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The golden ticket

A clash of shades of grey

Rebecca Nesbit 15 November 2018

A scientist feeding the poor by meddling with nature isn't planning to change the world. He's just PR for a dangerous technology

Editor's note: We are pleased to present the eleventh installment in our series, The League of Imaginary Cats. Read more about the Series in our accompanying editorial, and use the navigation links at the top right to catch up.

Two hours before my sister says her wedding vows, I have already made the final touches to my makeup. I take a step back from the mirror and assess whether she will notice any change in me. Thankfully, the last few years have treated me kindly. I am yet to discover a grey hair among the blonde and my waist hasn’t started to spread. A string of pearls brushes my collarbone and my dress has a layer of golden chiffon over it; a finishing touch that, if I'm honest, is designed to provoke.

This seeds of this idiotic situation, my sister having a wedding tiara placed on her head by her best friend while I stare at my reflection and prepare my show of civility, were sown by two events that happened in 1984. First, our parents signed us both up for an environmental summer camp, and second, a plant breeder in a Philippine guesthouse told his friends that if he could put any gene into rice it would be the one that produces beta-carotene.

I’ll start with the summer camp, which was three weeks of pond dipping, litter-picking, and sleepless nights in sweaty tents. It was by far the longest we had been parted from our parents, and was the first time I remember feeling close to Jessica. Her presence in my tent each night provided a shield from the choking pressure of trying to fit in. My parents got more than they bargained for when we came back as precocious environmentalists, preaching about acid rain and leaded petrol.

As for the second incident, we were completely oblivious to the first dreams of genetically modifying rice in order to make the grains produce a vitamin A precursor that happens to be a golden yellow. The first I heard of golden rice was on 31 July 2000. The front page of TIME magazine showed a man in his 60s, light reflecting off his broad forehead. Next to him a bold headline read, ‘This Rice Could Save a Million Kids a Year.’

I was working as a journalist in London, the bottom of the pile at my first job, and my editor asked me to run the story.

I had plenty of information; I could have filed a mediocre story half an hour later. But the TIME article told of how Professor Ingo Potrykus had ‘dreamed of creating such a rice’ for over a decade. The struggle and elation described in the article seemed to jar awkwardly with the image of the scientist on the cover. I'd signed up to this job to interview people who had the power to change lives, not to report on council tax and the lady whose dog got stuck up a tree. And so I set about contacting Potrykus.

By this time my environmentalist credentials had dulled, but Jessica’s had flourished. She wrote for a free-thinking environmental magazine, and I admired this so fiercely that I never questioned its accuracy. She was living in America and standing up for her ideals, while I occupied a basement room in south London and wrote whatever dull story I was told to. If anyone could get me an interview with Potrykus, Jessica could, and if I was going to match her career success I would need her help doing it.

With no regard for my phone bill, I stood in the office stairwell looking down over the solid traffic and called her on my mobile. Her voice was shocked when she answered, and I realized that the only reasons she’d expect me to call her at work were not good ones. The delay on the line made it harder to reassure her that I wasn’t announcing a death but requesting her help. She agreed instantly, perhaps because she was so relieved that nothing was wrong. Sure enough, she set up a phone call within an hour.

I wrote my questions, scribbled them out, wrote a second set as unimaginative as the first, and realized I had only 10 minutes until the interview. My heart beat disturbingly hard as I walked to the meeting room ready to receive Potrykus's call, and I sat staring at the silent phone and rehearsing my questions. The harder I tried to find a way of sounding natural, the more I felt like a news reader relying on an autocue.

When I'd been waiting for 20 minutes the idea that he wasn't going to call began to feel like a relief. But I was jolted out of my daydream by the ringing, and picked up the receiver to a crackly line.

I opened with some fumbled congratulations, for his science and his newfound fame, then began to read my questions word for word.

“Please can you tell me the importance of golden rice?”

“Certainly. Vitamin A deficiency has a devastating effect on the sight of millions of children, and current ways of tackling this are falling short. Breeding micronutrients directly into the staple crops that farmers grow for their own table will allow us to reach the most remote and inaccessible communities, which often suffer the greatest need.”

