GELLERMAN: It's Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman.
Golden rice was developed about 20 years ago. Orange in color, it was genetically engineered to be rich in beta carotene, a nutrient our body converts into Vitamin A. Scientists hoped Golden Rice would save lives and the eyesight of a quarter of a billion kids worldwide not getting enough vitamin A in their diets, children who typically live in less developed countries where ordinary rice is a dietary staple.
The creators of Golden Rice planned to offer it to farmers for free. But now, nearly two decades later, the bio-engineered rice is still not available. Julie Grant traveled to India to find out why, for a story that originally aired as part of the series: "The DNA Files."
GRANT: Just a few minutes drive outside the southern Indian city of Madurai, the crowded streets of food vendors, auto rickshaws, and cars give way to small villages and green countryside. It's a patchwork of farm after farm. There are no barns or outbuildings. There are hardly any tractors. People here do most of their farm work by hand. 77-year-old Dr. Lakshmi Rahmathullah has been working with people in these villages for most of her career. Today, she's gathered some of the children in Arasakulam village. Six-year-old Karthik Kumar bravely walks to the front of the group as an adult holds his head steady for Dr. Lakshmi.
RAHMATHULLAH: If you look at his eyes, you will see brownish folds on the white part of the eye, which shows that is an indication of Vitamin A deficiency.
GRANT: Another child here, a ten-year-old girl said she couldn't see at night. She said it was scary. Everyone looked like ghosts. These symptoms, if left untreated, can lead to much worse problems. Her cornea could have literally shriveled away, leaving her totally blind. But the kids here were lucky. They got high dose Vitamin A supplements. This ten-year-old girl got her eyesight back within four months. International aid organizations estimate that fully a third of children under age five in India and Southeast Asia have some level of vitamin A deficiency.
About two-thirds of Indian children under age five get Vitamin A supplements. They line up twice each year at health clinics to receive a spoonful of the serum. A mega dose of Vitamin A is stored in the child's liver, and is slowly released through the months.
But there's debate in India over the need to continue the supplementation program. Dr. H.P.S. Sachdev is former president of the Indian Academy of Pediatrics. He's a small man in a dark blue turban. Sitting in his medical office, he says most children these days don't need the mega doses
SACHDEV: I view it as a medicine. God did not intend us to take a pill off and on.
GRANT: Sachdev says many Indian families have gained the education and financial means to meet their vitamin A needs the way people in richer countries do - through those orange vegetables and leafy greens. So children should only get the mega doses if there's an obvious lack of Vitamin A in their diet.
Sachdev says there's another way to meet low level needs - golden rice. That's the rice genetically engineered to express beta-carotene. Sachdev says children could just eat a little rice regularly.
SACHDEV: A small lower dose mimics the daily requirements or is much closer to the daily requirements and its chances of toxicity are much lower as compared to a huge pill based on the mega dose approach.
JULIE GRANT: Ten years ago, Dr. S.R. Rao, director of India's Department of Biotechnology, was touring laboratories in Switzerland, and met geneticist Ingo Potrykus. Potrykus was still experimenting then, trying to make rice express beta-carotene. Rao says he wanted that rice for India, because he thought it could go a long way to reduce Vitamin A deficiency in regions where rice is a staple in the diet.
RAO: So I'm from the southern part of India, and we only eat rice and rice and
GRANT: Rao says they often eat rice for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. But why would farmers in India want to plant Golden Rice? Dr. Rao is a leader in efforts to transfer the genes for Golden Rice into varieties Indians already eat.
[SOUND OF STERILIZER]
Dr. Rao takes us to what's called a phytotron. It's a building used to grow plants, but it doesn't receive natural light like a greenhouse. That sound is a sterilizer. Before you enter the phytotron, you've got to spend a couple of minutes in this chamber. It blows super high air pressure to clean off contaminants that could ruin the experiments.
RAO: To really get clear of your dust and all the organisms and you just come to this side. Now they're coming out. Okay?
GRANT: The phytotron's main room has row after row of huge aqua colored refrigerators that keep the young plants at a constant temperature. Inside are Indian hybrids of Golden Rice. The genetic modification, the beta-carotene, was originally bred into a Japanese rice variety. Rao says in his phytotron they bred the Golden trait into some popular Indian varieties.
RAO: That is in terms of their yield, in terms of resistance to diseases and pests. Such varieties have been taken, and where we put this traditional trait of Golden Rice.
GRANT: So traits that farmers like?
RAO: Traits farmers like.
GRANT: Because they're going to grow better. They're not going to have as many pests.
RAO: Yes, exactly.
GRANT: What he expects farmers to like even more is that the government plans to give Golden Rice seeds free to those making under $10,000 a year. This is possible, because of a deal struck between Ingo Potrykus, the scientist who created Golden Rice, and the seed company, Zeneca.
