicising of Golden Rice as 'a timely and important demonstration of positive achievements of the GMO technology. GMO technology had been used to solve an urgent need and to provide a clear benefit to the consumer, and especially to the poor and disadvantaged. To make the information available to a wider audience for a more balanced GMO discussion, we submitted the manuscript to Nature with a covering letter explaining its importance in the present GMO debate.'