Pope Francis Blesses Golden RicePosted: February 21, 2015 | |
ASPB NEWS | VOLUME 41, NUMBER 1
On November 7, 2013, Pope Francis gave his personal blessing to Golden Rice (GR). Why is this significant? Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) is responsible for 500,000 cases of irreversible blindness and up to 2 million deaths each year. Particularly susceptible are pregnant women and children. Across the globe, an estimated 19 million pregnant women and 190 million children suffer from the condition. The good news, however, is that dietary supplementation of vitamin A can eliminate VAD. One way that holds particular promise is the administration via GR, which had been engineered to produce large amounts of vitamin A. A 2012 study by Tang et al published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that 100-150 g of cooked GR provided 60% of the Chinese Recommended Intake of vitamin A. Estimates suggest that supplementing GR for 20% of the diet of children and 10% for pregnant women and mothers will be enough to combat the effects of VAD.
Unfortunately, public misconceptions about genetically modified (GM) organisms have prevented GR from being available to the countries most affected by VAD. One such country is the Philippines, where more than 80% of the population identifies as Roman Catholic and field trials of GR are nearing completion. An official blessing of the church, therefore, could do a great deal to build support, allowing the Philippines to serve as a model for many of its neighbors on the potential health impacts of widespread availability and consumption of the golden grain.
Regrettably, the church did not provide an official endorsement. It turns out that there is quite a distinction between the pope’s personal blessing and an official statement of support from the Vatican. To understand the nature of that distinction, we turned to the person who elicited the blessing, GR coinventor and ASPB member Ingo Potrykus. At the time of the blessing, Ingo, a member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, had been attending a meeting at the Vatican on the interaction of nutrition and brain development.
At the end of the meeting, he was able to meet Pope Francis and took the opportunity to share a packet of GR. In response, the pope offered his personal blessing. (If an official blessing of the Holy See was given, it would come from the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.) From Ingo’s perspective, the pope is concerned that genetic modification technology primarily benefits big business and not the poor.
The most immediate hurdle to the usage of GR, according to Ingo, is the impending deregulation by the Philippine Department of Agriculture. Although no damage has been reported from the recent typhoon (Haiyan) that struck this part of the world, the fields had already been harvested. Philippine officials have been following GR development and field trials for several years, and Ingo believes that the government will ultimately give “the green light.” He expects that deregulation will occur in two phases: first consumption, then planting. The consumption phase will require a two-year study of the impacts of GR consumption on VAD in Philippine children. The study will be conducted by the Helen Keller Foundation for Research and Education, which has expertise in VAD and blindness. Only after the study will farmers be allowed to plant GR, said Ingo.
GR distribution will be carried out by existing small-scale operations. Further, it will be sold at the same price as conventional cultivars. It is believed that this will help to facilitate adoption. In addition to vitamin A production, Ingo believes that other agronomic improvements, such as increased pest resistance and yield, will further increase the attractiveness of GR to farmers.
While not a full-throated endorsement of GR or GM, the pope’s blessing is a step in the right direction. It is also an important indicator of slowly shifting global attitudes regarding the role that GM foods will play in the world’s long-term food security.
Copyright for this article lies with ASPB News
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