Solving poverty

Gurdev S Khush is the principal plant breeder in the Plant breeding, genetics and biochemistry division of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines. His contribution to the global food security has earned him worldwide appreciation. In 1996, he was awarded the World Food Prize, and in 1999 he received the Friendship Prize from China, the highest honour given to foreign experts. He speaks to Lian Chawii about the role of biotechnology in India and the implications of the vitamin A rice in developing countries

Published: Sunday 30 September 2001

How does vitamin A rice help solve poverty and malnutrition in developing countries?
People whose staple diet is rice usually suffer from vitamin deficiencies. In Bangladesh, for instance, 75 per cent of the calories come from rice. Similarly, in countries like Indonesia, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, rice accounts for 70 per cent of the calories. The problem of vitamin a deficiency is serious in these countries as rice is completely devoid of this vitamin. If we can introduce biosynthetic pathway into rice, then we can partially solve this problem. The breakthrough came when a Swiss scientist introduced three genes, which completed the biosynthetic pathway for the production of beta-carotene, which is a precursor of vitamin a . When you have it in the digestive system it gets converted to vitamin a or retinol.

What needs to be done before the rice is commercially grown?
The rice variety that the Swiss scientist worked on is good for transformation. But it cannot be used directly as it is primitive and not commercially grown. We have to transfer those genes to the varieties that are commercially grown -- the highly productive ones. This will take us about three years. Currently, we have not tested anything except the availability of beta-carotene since we have only a handful of seeds.

So when will the rice be available to the farmers and the common masses?
It will take around five to six years for the rice to be available for the farmers. After the research, food safety and the bio-availability of beta-carotene need to be studied. Then we have to find out whether the introduced genes modify plant characteristics like reduction in yield or changes in taste. Eventually, we will have to find out whether people will accept the yellow rice since they are used to white rice. This process will take around two years. Then the developed variety will be distributed to other countries and its adaptability to various local and climatic conditions will be studied. It is only after all these studies that the rice will reach the farmers.

Will the price of the vitamin A rice be higher than that of ordinary rice?
Once it is produced commercially, the cost will be similar to ordinary rice. But if it is widely accepted the cost might be raised by 5 to 10 per cent depending on its demand. It should be affordable to the poor to serve its purpose.

What about the royalty issues related to the rice?
Most of the royalty problem has been solved now. There were around 70 patents involved in the production. Syngenta, a biotechnology company has purchased all the patents (or arrangements were made) and has given the technology free of cost to irri . Now we can work on it and once it is ready we can distribute it freely and the national governments can grow this rice so that the farmers can harvest it.

With increasing research on high yielding varieties of rice, are we on the verge of another green revolution?
Yes, we are continuing to work on improvement in the production and quality of rice. With widespread deficiency in iron, zinc, vitamin A and iodine, scientists hope to combine nutrition with production.

Where does India stand in the field of biotechnology?
India is being a little conservative. For instance, Bt cotton is a proven technology and a lot of tests have been done on it. It is high yielding, resistant to insects, reduces cost of production; it is grown widely and is a safe technology. But still, India delayed the approval when it should have been approved. In my opinion, they might not even release it next year.

What is the most critical issue for India to consider in its regulations on biotechnology?
Food safety is of prime importance right now. It is best that an independent organisation conducts biosafety test so that there would be no possibility of bias. Sometimes, a company that produces biotech product conducts the test and submits the data to the government. This should be avoided.

How about the drawbacks of biotechnology?
We need to see the presence of allergens. But as long as a proper test is conducted by a regulating agency, why should there be any objection?

If the technology is safe, why is there so much opposition to it?
Some quarters, including ngo s, are violently opposing any form of biotechnology. This can hinder the progress of development. Instead, they should take it up with us so that we can talk it out. The problem is they only talk in general terms. When the vitamin A enriched rice was initially developed, the anti- gmo group started opposing it without even knowing the benefits. They should remember that there are 400 million children going blind every year. Biotechnology offers a viable solution.

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