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Responses to The New York Times Article "The Great Yellow Hype," March 4, 2001

From: kava@acsh.org (Ruth Kava)

RE: Michael Pollan's article in the NY Times magazine last Sunday: Pollan seems to totally misunderstand (or perhaps misrepresents is a better term) the basis and rationale of nutritional recommendations in his article. Consider the following points:

1) There is no "minimum daily requirement" of vitamin A. That was a labelling term that is no longer used.

2) Pollan's citation of the necessity of eating 15 bowls of golden rice per day is ridiculous! If Pollan meant the RDA (Recommended Dietary Allowance) for vitamin A, he is still way off base because this is a number that includes a significant safety factor; there is no way one would need to consume this amount every day to ward off a deficiency.

To give an analogy: one could ward off scurvy (vitamin C deficiency) by consuming about 10 milligrams of ascorbic acid/ day. The RDA for vitamin C in adult men has recently been set at 90 mg/day (Institute of Medicine, 2000). This upper level also allows for other antioxidant effects of vitamin C, of course.

But implying that an intake of a vitamin at less than RDA levels, especially for a vitamin like vitamin A that is stored in the body, would have no beneficial effect on a deficiency condition is either a misunderstanding or misrepresentation of the facts!

3)True, the body needs fat to absorb beta-carotene, and protein to transport it and convert it to vitamin A. But the body also needs fat to absorb pre-formed vitamin A and protein to transport and store it in the body. So, if supplementation with beta-carotene would be ineffective (as Pollan claims for golden rice), so would supplementation with pre-formed vitamin A. So should we stop all vitamin A supplementation programs?

4) The real issue is that we will have to ability to ameliorate one of the major causes of childhood blindness in the developing world--we should not miss the chance to do so based on politiacl ideology and pseudo-scientific reasoning!

Ruth Kava, Ph.D., R.D.
Director of Nutrition
American Council on Science and Health

1995 Broadway, 2nd Floor
New York, NY 10023

PH: 212-362-7044
Fax: 212-362-4919
email: kava@acsh.org

Date: Mar 07 2001 00:02:11 EST
From: Roger Morton <roger.morton@pi.csiro.au>
Subject: Pollan of NYT question

In his NYT magazine article March 4, 2001 The Great Yellow Hype,

>... what about handing out
>vitamin-A supplements to children so severely malnourished their
>bodies can't metabolize beta-carotene?
>More than $100 million dollars has been spent developing
>golden rice, and another $50 million has been budgeted for
>advertisements touting the technology's future benefits. 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?

Well according to data I have (Agbioview 13-2-01 from C Kameswara Rao <krao@vsnl.com> ) purified beta-carotene costs US$ 185 / 25 mg and one requires to take 5 mg/day. So the answer to the question ( if you have 150 million to spend at $37 per child per day) is that you could suplement 11 thousand children for one year on the amount that Pollan says is spent on Golden rice. Not a very good return considering you want to help more people than this for a longer period of time. On the ther hand, once you have made a good vitamin A rice you can breed the genes into new varieties for as long as you like with minimum costs.

So I think simple calculations show that the economics of Pollan's solution just don't stand up.

Roger L Morton
(Opinons expressed in this posting are personal and do not reflect the position of my employer.) ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Date: Mar 06 2001 13:46:16 EST From: "Henry I. Miller" < miller@hoover.stanford.edu > Subject: Response to Pollan Article

To the editor of the NY Times Magazine:

Michael Pollan believes that the "biotechnology industry's audacious new advertising campaign" extolling the virtues of vitamin A-enhanced rice misses the point ("The Great Yellow Hype," NY Times Magazine, 4 March). He is right, but his speculations about whether the "golden rice" will actually ameliorate vitamin A deficiency, whether its development was a cost-effective expenditure of resources, and whether industry's touting the product is moral, also miss the point.

Over-emphasis of the benefits -- real or hoped-for -- of gene-splicing can obscure more fundamental and important issues. It obscures the theoretical and empirical evidence of the extraordinary predictability and safety of gene-spliced organisms, for example. It creates a kind of logical trap, by enabling antagonists of gene- splicing to argue that when the ultimate benefits are arguably relatively minimal - such as the advantages of a long shelf-life melon - or unproven, as in the case of golden rice, we should tolerate no risk at all of creating an invasive, weedy or toxic plant. But benefits aside, the safety of the new technology and its products are not in doubt. Gene-spliced plants are now grown on more than 100 million acres annually and more than 60 percent of processed foods in the United States contain ingredients derived from gene-spliced organisms. There has not been a single mishap resulting in injury to a single person.

Pollan raises another phony issue - whether it is "immoral for an industry to use [the suffering of malnourished children] in order to rescue itself." In fact, the biotechnology industry's advertising campaign is a needed response to the relentless campaign of misrepresentations from radical environmentalists and technophobes who have over-emphasized the potential risks and denigrated the benefits of gene-splicing technology.

The current controversies over the testing and use of gene-spliced organisms are not really about safety, whether golden rice will achieve its aims, or the morality of advertising, but about something else entirely: challenges to academic, individual - and corporate -- freedom, which is being systematically undermined by the unscientific, discriminatory and onerous regulation focused on gene-splicing. Consider, for example, that if a student doing a school biology project takes a packet of "conventional" tomato or pea seeds (that have been genetically improved via plant breeding), to be irradiated at a local hospital and plants them in his backyard in order to investigate interesting mutants, he need not seek approval from any local, national or international authority. However, if the seeds have been modified by the addition of one or a few genes via more precise and predictable gene-splicing techniques, the student researcher could face a mountain of bureaucratic paperwork and expense (to say nothing of the very real possibility of vandalism of his experiment by anti-technology thugs). In the United States, Department of Agriculture requirements for paperwork and field trial design make field trials with gene-spliced organisms 10-20 times more expensive than the same experiments with virtually identical organisms that have been modified with conventional genetic techniques.

It is beside the point whether the purpose of investigating a new plant variety or microorganism is to test a scientific hypothesis or a marker gene, to produce a more elegant rose, to offer a marginal improvement for purposes of downstream processing, or to improve the lot of malnourished children. In democratic Western societies, we enjoy long traditions of relatively unfettered agricultural research, except in the infinitesimal proportion of cases where bona fide safety issues are raised (for example, research on live Foot and Mouth Disease Virus in the United States).

Traditionally, we shrink from permitting small, authoritarian minorities to dictate our social agenda, including what kind of research is permissible and which technologies and products should be available in the marketplace. Yet, that is what is happening, with radical environmental groups and technophobes relentlessly and groundlessly attacking all manner of applications of the new biotechnology.

Henry I. Miller, MD
Hoover Institution
Stanford University
Stanford, California 94305-6010
[Dr. Miller was an official at the NIH and FDA from 1977-94.]