Golden rice here at long last

Fourteen years ago, scientists developed a genetically engineered version of rice that would promote the production of vitamin A to counter blindness and other diseases in children in developing countries.

In a few months, the Philippines will become the first country to start giving ''golden rice'' out to its farmers. Bangladesh and Indonesia will follow suit soon, and India is seriously considering it. Good, but 14 years is rather a long time, isn't it? The number of children in developing countries who went blind from vitamin A deficiency during that time (half of whom died within 12 months of losing their sight) runs into the low millions (the World Health Organisation estimates that between a quarter-million and a half-million children a year go blind from vitamin A deficiency).

''Golden rice'' contains beta-carotene, an orange-coloured pigment that is a key precursor chemical used by the body to make vitamin A. Sweet potatoes, carrots, spinach and butternut squash are naturally rich in beta-carotene, but ordinary white rice contains almost none. And rice is the most important food in the diet of about half the world's people.

So what caused such a delay in getting it out to the farmers? It was created by Peter Beyer, professor of cell biology at Freiburg University in Germany, and Ingo Potrykus of the Institute of Plant Sciences in Switzerland in the late 1990s, and was ready for field trials by 2000. But the first field trials were delayed for seven years by protests from Greenpeace and other environmental groups, and crossing various regulatory hurdles took another six.

Both the protests and the regulatory hurdles were based on the notion that genetically engineered plants are ''unnatural''. Which automatically raises the question: which human food crops are actually ''natural'', in the sense that you will find them growing wild in nature? Answer: none. That's why ecologist Stewart Brand has proposed the phrase ''genetically engineered'' (GE) in lieu of the more common ''genetically modified'' (GM) on the grounds that ALL domesticated plants have been genetically modified, by cross-breeding or by blasting seeds with radiation. None of them would survive in the wild.Gene-splicing is just a more efficient and neater way of achieving the same goals.

Much of the early opposition to GE was no more than a superstitious fear of the unknown, and there was also genuine concern that it might pose health risks to consumers. The way that GE crops were first introduced was bound to arouse opposition. In 1996 Monsanto, the world's leading biotech company, began to market GE versions of corn, soybean, cotton, canola, sugar beets and alfalfa that had been engineered to tolerate glyphosate, a very effective herbicide that the company had been selling with great success as ''Roundup'' since 1974. The patent on ''Roundup'' was expiring in 2000, allowing glyphosate to be made by rival companies. But in practice Monsanto's patents on the new GE seeds extended its monopoly for decades more: farmers could buy glyphosate wherever they wanted, but to use it to best effect they had to buy Monsanto's herbicide-resistant seeds (called, of course, ''Roundup Ready'').

But it's now clear that GE crops pose no health risk. North Americans have been eating them for fifteen years, whereas Europeans scarcely eat them at all, but there is no significant difference in disease and death rates that can be linked to GE food. Meanwhile crop yields have risen dramatically, herbicide and pesticide use has declined, and no-till farming that cuts carbon dioxide emissions because of ploughing has become far more common.

The opposition to GE crops never came from farmers, and it is now in steep decline in the general public, as well. There are seven billion of us now, and there will be at least eight and a-half billion before the human population of this planet stops growing. Moreover, as living standards rise in most formerly poor countries, diet is changing, too, and much more meat is consumed. To meet that demand, even more grain is needed. We are using 40% of the land surface of the planet to grow our food. That is already too much, because replacing the complex natural ecology with our mono-crop agriculture removes vital elements from the chemical and biological cycles that keep our climate stable. As environmentalist Jim Lovelock, the author of the Gaia hypothesis, put it: ''We cannot have both our crops and a steady, comfortable climate.''

But perhaps we could have it both ways if we cut back to, say, 30% of the planet's land surface devoted to agriculture. Or 25%. The point is that we must reduce the area we are farming, not increase it. The only way to do that is to raise crop yields dramatically. Genetically engineered crops may be able to meet that demand. There are no other proposed solutions on the table.

• Gwynne Dyer is an independent London journalist.

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