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Vitamin A deficiency causes blindness and death in tens of thousands of children worldwide each year. Researchers are now testing “super bananas,” genetically engineered to add alpha and beta carotene, which the body converts to Vitamin A. Another project, begun more than a decade ago, engineered carotene-enriched “golden rice.” Traditional plant breeding is also creating “biofortified” staple foods like cassava and sweet potatoes. We explore how “super foods” might address nutrition and health concerns here and around the world.
- Dan Charles Food and Agriculture correspondent, NPR
- Erick Boy Nutrition manager, Harvest Plus
- Gregory Jaffe Director, Biotechnology Project, Center for Science in the Public Interest.
- Sheldon Krimsky Professor, Urban & Environmental Policy & Planning, Tufts University.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThey call it a super banana, orange in color. It's been genetically engineered to include carotene for vitamin A. In nearly half of the countries in the world, Vitamin A deficiency blinds and kills tens of thousands of children. The super banana follows a project more than a decade in the making aiming to bring fortified golden rice to Asia. Scientists hope that building specific nutrients into staple foods can help address malnutrition.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIMeanwhile, other projects are using traditional plant breeding methods to up the vitamin content in staple foods like cassava and sweet potatoes. And right here at home there are soy beans with heart healthy oil growing on the eastern shore of Maryland. Joining us to discuss all of it, this is Greg Jaffe. He is director of the Biotechnology Project at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Greg Jaffe, thank you for joining us.
MR. GREGORY JAFFEThank you.
NNAMDIErick Boy also joins us in studio. He is a medical doctor and the nutrition manager at Harvest Plus, an international organization that breeds crops with enhanced nutrition. Erick Boy, thank you for joining us.
MR. ERICK BOYThank you.
NNAMDIJoining us from studios at NPR is Dan Charles, NPR's food and agriculture correspondent. Dan, thank you for joining us.
MR. DAN CHARLESNice to be here.
NNAMDIIf you have questions or comments, give us a call at 800-433-8850. What do you think of the idea of a super banana to address vitamin A deficiency? Do you think some of the malnutrition issues around the world can be solved through technology, 800-433-8850? Or you can send email to email@example.com, shoot us a tweet @kojoshow. Erick Boy, the focus of the two highest profile projects, the super banana and the so-called golden rice is vitamin A. How much of the world suffers from a lack of vitamin A and what effects does it have?
BOYThe WHO, the World Health Organization, estimates that about 250 million children under the age of 5 suffer from vitamin A deficiency, mostly in developing countries, Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia principally.
NNAMDIIn east Africa, plantain type bananas are a staple but they don't pack much of a nutritional punch. Dan Charles, can you tell us a little about the super banana? What's the idea?
CHARLESWell, the idea is it really does follow in the footsteps of some other projects like the golden rice project. You put some new genes into the banana, it produces more beta carotene. The idea is if people who are already eating lots of this type of banana continue eating this new type of banana, they'll get more beta carotene in them. It'll increase their vitamin A levels. And the idea is they'll be healthier. That's the idea.
CHARLESYou know, this banana project is at a very, very early stage and there are many, many hurdles to get over before it actually has a health effect.
NNAMDIIt's my understanding it's being tested right now in Iowa. What are they looking at, Dan?
CHARLESIt's a very simple scientific question. That is, if people eat this banana, does the beta carotene in the banana actually get converted into a nutrient in the person's blood? Now, in Iowa people are getting -- you know, these people in the experiment probably have plenty of vitamin A in their -- are getting plenty of vitamin A already. So nobody's hoping for any kind of health benefit for them. It's just measuring this so-called bioavailability, bioconversion.
NNAMDIGreg Jaffe, this follows the well-known project known as golden rice. Can you talk a little bit about that?
JAFFESo golden rice is a similar project where scientists have engineered a couple of genes into rice to make it product beta carotene. And the idea, again, would be that this would be given to developing country farmers and to their families who are vitamin A deficient. They would eat this rice. The beta carotene would be uptake into their body if it's bio-available, as Dan said. And then this would help them prevent some of the diseases that Erick had talked about.
