The potato will join a growing stable of other genetically modified staple crops. Just this July, biotechnologists at the Queensland University of Technology announced that they had created a vitamin A-enhanced “golden banana.”
But while researchers are keen to tout such crops as potentially transformational, the reality is that these foods are slow to have an impact. Golden rice was heralded with splashy headlines declaring its potential to save millions of lives when it was unveiled in 1999. But 18 years later, it still has yet to be marketed commercially.
One problem is that genetic engineers don’t always have control over where exactly the beta-carotene enhancing transgenes land in the target organism’s DNA, said Glenn Davis Stone, a professor of anthropology and environmental studies at Washington University and a longtime observer of golden rice.
It was only earlier this year that the International Rice Research Institution in the Philippines — the world’s top rice research institution and the center of the effort to commercialize golden rice — felt able to submit the enhanced grain for regulatory approval.
Before that, Stone noted, its yields were significantly lower than the same rice without the “golden” trait, “probably because the trait had been inserted into a gene that controlled root development.”
IRRI anticipates that the first high-yield varieties of golden rice will be available toward the end of the decade.
As for the chances of the golden potato and other new superfoods making it to market, Stone is skeptical.
“Universities and other research labs regularly put out press releases saying they have developed a GM crop that will help feed people,” he told Seeker. “Lycopene-enhanced tomatoes, sorghum with more digestible protein, iron-enhanced cassava, vitamin-E-enriched canola, and so on.”
“The biotech industry has shown no interest in commercializing these crops,” he added. “These potatoes will never be commercialized.”
Another challenge to crops like the golden potato is the fact that vitamin A is fat soluble, meaning we can only absorb it if it comes with enough dietary fat. As VAD often affects people with a generally poor diet, this is by no means assured.
In one heavily cited human trial of golden rice from 2012, the participating children were eating the rice as part of a balanced meal in which 20 percent of the calories were from fat. As Stone suggested in a 2015 blog post, this demonstrates only that golden rice successfully imparts vitamin A to children who don’t need it.
He pointed out that over the past decade or so, the Philippines has succeeded in slashing its VAD rate without using golden rice.
“For some reason, the GMO supporters who claim to be deeply concerned about VAD have not celebrated this,” Stone said.
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