His answer seemed as scripted as my questions; his eloquent sentences were those of a man who had spent years picturing this moment. His slick explanations of how golden rice would reach the right people were going to make my life easier, but I was after something more.

Only when I asked him whether adding daffodil genes to our food plants is meddling with nature did I hear any passion.

“There will always be sceptics, especially in Europe, but what we’re doing is humanitarian. Every single day that sceptics delay development, thousands of children lose their sight. People are dying for lack of this fundamental nutrient – is saving lives playing God?”

“No.” The question was rhetorical, but this seemed like the right thing to say.

“I grew up in 1940s Germany, we were often so hungry that my brothers and I ate what we could steal. This kind of hunger is still widespread and I, for one, am not willing to turn a blind eye.”

I wrote my story in a rush of adrenaline, and the next morning it appeared on the front page. My career, I was convinced, was set to be as influential as Potrykus’. The swelling of my ego kept me self-absorbed until breakfast in America. I answered my office phone to the sound of Jessica’s voice as I’d never heard it before.

“Have you no decency?”

“Jess! What's up?”

“I spend my day chasing up an interview for you and you throw it back in my face.”

“It made the front page, how is that throwing anything in your face?”

“You used it to fight against the environmental values I stand for, and I thought you did too.”

“When you arranged an interview I had no idea it came with small print.” I still didn’t realize I needed to be angry, and so I said this with the enjoyment of searching for a clever response.

“I thought you were an environmentalist, and that you didn't have to ask my opinion on propaganda from biotech giants.”

“Didn't you even read my interview? He's a guy who wants to help people, not an ecoterrorist funded by some evil corporation.”

“You're not so dense that you don't realize a scientist feeding the poor by meddling with nature isn't planning to change the world. He's just PR for a dangerous technology.”

“Agriculture is based on meddling with nature, and I'm the one who actually spoke to him.”

There was a pause, then Jessica said, “Retract the story.”

“That's insane.”

“You can print a corrected update tomorrow.”

“You know as well as I do that it doesn't work like that.”

“If you don't have the balls to stand up to your editor, that defeats the entire object of journalism.”

For the first time in my life, I hung up on someone.

When I returned to my flat that night, still shaking, I offered vague excuses to my housemates and settled myself in the gloom of my bedroom. I’d saved every one of the magazines my sister had sent me, and diligently read each article bylined to her. That night I read her progress through global warming, the ozone hole, and pesticides. Where before I had detected passion, I now only read anger. Each story was iced with self-righteousness and lamentations of humanity’s flaws.

The next morning, fortified more by coffee than by sleep, I recycled them all.

It is surprisingly easy to maintain a policy of not speaking to a family member when they live on another continent. She got a boyfriend (not the one she’s marrying), extended her work permit, bought a house. I learnt her news via my oblivious mother. Any time she mentioned Jessica’s life I responded neutrally, as if I knew already, and I assume Jessica did the same. She was a rare and brief visitor to the UK, and I managed to invent conferences or illnesses to avoid her. I know that at least once Jess told our mother she’d seen me.

In retrospect, I’m not even sure how I knew she was so angry with me, or whether this was exaggerated in my head. Our occasional emails were curt, and we both took every opportunity to write about golden rice. It was one of her articles that prompted our final email exchange:

Golden rice is the most ecologically treacherous way to address Vitamin A deficiency. It is an untested and artificial fix that has the potential to exacerbate malnutrition. It encourages a narrow diet rather than access to a diversity of vitamin-rich foods, and doesn’t address the underlying cause of Vitamin A deficiency: poverty.

I responded professionally with an opinion piece crushing the romantic vision of farming that my sister clung to with such desperation. Cows don’t eat golden buttercups in sunny British pastures; they eat GM feed in dingy cowsheds. We’d all love to believe that feeding the world meant fields of buttercups, but the golden ticket is for rice, not cattle food.

I could have stopped with my article, but I’m a little ashamed to say that I needed a personal attack to diffuse my anger.