NNAMDIDan, it's been more than a decade and it's my understanding this rice is still in the testing phase. What are some of the challenges with golden rice?
CHARLESSo let's take them step by step. The first challenge is getting the gene into the plant and getting it working. They've solved that. The next challenge is breeding that particular characteristic into varieties that farmers might actually want to grow, you know. So there's lots of different varieties of rice out there. Some of them adapted for different regions and different tastes.
CHARLESSo there's -- you know, they've gone through a long process of breeding it into varieties that people in say the Philippines might want to actually grow and might actually want to eat. There's also the step of getting government approval. That they have not yet crossed. It has not been approved for, you know, commercial scale production anywhere. And then you have the additional, you know, marketing issue of getting farmers convinced that this is a good thing to grow, that it's profitable and/or nutritious for them. And then you have the, you know, difficulty of persuading consumers that it's something they actually want to buy and eat.
CHARLESErick Boy can talk more about the -- a similar project that was not a GMO project where they really did, I think to a great degree, solve that marketing problem with its sweet potato, just a regular old sweet potato but it's deep orange in color and also has lots of beta carotene in it. In Mozambique, for instance, you know, they've had a major effort to try to introduce this new vitamin A rich sweet potato into commerce. And they've had quite a lot of success with it. You know, the final hurdle of course is demonstrating that it actually is benefitting people's health. And that's got its own difficulties.
NNAMDIErick Boy, care to add to that, the success they've had with it? The consumers in Mozambique find it palatable, find it delicious, if you will?
BOYSure. And the effort has been taking place in Uganda and Mozambique. In Uganda we are deploying orange sweet potato and high-iron beans as well. And right now we have reached about 100,000 households with this nutritionally enhanced crops. And acceptability is very high. We can't keep enough.
NNAMDIWell, Dan Charles, back to government approval that you mentioned earlier because golden rice ignited debate as does the super banana over GMO foods. Given that these are genetically modified foods, what kinds of regulatory issues has that raised?
CHARLESWell, there's regulatory issues -- you know, a government has to decide whether these are safe and will be approved. But behind that regulatory decision is this political debate about whether people want it, right. And golden rice in particular has become a symbol of genetic engineering, good or bad. The banana's, you know, not really on the radar yet and so no debate really has erupted around it. But golden rice, from the very beginning -- and this is partly because the promoters of biotechnology really seized on golden rice as kind of an arguing point saying, see this is good for people. And it was on the cover of Time Magazine and everything.
CHARLESAnd so people who are suspicious about genetic engineering and the genetic engineering project and technology, you know, they've been very suspicious of golden rice, seeing it as kind of this propaganda tool. So there's all that boiling around. And some of the arguments are, you know, critics of golden rice say, there are better ways of solving the vitamin A deficiency problem. And the proponents come back and say, okay there are other ways but this could be good too, so let's try it, right.
CHARLESAnd there -- you know, and some people say, well you can't -- you know, you haven't proven it's safe. Well, you know, there's no evidence it's not safe and there's a lot of evidence that it is probably just fine. So what level of assurance do you want before you go ahead with something? There's all these kind of cultural and political debates around it.
NNAMDIHence the regulatory issues. Greg Jaffe, you can also weigh in on these environmental concerns, but given that these foods are aimed at impoverished communities, does that affect the debate or raise any ethical concern?
JAFFESo to go a little more into the regulatory issues, when you are engineering a crop you're introducing a new gene that usually produces a new molecule like a protein. And so one wants to make sure that although 99.9 percent of the genes are from rice and are something we've already eaten, you want to make sure that one new gene and any molecules made from that are safe to eat, so one of the issues is a food safety issue.
JAFFEAll the current crops that are grown in the United States that are genetically engineered I think is very safe to say those are safe. I also think that probably when you -- that I think the data that I've seen so far on golden rice and what's likely to be there, that there's not likely to be a food safety risk. The other issue is of course these plants are released into the environment and you want to make sure there's no environmental concerns or agricultural concerns that are raised from those. That you want to make sure that you're not in fact producing something that's going to impact the ecological environment around it.
