A food revolution beckons, but few show up
It's the kind of breakthrough scientists often dream about.
They have unraveled the complete genetic blueprint for rice - the staple for more than half of the world's population. The development - a key to future genetic blueprints for other cereals and grains - should make it far easier to engineer better, more nutritious crops that could trigger a second "green revolution," whose predecessor - using more traditional farming and breeding approaches - is said to be running out of gas.
There's just one problem. It's not clear the world is ready for another food revolution if it involves splicing foreign genes into crops.
"The initial expectation that this technology would be rapidly adopted turned out to be a bit optimistic," says Michael Rodemeyer, executive director of the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology. "We're in a stall in the development of new GM foods."
To be sure, farmers are producing more bioengineered crops every year. Farmers have found many of these genetically modified crops quite useful. GM soybeans are cheaper to grow; GM papaya has saved Hawaiian growers from a virus that had made their traditional crop unmarketable. But these remain first-generation GM varieties with only indirect consumer benefits.
The next generation - offering consumers better-tasting, more nutritious, or longer-lasting food - is taking longer than the industry's optimists expected, Mr. Rodemeyer adds.
The reasons are legion, analysts say.
Outside the United States, public reluctance and activist campaigns citing everything from environmental concerns to the extensive clout of multinational corporations have slowed the introduction of GM crops. This resistance led Monsanto last year to shelve the first commercially available genetically engineered wheat. US wheat growers worried that GM-wary global customers would buy elsewhere.
Within the US, where farmers plant more than 167 million acres of GM crops, public unease has been less evident. But some analysts expect that to change as companies genetically engineer crops to make them more nutritious or harness crops to produce compounds for drugs.
Second-generation GM crops also pose a tougher scientific challenge than the first-generation did. The traits researchers want to enhance are likely to involve several genes and complex interactions between the plant and its environment.
In this political and scientific environment, rice is poised to become the latest "crop célèbre" in the ongoing debate over conventional and genetic-engineering approaches to feeding the world.
The new rice genome, pulled together by researchers worldwide under the umbrella of the International Rice Genome Sequencing Project, was completed three years ahead of schedule. Researchers say much of the credit for the speed goes to Monsanto for making available the rice data it had. Scientists picked rice as the first cereal crop to sequence because of its genome's relative simplicity. Other, more complex cereals share rice's genes, often in the same positions in long DNA assemblies known as chromosomes. Thus, rice has the potential to become a Rosetta stone for reading other key cereal genomes.
"That's one of the exciting aspects" about having the rice genome in hand, says Sally Leong, a research chemist with the US Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service lab in Madison, Wis. And the international nature of the project has helped build capabilities within some key developing countries.
Now comes the tricky part, scientifically associating the genes or gene combinations with specific plant traits and processes. As that information becomes available, traditional breeders can use it to identify useful genes and then trace their movement through several generations. By using seedlings alone, researchers speed up traditional breeding. Rice genetically engineered by inserting foreign genes, however, may face a tougher challenge.
Several charitable foundations and international research institutes are working to enhance the level of "micro- nutrients" - trace minerals such as zinc and iron - as well as vitamin A in rice. The enhanced rice could help in the fight against malnutrition.
Yet golden rice so far has languished, partly because of environmental concerns. Some of the countries that could most benefit have imposed regulatory barriers that are too costly for the public project, says Jorge Mayer, golden-rice project manager at the University of Freiburg, Germany.
In the US, meanwhile, a California biotech company proposing to grow GM rice on a 200-acre plot in Missouri was sent packing in April. The rice had been modified to produce two synthetic human proteins for pharmaceuticals. Anheuser-Busch, worried about contamination of conventional rice, threatened to boycott all Missouri-grown rice used in its brewing activities if the project was approved.
In the quest to ease global malnutrition, too much emphasis is being placed on genetic engineering without a sufficient look at the risks and alternatives, says Doreen Stabinsky, a geneticist by training who serves as a science adviser to Greenpeace. "We need a realistic assessment of what the technology can and can't do."