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Golden Rice And Beyond

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Ingo Potrykus

Professor Emeritus, ETH Zurich, Switzerland; Member of Academia Europaea; and Recipient of the

International Society for Plant Molecular Biology 2000 Kumho Science International Award



The term "golden rice" was coined by a Thai businessman

who is active in initiatives aimed at reducing

the birth rate, a major cause of the food security

problem. As it turned out, the term "golden rice" has

proven to be enormously successful in piquing the

interest of the public. (I gave up tallying its mention

in the popular media after more than 30 television

broadcasts and 300 newspaper articles, but I am still

busy with requests for interviews every week.) It is

difficult to estimate how much of its celebrity stems

from its catchy moniker and how much is from the

technological breakthrough it represents. Needless to

say, we live in a society that is strongly influenced

(not to say manipulated) by the media. As the popular

media live by selling news, "catchy" names are

especially useful in attracting the interest of media

consumers. The "story," however, must also be accompanied

by an important message, in this case,

that the purely altruistic use of genetic engineering

technology has potentially solved an urgent and previously

intractable health problem for the poor of the

developing world. And this is my first message and

my response to Chris Somerville's (2000) contribution:

I, too, believe in the power of education and

rational discourse. However, after more then 10 years

on the frontlines of the public debate concerning

genetically modified organisms (GMOs), I have

learned that even with the help of the media, rational

arguments succeed in influencing only a small minority

of the public-at-large. In short, rational arguments

are poor ammunition against the emotional

appeals of the opposition. The GMO opposition, especially

in Europe, has been extraordinarily successful

in channeling all negative emotions associated

with the supposed dangers of all new technologies as

well as economic "globalization" onto the alleged

hazards presented by the release of GMOs into the

food chain. This is one reason why the story of "golden

rice" is so important: In the short history of GMO

research, "golden rice" is unique in having been embraced

by the public-at-large. The reason for this, I

believe, lies in its emotional appeal: People are truly

concerned about the fate of blind children, and they

are willing to support a technology that offers the

children at risk the opportunity to avoid blindness.

I fully agree with the opinion of Maarten

Chrispeels (2000) that "food security" for developing

countries is one of the major challenges for mankind.

I believe that scientists, as a privileged group of

citizens, have more than an academic responsibility

to advance science: They must also accept a higher

social responsibility and, wherever possible, use science

to help solve the important problems not of

industry, but of humanity. In this respect our scientific

community is not in balance, and the public

senses this intuitively. This, in turn, has made it easy

for the GMO opposition to wage a war of propaganda

against our work with arguments to the effect

that we are only pretending to work for mankind, or

are only satisfying our own egos, or are working

merely for the profits of industry. For example, laypeople

often ask if food security for developing countries

is such a dire problem, and if scientists feel that

GMO technology should be developed to contribute

to a solution, then why are so many scientists working

on Arabidopsis and so few on those plants that

feed the poor? Of course, one can pontificate about

the importance of basic research and how all the

knowledge gained from Arabidopsis will ultimately

expedite the improvement of major crops, but one

realizes that the average citizen remains emotionally

unswayed by such arguments. The public's skepticism

is heightened by the fact that many scientists do




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