JAFFESo those are the two environmental issues. And the second one , the environmental one is an issue of management because agricultural -- agriculture itself is extremely detrimental on the environment. So when farmers are growing things, you're impacting the environment, the water, the air and so forth and so on. So I think those are some of the regulatory issues that need to be dealt with.
JAFFEWhen you're talking about a developing country, those regulatory systems aren't as advanced as ours. And although some of those countries like the Philippines have very strong scientific communities and scientists available to assess some of those, the regulatory systems in those countries are much more primitive. And they need to come along and be ready to handle these genetically engineered crops. And that's when the issues that Dan Charles talked about, the political issues come into play because it's in setting up the bio safety law, the bio safety regulations where that debate occurs about whether we even want to look at this technology as a possibility.
NNAMDIErick Boy, your organization, as Dan mentioned, is working on creating more nutritious varieties of various staple foods, but using traditional plant breeding methods. You mentioned the sweet potato. There's cassava. How do researchers go about creating a more nutritious version of something like a soy bean or a sweet potato using conventional methods? And what's that piece -- that ear of corn that's sitting between you and me have to do with this?
BOYYeah, I'll talk about the ear of corn in a little bit. Conventional plant breeding is basically what Mendel used to do in the 16th century. He -- what the birds and the bees do with plants, they help the pollen move from one plant to the other. Harvest Plus has invested in accelerating the natural process of breeding plants. And the way curse is that first we find out what is already out there in nature, so how much iron, so to speak, is in beans.
BOYAnd if this specific crop has sufficient variability of iron -- they say there are some bean varieties with very high iron, then we say okay, we can breed these high-iron right into highly-productive bean plants. And then we do the crossing and then we take it to countries, like what's explained before, and see whether these crops adapt to those soils and environmental conditions. And then it's produced as a public good that is made available to farmers at no additional cost. And basically it's accelerating the work of the birds and the bees story.
NNAMDIAnd, as you said, the farmers have been breeding hybrid versions of food since the beginning of agriculture. But it's my understanding that technology has made it much easier to select the varieties you want to test. Can you talk about that?
BOYYes, correct. In the past one had to let the plant grow and produce seeds in order to see what the traits were that had been made possible to breeding. Nowadays through molecular biology, one can detect that trait in the seed before it grows into a plant and matures into al mature product. So you can select the seeds before letting it complete its lifecycle so that you accelerate the process by, you know, several years.
NNAMDIDan Charles, in the '60s the green revolution brought technology and higher yields of crops that could feed the booming population. Could this be the next green revolution? We'll have Dan answer that question after we take a short break. But in the meantime you can still call us at 800-433-8850 or you can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Do you think some of the malnutrition issues around the world can be solved through technology? Do you think agriculture researchers are too focused on higher yields and not enough on nutrition, 800-433-8850? Or you can send email to email@example.com. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're discussing so-called super foods and creating more nutrition in food. We're talking with Greg Jaffe, director of the Biotechnology Project at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Erick Boy is an MD and the nutrition manager at Harvest Plus, an international organization that breeds crops with enhanced nutrition. And Dan Charles is NPR's food and agriculture correspondent.
NNAMDIDan, before we got to that break I was asking you in the '60s the green revolution brought technology and higher yields of crops that could feed the booming population. Could this, that we were just discussing with Erick Boy, be the next green revolution?
CHARLESThat's a big question.
NNAMDI...requiring a short answer.
CHARLESI don't know. I don't know. I think that the -- my own feeling is that this nutritional push on the part of plant breeders and the biotechnology community, it's important and it's good. But I suspect that it's of marginal significance compared to some other sort of big trends that you have, you know, around land use and different kinds of crops. And just the general push of, you know, whether populations are more prosperous or not.
CHARLESUltimately poverty and malnutrition is mostly driven by poverty, you know, and that's a product of really big complicated social trends. But that's, you know, ultimately the driving force, I think.
NNAMDIWe're talking about creating new varieties of foods like bananas and sweet potatoes, both through conventional methods or plant breeding but also through genetic engineering which is of course highly controversial. I'd like to bring Sheldon Krimsky into this conversation. He joins us by phone from New York. Sheldon Krimsky is a professor of urban and environmental planning and policy and planning at Tufts University and board chairman of the Council for Responsible Genetics. Sheldon Krimsky, thank you for joining us.