Everyone knows not to send an angry email while drunk at 2 in the morning, but that doesn’t stop them. They know they have the courage to say what they really mean, and then they can give the 2am drunk excuse to be absolved of guilt while their criticisms still remain.

It was an online quote from Potrykus that had given me the strength to send this particular email. I had the page bookmarked, and before I started typing I read it with blurry vision:

If you plan to destroy test fields to prevent responsible testing and development of Golden Rice for humanitarian purposes, you will be accused of contributing to a crime against humanity. Your actions will be carefully registered and you will, hopefully, have the opportunity to defend your illegal and immoral actions in front of an international court.

And so I began:

Dear Jessica,

If your main argument against golden rice is that it is too expensive, why are you massively increasing the cost with law cases, protests and political pressure? How much money from environmentalists has been used fighting golden rice, rather than being used to help people suffering from vitamin A deficiency? If you believe there are better alternatives, put your energy into making use of them. You say that golden rice doesn’t tackle poverty, but what about you? And isn’t improving the health of the world’s poorest people a pretty solid way to fight it? Aid activities providing supplements have killed people from vitamin A overdoses. But you don’t care about any of these people, do you? It’s just your excuse to stick up for your hippy ideals and campaign against GM, to make sure that ‘it’s too expensive’ becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. You delude yourself but you don’t delude me.

A reply came half an hour later, fewer words than years that golden rice had so far taken to develop.

Golden rice has been 'nearly there' for a decade. Value for money? This guy's delusional, and you've bought it.

I deleted the email, then deleted her address from my contacts.

Thirteen may be unlucky for some, but not for Jessica. The spectacle that is her wedding is taking place in the glorious Californian sun in 2013, thirteen years, almost to the day, from when Ingo Potrykus appeared on the front page of TIME. I scoured Oxford Street for this golden dress, spurred on by grey skies and bedraggled shoppers; chose an excessively expensive wedding gift from an ethical website and not from her middle-class gift list; and pitched an article to my editor designed to show that this fight wasn't over.

Potrykus' name was in danger of becoming synonymous with golden rice, while his colleague Beyer captured slightly less of the limelight. I interviewed Beyer to prove to my sister (who no doubt had stopped reading any of this) that I wasn't just sucked in by one man's dream. Age had dragged down his upper eyelids, but the surrounding wrinkles just served to give him an air of fun. Life hadn’t got to him.

“Peter, can you tell me about some of the setbacks that you have faced?” I couldn't bring myself to say ‘what took you so long'.

He spoke in a gentle German accent. “Yes. All the time, opponents to golden rice insisted, year after year, that it would not be able to produce vitamin A in those who ate it. It was alleged by Greenpeace that people would have to eat several kilograms of the stuff to get any benefit.”

“But is this more than bad press?” I asked. “You kept the funding to go on with the project – were you actually slowed down because of negative attitudes?”

“We have had to undergo endless trials and tests and endure endless amounts of bureaucracy. Yet new breeds of standard crops have no such problems, even though they are often created by exposing them to doses of radiation.”

“Radiation?” This was slightly unnerving.

“This is done to create new mutant breeds that you can then grow to see if any have features you like. None of the regulations that we had to meet in creating golden rice were imposed on these plant breeders. Yet this is the standard means by which new crops, including organic crops, are created. It is manifestly unbalanced.”

“Even with all this, do you think you can do it?”

“Field trials of golden rice in the Philippines have proved successful. Over the coming years, new varieties suitable for local environments will be put through the country's regulatory process, and if deemed safe, continue through trials in real communities.”

I finished my article feeling victorious. I could face my sister confident that I had been justified. Beyer had dedicated years of his life to golden rice and wasn’t feeling disheartened, so why should I? Any arguments of ‘it won’t work’ would soon be extinguished.

I am still staring into the mirror when my mother calls to say she's waiting for me in the hotel lobby. It's too late to take off the golden dress, even though I brought a neutral spare in case I changed my mind. A million children, I tell myself, this fight is bigger than me and my sister. Their sight is worth more than a family wedding where I could follow Jessica down the aisle, having placed the tiara on her head and laced the back of her dress.

