World is missing out on biotechnology‘s lifesaving benefits, plant scientists warn

By Mark Lynas

June 5, 2019

Many tools for tackling global health challenges like malnutrition are already available, but stuck in “development limbo,” according to experts writing in the journal Nature Plants.

Writing with colleagues from Rothamsted Research, Professor Johnathan Napier, who pioneered the development of plants that produce heart-healthy omega-3 fish oils, says that misinformation and over-regulation are stopping or slowing down the development of potentially life-saving products.

Napier focuses in particular on the case study of Golden Rice, which has been genetically modified to provide more vitamin A than other rice varieties and was first created by scientists nearly 20 years ago, with the initial concept developed at least 10 years before that.

“Vitamin A deficiency is a huge problem in the developing world, killing or blinding over a million children a year, and affecting hundreds of millions of people in total. Yet, as of last year, no Golden Rice has ever been grown for human consumption,” Napier says.

“The technology is proven, the rigorous safety studies have been done, the nutritional research shows Golden Rice is an excellent source of vitamin A — but still it is not being produced, despite having been formally approved for feed or food use in USA, Canada and New Zealand and Australia,” he continues.

“It’s been stuck in development limbo for far too long now, and not available to the people who would benefit from it. If there was a pharmaceutical that could achieve a similar public health benefit but wasn’t being made available, there would be a public outcry over it. And unlike many drugs, Golden Rice has been made not-for-profit by its creators.”

Despite its potential humanitarian benefits, Golden Rice has been particularly hampered by long-standing opposition from Greenpeace and other anti-GMO campaign groups because of the use of genetic engineering in its development. In 2013, activists in the Philippines attacked and destroyed a field trial, further setting back the project.

However, on the issue of dealing with anti-GMO activists, Napier and colleagues warn that “the temptation to fight fire with fire must be avoided — scientists are not spin-doctors or public relations experts but instead have a duty to report advances in a factual manner, not resorting to hype.”

Golden Rice has also suffered technical setbacks. The “lead event” for Golden Rice, GR2-R1, didn’t perform as well in the field as non-GM control lines when the International Rice Research Institute tested it in the Philippines.

As Napier and colleagues explain in the paper: “Molecular characterization of this lead event GR2-R1 indicated that the transgene cassette was integrated into the first exon of the rice gene for OsAux1, disrupting the transport of auxins.” Auxins are vital plant hormones needed for growth.

The authors contrast the slow progression of Golden Rice with the faster development of omega-3 fish oils in plants, which have benefited from several different research efforts and attracted less opposition from activists.

They also point to other challenges, such as the difficulty of dealing with licensing issues given the broad patents on various biotech processes and discoveries that have been granted in the past.

“What we need is a different innovation pathway, one that isn’t reliant on market forces and economics, to speed up this process,” Napier concludes. “When you consider much of the science behind these developments has been publicly funded to the tune of hundreds of millions of pounds, at the very least we owe it to the taxpayer to deliver the promised benefits.”

Rather than rely on industry to invest in and develop these scientific breakthroughs, the authors suggest that public funding be continued to help navigate the regulation process and produce an end-product for the consumer.

“One can easily imagine a model whereby the costs of this would be offset by the savings to national health services from having healthier populations. Not only that, the public essentially become stakeholders in the product, which might help allay much of the suspicion around the motives of multinationals that accompany many new products within both agriculture and medicine,” Napier says.

Co-author Dr. Matina Tsalavouta, head of research and impact marketing and communications at the University of Liverpool, says there is an opportunity to create an effective pathway to delivering solutions as fast as is practically possible to those who need it most.

“The issues outlined in the paper also suggest that it is critical to work across disciplines and expertise, bringing together economists, public health researchers, intellectual property experts, social scientists and end users, to explore all the issues that may arise from the use of the remarkable technological advances in the life sciences. This approach has the potential to enable more effective development of solutions to pressing global health challenges,” Tsalavouta says.