Saturday, February 28, 2009

Eco-superstition kills little brown children

Golden rice was developed to provide vitamin A to children in developing countries which get the majority of their calories from rice. Golden rice contains beta-carotene which our bodies convert to Vitamin A. Vitamin A deficiency leads to risk of blindness, disease, and death. But unfounded fears (aka, superstition) of genetically modified foods has kept it from reaching those who need it - for years.

Vitamin A deficiency is epidemic among poor people whose diet is comprised largely of rice (which contains neither beta-carotene nor vitamin A) or other carbohydrate-rich, vitamin-poor sources of calories.

In developing countries, 200-300 million children of preschool age are at risk of vitamin A deficiency, which can be devastating and even fatal. It increases susceptibility to common childhood infections such as measles and diarrheal diseases and is the single most important cause of childhood blindness in developing countries. Every year, 500,000 children become blind as a result of vitamin A deficiency and 70% die within a year of losing their sight (see http://www.cdc.gov/nccdphp/dnpa/immpact/micronutrient_facts.htm).

Golden Rice ... is able to accumulate beta-carotene in the endosperm, the edible portion of the genetically altered rice grains (see http://www.goldenrice.org/Content2-How/how1_sci.html).

Golden Rice offers the potential to make contributions to human health and welfare as historic as those made by the discovery and distribution of the Salk polio vaccine. With wide use, it could save hundreds of thousands of lives a year and enhance the quality of life for millions more. But one aspect of this shining story is tarnished. Intransigent opposition by anti-science, anti-technology activists - Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and a few other radical groups - has provided already risk-averse regulators political 'cover' to adopt an overly precautionary approach that has stalled approvals.

There is absolutely nothing about Golden Rice that should require endless case-by-case reviews and bureaucratic dithering. As the journal Nature editorialized in 1992, a broad scientific consensus holds that 'the same physical and biological laws govern the response of organisms modified by modern molecular and cellular methods and those produced by classical methods. [Therefore] no conceptual distinction exists between genetic modification of plants and microorganisms by classical methods or by molecular techniques that modify DNA and transfer genes.' [2]

Putting it another way, government regulation of field research with plants should focus on the traits inherent in the host plant and in the introduced genes that might be related to risk-invasiveness, weediness, toxicity and so forth - rather than on whether one or another technique of genetic manipulation was used.

In spite of its vast potential to benefit humanity - and negligible likelihood of harm to human health or the environment - a decade after its creation Golden Rice remains hung up in regulatory red tape with no end in sight (see http://www.goldenrice.org/Content2-How/how4_regul.html).

Regulators and activists are not the only villains of the piece. The media - and even scientific journals (see Ref. [4]) - have been undiscriminating and overly tolerant of the misrepresentations and distortions of anti-biotechnology activists, and politicians have opposed recombinant DNA technology for reasons of trade protectionism.

Judith Rodin, the President of the Rockefeller Foundation, announced in October 2008 that her organization will provide funding to the International Rice Research Institute to shepherd Golden Rice through national regulatory approval processes in Bangladesh, India, Indonesia and the Philippines (see http://www.rockfound.org/about_us/speeches/101708food_prize.shtml).

Although this is presumptive good news, what is really needed is a multi-faceted, aggressive effort to reform regulation so that new genetic constructions will be able to succeed even if they do not enjoy the patronage of a powerful benefactor.

Never mind, you're not a poor brown child in a developing country. Go back to what you were doing.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

A Dash of Nanny-state-ism

The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene wants to force the citizens of New York City to radically lower their intake of salt. They feel that this will lower heart attacks and strokes. The problem is the science doesn't seem to support their radical proposal.

...observational studies do not demonstrate causality. And this kind of research can justify action only when multiple studies produce consistent, robust findings across a wide range of circumstances, as the research on tobacco and lung and cardiovascular health has done.

Nevertheless, the research on salt intake can help identify questions to address in randomized clinical trials, the most rigorous kind of medical research. ...

Only one such rigorous clinical trial on salt intake has been reported so far, and it focused on patients with fairly advanced heart problems. As it turned out, the group that adhered to a lower sodium diet actually suffered significantly more cardiovascular deaths and hospitalizations than did the one assigned to the higher sodium diet.
As per usual, "those who know better" want to force us all to live "better", "healthier" lives. Regardless of the evidence.

Law of unintended consequences, here we come...