But were our sacrifices of any use at all? Did either of us make a difference?

The Invention of Golden Rice

In 1999 two scientists announced that they had created a strain of rice that held the potential to save the sight and lives of over a million children. Ingo Potrykus and Peter Beyer had fortified rice with beta-carotene, a precursor of vitamin A. Vitamin A deficiency is considered a health problem in over half of the world's countries, disrupting the immune system and increasing the severity of childhood diseases. Vitamin A is necessary for the retina to function, so deficiency can lead to blurred vision and eventually blindness. It is naturally found in leafy vegetables, and a major cause of vitamin A deficiency is over-reliance on white rice.

Failures of supplementation programmes to solve the problem led to an alternative idea: to modify rice to produce a precursor to vitamin A, beta-carotene. Beta-carotene is used by the body to create vitamin A, and is what gives golden rice its distinctive colour.

The plan for golden rice was hatched in the 1980s, but genetic modification of cereal crops was proving harder than expected. A major breakthrough for golden rice occurred in the early '90s when researchers in Potrykus' lab managed to insert the relevant genes into rice cells, by blasting them with gene-coated particles. However, it wasn't simply a case of adding a beta-carotene gene into the rice plant; production of beta-carotene involves multiple genes, and the next major step was to identify them all. Even with the correct genes, their golden rice plants weren't suitable for commercialization because it was impossible to predict the characteristics of plants produced in the subsequent generations.

A new technique was needed to insert a gene accurately into the plant's DNA and ensure that it would behave predictably in future generations. Chinese scientist Xudong Le used Agrobacterium, a naturally-occurring bacterium that has itself been modified for use in biotechnology. This led to their major success in 1999: the first prototype of golden rice.

The first golden rice has now been improved to produce more beta-carotene. Initially, plants had been modified using genes from daffodils, but modern strains of golden rice use rice genes. All varieties of rice have the genes needed to produce beta-carotene, though they are normally switched off in the edible part of the plant. There is now evidence from clinical trials that the latest varieties golden rice successfully provide children with vitamin A.

Some of the largest problems that Potrykus and Beyer have encountered are not scientific, but legal. Genetically modified plants are generally patented, as are new varieties of crops produced by other methods. Potrykus and Beyer had assumed that by patenting golden rice and allowing it to be used for free they could ensure that it reached the people who needed it. What they didn't realize is that they had used techniques patented by other people and so were bound by those patents too.

This was a major barrier to offering this GM technology for free, and Potrykus was furious when he realized that his technology, which was publicly funded, was bound by patents. However, the large corporations that owned the patents quickly granted him the rights to offer the technology free to poorer farmers, allowing them to replant seeds and trade them within their community. In 2015, golden rice won the Patents for Humanity Award in the USA.

An ongoing hurdle is regulation; there are often lengthy processes to go through in order to gain government approval. Many of the target countries had no process in place for biotech approvals, and this has slowed things further. On top of this, opposition groups continue to fight the development. In August 2013, activists vandalized field trials in the Philippines.

But after years of controversy and technical challenges, just this year in fact, the US Food and Drug Administration, along with Australia, Canada and New Zealand, approved the use of golden rice for human consumption. Although there is still work to do, it now appears that golden rice has the potential to reduce poverty, disease and malnutrition. The question is, will it become part of the solution to the devastating consequences of vitamin A deficiency, or will it remain permanently an expensive prototype?

Author’s note

In many GM debates, people and motives have come to matter, sometimes more so than the science. Potrykus and Beyer have been frontrunners in the development of golden rice. Their interviews since the conception of golden rice tell of their determination, the setbacks, and their frustration that GM crops are treated so differently to crops created with techniques such as mutagenesis. The conversations in this story are based on past interviews.

In such a controversial topic it’s easy for anyone to weave the convenient evidence around their world view. As a journalist, our protagonist’s job is arguably to analyse the situation and present her readers with the facts, unobstructed by the opposing spin of biotech companies or of environmental campaigners. Has she succeeded in doing this, or is she blinded by the rivalry with her sister?