The Great Debate

The endless debate over genetic engineering

Last month a popular do-gooder website featured a curious headline: “400 Farmers Destroy Life-Saving Rice Crops, and That’s a Good Thing.”

The story went on to describe how a mob in the Philippines — not farmers, as the headline wrongly claimed, but a motley group of city kids and political activists — trampled a test plot of Golden Rice, a blazingly yellow, genetically modified variety that contains snippets of DNA extracted from maize and a bacterium. Golden Rice was designed to be high in beta-carotene, a precursor of Vitamin A that is lacking in the diet of many in Asia and beyond. Upwards of a million deaths and perhaps as many as half a million cases of childhood blindness annually are caused by a deficiency of Vitamin A.

The incident in the Philippines wasn’t the first time that protestors have destroyed fields of genetically modified (GM) crops. Others trampled include grape vines in France, sugar beets in Oregon, potatoes in Belgium, wheat in Australia — the list goes on.

But the attack on the potentially lifesaving rice seems especially cruel. And it has reignited the interminable debate over genetic engineering.

These crops were originally talked about as an answer to world hunger. By combining genetic materials from different species, wheat, for example, could be made to withstand high temperatures or drought; or bananas could be crossed with a virus to function as a vaccine for those who consumed it.

Sequestration as government malpractice

In regard to the Food and Drug Administration, the sequestration could ultimately cost lives.

Breakthrough medicines that could save lives may not reach patients as fast as possible, in part because FDA funding has been cut by $209 million — or more than 5 percent. That figure includes $85 million in user fees already paid by industry, but frozen by Congress.

Those affected are people who have run out of options for other treatments. There is a process to expedite FDA approval for breakthrough drugs. But because of sequester cuts, the FDA won’t have the staff resources to get the lifesaving drugs to patients.