MR. SHELDON KRIMSKYSure thing, yeah, glad to be here.
NNAMDIWhat are some concerns about creating new varieties of bananas, for example, to contain alpha and beta carotene?
KRIMSKYWell, I mean, theoretically it's a great idea to create more nutritional foods. We do it all the time by adding components into foods. And I don't want to repeat what your informed guests have already said so let me say that everything is in the details. And we cannot treat the plant genome as a Lego system.
KRIMSKYIn other words, when you put a foreign gene into it, not only does it add the protein that that gene codes for, but it can also interact with the other genes in the system. It can create unexpected effects and therefore that's why the Europeans have a requirement for testing the products. We don't have such a requirement in the United States. In 1992 basically the FDA had ruled that foreign genes were not the same as putting a foreign chemical into food. So that set the stage for where we are today.
NNAMDIMost commercial food manufacturers, Sheldon, have focused on things like higher yields and pesticide resistance. What do you make of the focus now on nutritional values?
KRIMSKYWell, I think it's a positive move for the biotech industry. And somebody mentioned of course the communication about golden rice, which was the biotech industry's first plant to try to convince the public that they really were doing something in the public interest. In theory, I think it's fine but let me give you an example on this banana situation.
KRIMSKYThere is a website called ClinicalTrials.gov. All the clinical trials that are supported by government and that would be published in respective journals would be on this site ClinicalTrials.gov. So I looked before I came on this morning to see whether or not the banana clinical trial was listed and it wasn't. So what does that tell us? I mean, here we have all this notification that there's a clinical trial that's either beginning or whatever and we don't even see it listed on ClinicalTrial.gov.
KRIMSKYAnd we have to remember also that in the case of golden rice, there was a clinical trial down in China with children that was heavily criticized. And I have to say one of the principle investigators was at my own university up in medical school. And there was an intense investigation about the ethics of that particular clinical trial.
KRIMSKYSo on one hand, we've got to do this right. If we want to add anything into the food we've got to make sure that the clinical trials are done correctly. We've got to make sure that there's a lot of published results before we even do it. So I went on to PubMed which is the major, you know, directory of publicans in the United States to see whether there was any interesting publications on this banana. And there really weren't any. There was just one publication on the possibility of carotene banana. It was a theoretical publication.
KRIMSKYSo I'm wondering, where is all the publication on this so that the scientific community can assess what is known, what kinds of risks they're considering, what kinds of effects they're looking for in the final product, etcetera. And so far it looks very sparse. It looks like it's mostly information that business information.
NNAMDISheldon, you say where you differ with some others is in the idea that this stuff does not have to be tested. The U.S. doesn't feel that testing is necessary. Can you talk a little bit about that and how we differ from Europe in that regard?
KRIMSKYWell, as I said, when the regulation for biotechnology arose in the early '90s one of the outcomes was that the U.S. system would treat genetically engineered products and crops the way they would treat hybrid crops. And many of us feel that when you genetically engineer a crop, you're doing something quite different than either selecting a crop for a particular use or hybridizing crops. Because you're putting a genetic component into the crop that would never have gotten there under any natural circumstance.
KRIMSKYAnd we also know, again, that the genome of the plant is more like an ecosystem than it is a Lego system, so that when you put a gene into the crop you have to consider what other things might happen in that plant, whether you're going to create more or fewer phytoestrogens, whether you're going to change the protein structure or the level of toxins in the plant. All of these are possible. All of these were mentioned in the 2004 report by the National Academy of Sciences when they spoke about unintended consequences of genetically modifying plants.
NNAMDISheldon Krimsky is a professor of urban and environmental policy and planning at Tufts University and board chairman of the Council for Responsible Genetics. Sheldon Krimsky, thank you for joining us.
KRIMSKYYou're very welcome.
NNAMDIIt's clear we're not going to resolve the GMO debate here but food for thought I want to move on to projects here in the U.S. Greg, we've talked about building extra nutrition into staple foods to address malnutrition around the world, but there are also experiments tweaking food here in the U.S. to improve their health properties. Can you talk about the soybeans growing on Maryland's eastern shore?