There are some 70 patents on the various technologies involved in making Golden Rice. Zeneca, which is now part of Syngenta, owns many of those patents. The company was interested in selling Golden Rice to the U.S. and European health food markets. So in exchange for the right to do that, the company agreed to give the seeds away free to developing nations.
But those free seeds are making some people angry. Vandana Shiva is famous worldwide for her opposition to genetically modified foods and the companies that pervade GM seeds. She calls Golden Rice a hoax, and says there are more natural ways for Indians to get Vitamin A.
SHIVA: You can add a few micrograms of Vitamin A to a white, polished rice, and be thrilled that you have added nutrition. But again, food is not just rice, and definitely for anyone who has even a kindergarten knowledge of nutrition, polished rice is not where you turn to for meeting your Vitamin A needs. You turn to your greens. You turn to your coriander, your curry leaves, something very, very central to our eating.
GRANT: 60% of Indians are farmers, but many don't grow food for themselves any more. Ever since the Green Revolution brought pesticides and fertilizers to India in the 1960's, Shiva says farmers have been growing cotton and rice for the commodities market instead of food for their families. She says they need to be reeducated to grow and eat those leafy greens and other vegetables rich in Vitamin A.
GRANT: But farmers aren't unified in what will be the best future for Indian agriculture. Some are clamoring for the latest technologies. There's a black market for genetically modified cotton seeds.
But other farmers and activists agree with Shiva. Last year, GM opponents convinced the Indian Supreme Court to temporarily ban any new genetically modified crops from being planted, saying the crops were bad for human health and the environment. The ban has since been lifted.
Some farmers worry GM crops could destroy their export market. Northern India in the shadow of the Himalayas is the main world region for growing basmati rice. Basmati is a huge export crop for Indian farmers.
Gurnam Singh is leader of the BKU Farm Union in this state, Haryana. Last year, he got wind that one of the multinational biotech companies had planted an experimental plot of genetically modified rice in the midst of the basmati region. Today, he rides up to that plot on his motorcycle, but there's no genetically modified rice here any more. Singh rallied a group of farmers, at least 100 by some counts. They piled straw over the small test site, poured some kerosene, and basked in the heat of the message they were sending to Monsanto.
GURNAM SINGH: (In Punjabi)
TRANSLATOR: He's saying they met here basically as a sign of protest towards the company, because they were doing something - something, which would harm the farmers, and so basically this was supposed to be a sign of protest for them by burning.
GRANT: That same day, Monsanto telephoned Dr. MS Swaminathan to tell him what had happened. Swaminathan is largely credited for bringing modern farming to India in the 1960s, and for leading efforts to bringing genetically modified crops here today. But when he heard farmers had burned the GM rice plot.
SWAMINATHAN: I was happy, because I thought it was wrong.
GRANT: He says the company shouldn't have planted genetically modified rice in India's basmati rice region, because of the possibility of cross-pollination.
SWAMINATHAN: It was foolish to have gone there, in the heartland of the rice-exporting region, basmati rice, because we all know genetic pollution, gene flow, genetic contamination.
GRANT: Swaminathan says contamination could ruin India's rice trade with Europe, Japan and other countries that don't accept genetically modified imports. But he says there are many places in India where genetically modified crops do make sense, and will be necessary to grow enough food for India's growing population.
SWAMINATHAN: Genetic modification is one more tool, which can help you to overcome certain problems.
GRANT: He remembers when his family couldn't get rice. It was rationed by the government. People were asked to fast one day a week, because there wasn't enough food in India. He says it's time for the government to make policies that will provide enough food.
SWAMINATHAN: Why, because we've got 1.1 billion people today - it will be 1.5 billion - the largest population in the world. Who is going to feed us? A country like India cannot depend on others to feed this population. And I think it's the fundamental duty of a government to ensure the daily bread to everybody.
GRANT: If Syngenta is serious about giving away Golden Rice for free, Swaminathan says it should drop its patents. Syngenta says poor farmers in India will never have to pay for Golden Rice, but the company may want to use the technology elsewhere. So it's holding on to its patents.
There are also questions about how much it will cost to complete development, to distribute seeds, to ensure children actually eat it, and that it provides enough Vitamin A.
Back in Araskulam Village in southern India, Dr. Lakshmi Rahmathullah wouldn't mind seeing Golden Rice on these small farms, but she says for the sake of its children, it's too soon for the Indian government to stop offering Vitamin A supplements.
RAHMATHULLAH: There is no best solution. Offer families fortified rice, offer families fortified salt, offer families Vitamin A solution. Multiple solutions are the best answer.
GRANT: Dr. Lakshmi says the most important thing to offer malnourished families is food they can afford. I'm Julie Grant.
GELLERMAN: Our story on Golden Rice comes to us courtesy of SoundVision Productions in Berkeley, CA. And this update: The Rockefeller Foundation has announced it will provide funds to help Golden Rice pass through the regulatory process in India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and the Philippines.