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Society Honors Golden Rice Inventor

'Ingo Potrykus talks of social responsibility for scientists'

The Scientist 15[16]:8
By Barry A. Palevitz
August 20, 2001

Scientists who gathered in Providence, R.I. in late July for the annual meeting of the American Society of Plant Biologists paused one evening to honor a pioneer in plant biotechnology. The society gave Swiss researcher Ingo Potrykus its Leadership in Science Public Service Award for his molecular tour de force in creating beta carotene-enriched 'golden' rice. Along with Peter Beyer of the University of Freiburg in Germany, and Xudong Ye, now at Agricetus Monsanto in Madison, Wis, Potrykus moved three genes from daffodil and a bacterium into rice plants to construct the provitamin A biosynthetic pathway.1 By coupling the genes to endosperm-specific promoters, the scientists targeted the pathway to grain endosperm cells. "It took altogether 30 years to develop golden rice," including early ground work, Potrykus said.

Golden rice is now being tested and refined. The International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines is also transferring the pathway to agronomically important varieties via traditional breeding techniques. If the new strains satisfy culinary preferences, they could help alleviate vitamin A deficiencies responsible for millions of cases of death and blindness worldwide.

Courtesy of ASPB

Potrykus' achievement earned him media star status and polished biotech's tarnished image. The Swiss scientist even made the July 31, 2000 cover of Time Magazine. But Potrykus' experience wasn't altogether rosey.2 Golden rice upset biotech critics such as Greenpeace, who viewed the advance--and the way industry trumpeted it--with suspicion. In accepting the ASPB award, Potrykus reflected on his experience.

On Biotech Research and His Motives

"We are in a very curious situation. We are learning a lot about plant biology, ... but we are not allowed to use this knowledge for practical purposes." Still, Potrykus hoped that the American way of treating genetically modified organisms (GMOs), more accepting of the technology and the way it's regulated, will win out over the years. He worried, though, that "the European way of doing things may spread to the U.S."

Potrykus insisted scientists if possible should take social responsibility for their work, given "the privileges they get." He found his mission in global food security, noting that vitamin A and iron deficiencies alone affect 3 billion people globally. Besides boosting iron levels in plants, Potrykus now wants to use transgenic technology to enhance essential amino acids in crops.

Potrykus maintained that "from the beginning," he wanted to make golden rice available free of charge. Still, he couldn't release it after a search revealed that 70 patents belonging to 32 holders covered technology used in the process. He convinced the AstraZeneca company to help tackle the problem, and together they agreed on a definition of humanitarian use that could circumvent patent obstacles: "Everything which leads to a less-than-$10,000 annual income to farmers should be considered a humanitarian use," Potrykus stated. The public/private compact paved the way for patent waivers.

Potrykus also had to contend with material transfer agreements that could prevent release. If you do something important you have to deal with powerful interests, Potrykus soberly admitted, and that means dealing with lawyers. His strategy was to take the high ground: "Legally, they had the rights, but morally I had the right." If a company didn't agree on material transfer, he threatened to take the issue to the media. He won.

Following Through

The next step was to identify reliable national partners. The move was necessary, Potrykus noted sarcastically, because he was working with "the most dangerous organisms ever--GMOs." He avoided solicitations from North Korea and Iran, but he ended up with a consortium of countries from Asia, Latin America, and elsewhere. IRRI, along with Philippine government laboratories, were the first to receive the grain.

Potrykus added that "in the next two to three months we hope to give rice to India. Discussions with China are moving slowly because the Chinese are worried about approving GMO releases. "They don't want to endanger their soybean export market," said Potrykus. Negotiations with South America "are stuck" over concerns about traditional agriculture.

Potrykus has been disappointed that "institutions like the World Health Organization and the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization, which are supposed to be involved in humanitarian efforts, are very hesitant to get involved.

Opposition to Golden Rice

Potrykus pulled no punches when it came to groups opposing golden rice and other GMOs. "The 'professional' GMO opposition is using every trick to prevent golden rice acceptance," insisted Potrykus, including accusations that the grain is poisonous and people who eat it will lose hair and sexual potency. According to Potrykus, "even the Chinese government is afraid" of them. "There are very few people with backbone to stand up to radicals," he added.

Potrykus believes that, despite "a Robin Hood mask," one of the organizations has "a self-interest in raising money" in opposing GMOs. "We need a Watergate-type journalist" to investigate, he suggested, "because the public will not believe us." Reporters should ask about an organization's budget, where the money comes from, and to whom it's accountable.

If the media got involved, they could also rectify past problems with coverage of GMOs. The media thinks that "a balanced report means they have to have the other side represented," opined Potrykus. In the case of GMOs, that could skew public opinion. When somebody in the audience questioned whether scientists should resort to the same tactics as the opposition, Potrykus reminded the questioner that it would be journalists who would do the asking, not scientists.

The Swiss researcher even took industry to task, criticizing companies for overhyping golden rice as an example of what biotech can do. As a result, "people think it's already in the field preventing blindness."

Why Bother?

Near the end of his talk, Potrykus waxed philosophical: "My motivation was honest [in helping people]. I could not have stopped" at just the science. "That's why I won't stop now." When asked if he felt in danger at any time, given recent terrorist incidents directed at GMO researchers, Potrykus admitted, "I have felt threatened on several occasions, but I can defend myself." He noted that his institute installed precautions many years ago.

When asked by a student why he should go through the same things other than for humanitarian reasons, Potrykus sympathized. "The value of somebody is rated by their publications," the senior scientist acknowledged. In 10 years of doing work on golden rice, he published just one article. "No young scientist can survive this." That's why "we need granting agencies that are brave enough to invest in these kinds of projects. I was fortunate to be a professor at the Swiss Federal Institute."

Potrykus encouraged his audience to assist the poor in developing countries. He also pushed them to speak out publicly about what they do. "You must find a way to amplify your message," he suggested. Just talking to a few people isn't satisfactory. Instead, he asked scientists to write letters and articles for publication. "Educating just 100 people will work. We have to quickly respond to false information in the media."

Barry A. Palevitz (palevitz@dogwood.botany.uga.edu) is a contributing editor for The Scientist.

1. B.A. Palevitz, "With GM crops, who needs vitamin pills?" The Scientist, 14[3]:14, Feb. 7, 2000.

2. BA Palevitz, "Bowl of hope, bucket of hype?" The Scientist, 15[7]:15, April 2, 2001.