An interview with Ingo Potrykus, creator of Golden Rice

Posted on October 28, 2014

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John Gormley Live with Ingo Potrykus

John Gormley hosts John Gormley Live on News Talk Radio 650 CKOM in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Gormley interviewed Dr. Ingo Potrykus, creator of Golden Rice, when Potrykus was in Saskatoon to speak at the Agricultural Bioscience International Conference (ABIC 2014). The transcripts (with minor edits) are below. The original podcast (On October 8, 2014) is available at http://ckom.com/ckom-podcasts

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JG: There’s an interesting conference going on in Saskatchewan this week: ABIC 2014– a biotechnology summit that has brought people from around the world to Saskatchewan, to Saskatoon, where there is discussion on genetic modification, different biotechnology initiatives, ag-innovation. And when I saw the name on the agenda of someone who would be speaking and visiting with the delegates, I thought "we have to meet this man." He’s in the studio now and I’m honoured that I get to spend some time with him.

Professor Emeritus at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. His name is Ingo Potrykus, and he is the academic who developed (15 years ago, with a colleague named Peter Beyer) a genetically modified type of rice. It’s rice that produces beta-carotene that helps the body then produce vitamin A. And in the developing world, what this product can do– this Golden Rice– to deal with infant malnutrition, to deal with other nutritional issues – has been widely acclaimed and touted as literally a life-saving initiative. But Dr. Potrykus tells an interesting story: of innovation, development, and of, since his retirement (which has been also a 14 or 15 year period) an interesting campaign by the anti-genetic modification movement people.

JG: Ingo, nice to meet you! It’s a delight and an honour.     

IP: It’s my pleasure to be here.

JG: And of course you’re not really a retiring type; you’ve spent most of your retirement talking about Golden Rice around the world.

IP: Not only talking, but trying to bring it to the farmers. Actually the invention of Golden Rice coincided with my retirement. In the last 15 years I devoted all my time– which I had now, being retired– to develop a product which can be handed out the farmer to reduce vitamin A malnutrition, as you indicated.

The science was done before that; it started in 1991and it took us eight years to find a way to introduce vitamin A into rice endosperm, the part of rice that you eat. When you eat rice, you’re eating endosperm. As you know rice is perfectly white, meaning it has no provitamin A, because provitamin A has a yellow color. Vitamin A rice is called Golden Rice because it has a golden color. So if you see golden rice anywhere you know it’s either fake or it’s the real Golden Rice.

JG: Fake or real! (laughs) So the development of this, why did you do that back in the 90s?

IP: I did it because I could not oversee the fact that vitamin A malnutrition is an enormous public health problem.

JG: Was it a public health problem in areas where rice was grown?

IP: It is a health problem in areas where poor people depend on rice for their food. Up to 80% of their food calories is coming from rice; these people are too poor to buy diversified diets. They are rice farmers, they have a small piece of land which is just sufficient to hold enough rice to feed them and help them against their hunger. But this rice, unfortunately, is very poor in micronutrients and vitamin A is one of those which is missing.

JG: So if somebody is living on a rice diet with no micronutrients, even though they’re filling their bellies, there are malnutrition issues.

IP: This malnutrition is called “hidden hunger”– in contrast to hunger, which we feel when we’re hungry– when we have not enough calories, but no sensation for lack of micronutrients. As I’m speaking about micronutrients, vitamin A is one of those. There are iron deficiencies, zinc deficiencies and protein deficiencies, so micronutrient deficiency is a wide spread problem.

JG: So then, was it difficult in the genetic engineering? You introduced a form of beta-carotene?

IP: Yes, beta-carotene is provitamin A, and the scientific challenge was so difficult that nobody believed it would be possible to solve it. When we started the project in 1991 with a PhD student, I realized soon that this would be a long range project and require more than one PhD student. So I was trying to find additional financial support and I approached the Rockefeller Foundation for financial support. They didn’t simply say no, but they called for a brainstorming session in New York inviting 30 world-wide specialists in vitamin A biosynthesis to discuss the idea. These specialists, after a two day heavy discussion, felt the chances were minimal for success; but because if it were successful it would be so fantastic that they recommended to the Foundation to finance a PhD student in my laboratory and in the laboratory of my partner Peter Beyer. It was a big, big, big surprise to everybody when we had this success and it was totally unforeseeable whether it would work or not.

JG: But again, now that it was unforeseeable it was difficult; but when you and Dr. Beyer with your research team developed this– and I remember at the time in the late 90’s many people saying in many parts of the world this could completely eradicate the vitamin A deficiency.

IP: Now that we have solved the scientific problem it is very easy. Every student can do it– every biology student. Now its actually part of the curriculum in universities. Students are producing provitamin A rice in a simple experiment. It just requires two genes: One gene from maize and one gene from a soil bacterium, which you all are familiar with it because you are eating it every day because it’s on every vegetable you are eating. (more on the science) 

JG: So the science challenge is over?

IP: The science is over; it was over in 1999. The big challenge was to transfer the science into a practical product which can be handed out to farmers and consumers. That is the challenge I have been devoting my time to since my retirement.

