Researchers in Switzerland and Germany have developed a strain of genetically-modified rice, which they say could save the sight of up to 250 million people. But opponents say the money could have been better spent on developing natural alternatives.This content was published on January 19, 2000 - 11:41
Researchers in Switzerland and Germany have developed a strain of genetically-modified rice, which they say could mean an end to a leading cause of blindness and death among children.
Researchers at the Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich and the University of Freiburg in Breisgau, Germany, have developed rice plants which stimulate the body to produce Vitamin A.
Official figures show that Vitamin A deficiency is the leading cause of blindness. It affects up to 250 million children, and makes them more susceptible to other diseases.
The nine-year research programme has resulted in rice plants that produce grain rich in beta-carotene, which the body converts to Vitamin A.
Professor Ingo Potrykus, a plant biologist at the ETH and head of the research project, said certain genes from the daffodil were transplanted into rice plants stimulating them to produce "fair amounts" of beta-carotene in polished rice.
He said there was no risk that people could be exposed to too much Vitamin A, if they eat large amounts of this genetically-modified rice.
He said that as far as he was concerned there were no scientific problems preventing the rice from going on the market, and that the lack of "public acceptance" of GM technology was the only obstacle.
Economic development experts described the rice as a breakthrough in efforts to improve the health of millions of malnourished people. But others, such as the Swiss development aid organisation, Swissaid, didn't share the enthusiasm.
Miges Baumann, the head of information on agriculture and environment, said the money could have been better spent on developing alternatives such as cassava leaves, palm oil and sweet potatoes, which all contain large quantities of Vitamin A.
"I think there is a big problem that all funding money goes into genetic engineering and not into other research such as conventional breeding and other more holistic methods."
By Paul Sufrin
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