JAFFESure, I can but I just want to reiterate that Sheldon is correct that there isn't a mandatory premarket approval process at FDA right now for those genetically engineered crops. And CSPI has spent and I've spent as the director there many, many years trying to convince congress and the industry that what they do need is a mandatory premarket approval process.
JAFFEWith that said, they do have those companies, and the products that we're eating today that are genetically engineered have been tested using the best standards that the international community has decided are important. And many of those crops, while they aren't approved in the U.S., are approved in Canada, the EU, Japan and other countries. And so there is a lot of safety data that is generated to prove their food safe.
JAFFEIn terms of the crops, there is several -- there is at least one crop that I'm aware of that's been genetically engineered for a nutritional benefit and that is the high oleic soybeans. So soy bean -- this is both done by DuPont and also by Monsanto. And I visited some farmers who were growing these high oleic soybeans on the eastern shore of Maryland a few months ago.
JAFFEAnd what this has is a different oil profile, a different fat profile for the fatty acids that are in that soybean -- the oil made from that soybean. And depending on how it's being used, for example it's replacing palm oil, that would be a nutritional benefit to the consumers that are consuming that product.
NNAMDIErick Boy, can you now tell me about the ear of corn?
BOYYes, of course. And it comes right to the point that Gregory was addressing. This ear of corn is deep orange in color and it was developed in the U.S. at Perdue University to contain high levels of beta carotene. It contains between 15 to 20 times the beta carotene that yellow corn in developing countries containing...
NNAMDIYou can see a photo of that ear of corn at our website at kojoshow.org. Please go ahead.
BOYYes. And Purdue University is now working on an application of corn, which contains high levels of another micro nutrient known as (word?) which addresses a health concern here in the United States, which is the degeneration of the macula densa and blindness in people. And so that corn is going to be released in the U.S. this summer by Perdue University. And that's an application of conventional plant breeding that is...
NNAMDIIt certainly looks very appetizing. We're running out of time, Dan, but while we're on the topic of food and nutrition, I want to bring up a new study just released on organic food. Dan, can you tell us a little bit about that?
CHARLESRight. So there was -- what they did -- this was a study in the narrow sense. They gathered together this enormous pile of literature, 300 some studies that had been done on this or that food, anything that compared directly, food grown under, you know, conventional practices on food and the same food grown organically. And they did this comparison of the nutrient profile.
CHARLESThis was, in some sense, a response to a study that came out two years ago where the headline was, organic is no better for you than conventional. Well, this new study, the headline is, organic is maybe a little better for you than conventional. And what they specifically focused on was one particular kind of nutrients that go by various names but you can group them together and call them antioxidants.
CHARLESNow the exact health benefit of antioxidants is you've got to say a little murky. But there are a lot of scientists who say that there is a benefit in terms of sort of fighting off disease, strengthening immune system, you know, sort of repairing cells and so forth. Now, you know, bottom line though is eat more fruits and vegetables, whether they're organic and conventional. Because the difference -- I have to say the difference is not so overwhelming that it makes a huge amount of difference.
NNAMDIDan Charles is NPR's food and agriculture correspondent. Dan, thank you for joining us.
CHARLESYeah, it's my pleasure.
NNAMDIErick Boy is an MD and the nutrition manager at Harvest Plus, an international organization that breeds crops with enhanced nutrition. Erick Boy, thank you for joining us.
BOYMy pleasure. Thank you.
NNAMDIAnd Greg Jaffe is the director of the Biotechnology Project at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Greg, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDI"The Kojo Nnamdi Show" is produced by Michael Martinez, Ingalisa Schrobsdorff, Tayla Burney, Kathy Goldgeier, Elizabeth Weinstein and Andrew Katz Moses (sp?). Brendan Sweeney is the managing producer. Our engineer is Toby Schreiner. Natalie Yuravlivker is on the phones. Podcasts of all shows, audio archives and free transcripts are available at our website kojoshow.org. To share questions or comments with us, send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, join us on Facebook or send a tweet @kojoshow. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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