JG: But you’re a scientist, not a political lobbyist...or you weren’t.

IP: That is completely right, and we were totally naïve; we didn’t know what it would mean and of course we need help from those who knew what it would mean. So we started what you would call a humanitarian Golden Rice board with specialists in all different disciplines where we would need strategic advice.

As we didn’t get financial support from the public domain we looked for it from the private industry. We came to a deal with Syngenta. We had patented our invention and Syngenta was interested in coming up with commercial product and we wanted to give a humanitarian product. We wanted to give Golden Rice, when it’s ready, to the farmer– without any costs to them. So we offered Syngenta the rights to commercial exploitation, if in turn they would support our humanitarian project. So it’s a public-private partnership, and this kept the project alive until today. We had very substantial support from the company– not financially but concerning knowledge on how to produce a GMO product: how to deal with patent problems, advice on how to introduce the genetically engineered products, and so on. The financial support came from foundations.

The call in line is then open:

Caller: Allan in Saskatoon: “I work in the field of GMO crops myself, and I’ve tried very hard to convince some of the anti GMO people about the fallacies that they base their views on, and it’s like trying to break my head through a brick wall–they are absolutely stubborn about this. Do you have any ideas on how we can convince people GMO is not a bad thing?”

IP: That’s a very good question, and I’ve been fighting with my head against the brick wall for 25 years, like you (laughs). You should stop hitting your head against the wall. The activists don’t want to be convinced. The activists normally receive a good salary for being activists and if they admit that GMOs have some good beneficial qualities, they would lose their job and they would lose their income. I have had many discussions with activists high up in the ranks of Greenpeace and others, and in private they always admit that I’m right; that GMOs have lots of beneficial effects and one should not fight them as erratically as they are doing. But they never would admit this in public. Two who had changed their public view had been thrown out of their jobs.

JG: Mark Lynas (he was sitting in the same chair you are) he lost a lot of friends.

IP: It’s a hopeless job to convince the activists. You should invest all your energy in trying to convince the layman.

JG: Good point. So with Golden Rice, are you able to commercially get this in the hands of farmers or just give it away anywhere yet?

IP: No, unfortunately not; it’s still under development despite the fact that we are speaking about 15 years of development already. The prediction at the moment is that Golden Rice will be available to the farmers, free of charge of course, by the end of 2017 onwards. This will be followed by Bangladesh one year later, as well as Indonesia the same year or maybe 2018. It is under development in India, in Vietnam, in China; it is totally unpredictable how long it will take in any of these countries because there are very aggressive oppositions about GMOs and the anti-GMO lobby cannot accept any exceptions.

JG: I was just going to ask you: Surely you would think they could say “okay, with something that could save lives, we’ll exempt that but then we’ll go back to haranguing about GMOs” but they won’t do it.

IP: Yeah, but as soon as they would accept Golden Rice they would have to have rational arguments for, discussion for any others and that’s why they call it a Trojan Horse. You may have heard of the initiative of Patrick Moore, the co-founder of Greenpeace?

JG: Patrick Moore, yes, who has also sat in that chair several times.

IP: He has taken the initiative to convince Greenpeace that they should make an exception with Golden Rice on humanitarian grounds. The response from Greenpeace is totally negative so far.

Caller: Tariq in Regina: [Is] there medical and scientific proof that the genetically modified food can cure health?

IP: Well we have genetic proof from feeding studies with adults in the United States and school children in China. The evidence is very clear: provitamin A from Golden Rice endosperm is converted into vitamin A in a fantastic 2:1 conversion ratio. We have clear evidence that there is no unexpected, other chemical substance in the endosperm. So the proof that there is no risk to the consumer is clear. It has not been published but it will be published and available only two years from now.

Caller: Fred in Saskatoon. “My wife and I do a fair amount of relief work in South East India and I became aware of Golden Rice two years ago and looking at implementing something there. We work with very poor rural people and it just seems that there’s continual bureaucracy and blockage of getting anything past there. Do you think it’s at the government level or does that involve the multinational corporations that may have something at stake?

IP: No, I don’t think that multinational corporations have anything at stake with this project; it is a humanitarian project, it is a project that is in our hands and the public domain. You indicated one problem: bureaucracy in India is very difficult. Golden Rice has been in the hands of Indian developers since the year 2000. The working conditions in India are very complicated. You may understand that you need to develop locally adapted varieties which are consumed in India, and for this work you need permission to work in the field and permission doesn’t exist.

JG: Dr. Potrykus it has been an honour meeting you and thank you so much for coming.

IP: My pleasure.

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You can hear John Gormley live every weekday morning on News Talk Radio 650 in Saskatchewan. 

Related links:

Golden rice still awaits approval The StarPhoenix
The Golden Rice Tale
Golden Rice Wikipedia
Ex-Greenpeace president says group’s opposition to genetically-modified Golden Rice costing thousands of lives  National Post
IRRI: About Golden Rice
ABIC Speaker Highlights: Ingo Potrykus, creator of Golden Rice to speak at ABIC 2014 in Saskatoon ABIC 2014