Science and TechnologyWritten evidence submitted by Golden Rice

I have just read in Prospect magazine that you are seeking explanations concerning the barriers to commercialisation of a scientific idea, whether the Governments policies are a help of a hindrance and whether we need more venture capitalists.

Prospect alludes to poor delivery in Britain of commercial benefits from Watson & Crick’s DNA elucidation in 1954. I work in the field of crop genetic engineering, or rather the promotion of the adoption of a single product of crop genetic engineering. The experience of myself and co-workers I think will cast some answering light on the questions you raise.

Last year I asked to contribute to a regular blog about commercial secrets of crop biotechnology exploitation by the US office of the scientific journal Nature Biotechnology. So far I have not done so, despite all current content being about medical biotechnology, because the deep suspicion—without scientific justification—surrounding “GMO” crops means that even the most deserving projects can get nowhere towards adoption. It is this suspicion which needs to be overcome.

Britain’s policies on removing suspicion are leading within European countries, but are still insufficient. In the last 1O years I have seen excellent British crop biotechnologists put out of work as their commercial laboratories moved to the USA. More recently, I have seen the same thing happen with a major crop biotech company in Germany. This is due to unwarranted and unscientific suspicion of the genetic engineering technology. Genetic engineering of crops is not a panacea for all, but a powerful tool in the crop-breeders toolbox. It can make possible crop traits which cannot be delivered by conventional—and incidentally more random—seed breeding techniques.

The suspicion about the technology is also decreasing dramatically the potential for any UK based revenue growth from crop biotechnology. Germany is probably an example of the direction Britain is going. A German professor colleague—co-inventor of the technology I work with—works in a German state where the new “Green” party state government positively says it will support no genetic modification work on crops. No postgraduate students want to work on the crop biotechnology, as they see no future in it. No research funding is possible for any proposal which includes crop genetic modification.

It is a ridiculous situation that the same genetic sciences and genetic engineering technology is very widely used in the food processing industry (bread and beer and food processing enzymes for example) and medicine (human insulin for diabetes control, and a plethora of new drugs are examples) cannot effectively be harnessed by small start ups of the private sector when applied in crops. It is not funding which is holding back the science, it is ultimately suspicion and untimely and unscientific regulatory requirements driven by societies response to that suspicion, which holds it back. These requirements create a barrier to entry for any but the wealthiest and most determined companies.

The suspicion of genetic engineering of crops is very widespread. Britain can cheaply lead in overcoming it globally as well as in Britain, in a way which I shall illustrate. Overcoming it on a global scale may yet, when subsequently combined with Britain’s intellectual, entrepreneurial and trading capabilities, open up a new seam of revenue for individuals and related tax income in Britain.

Let me give you examples of this suspicion. In the same Prospect magazine issue where I read about your current quest, I also read that to raise Britain’s five-year-post-first-diagnosis cancer survival rates to the European average would have the life saving effect equivalent to preventing one full jumbo jet crashing every other day at Heathrow Airport. The technology I am involved with has the capacity, conservatively estimated, to save the equivalent of six jumbo jets crashing every day. Moreover, the product exists. And further there is no charge for the technology—it is a free donation from its inventors with whom I work.

(Currently I am an unpaid volunteer. Neither myself nor the inventors have any financial incentive from adoption of the product, nor commercial linkages. Apart from funding since late last year from the Gates Foundation only in Philippines and Bangladesh, there is zero other funding currently.)

Let me give you some examples of the prejudice we encounter.

1.Laos is an extremely poor country where our product can significantly benefit the people. The UN’s World Food Programme recognises the problem which needs to be addressed. I visited their offices in Vientiane in September last year, for a prearranged meeting. One arrival I was told “As a UN agency, of course we have nothing to do with GMO crops”. This stance was rapidly changed when challenged. But the attitude is clear.

2.Sightsavers is the “trading name” of the Royal Commonwealth Society for the Blind. They are rightly proud of the work they fund to perform cataract operations, and also distributing donated drugs to prevent blindness caused by a parasite in West Africa.

Recently we asked if they would be interested to spend £155,000 per annum of their £32,000,000 annual income (of which incidentally £3.6 million comes from governments including UK Government) for their work to facilitate adoption of a sight saving project with our product, where the technology will be free of any charge, and existing local public sector institutions need only be catalysed to work together for success, and where the product will prevent the leading cause of blindness in children according to the World Health Organisation. They would not discuss the proposal.

3. I have been invited to speak to a The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) will be holding its XIII quadrennial conference in Doha, Qatar from 21 to 26 April 2012. UNCTAD is a subsidiary body of the General Assembly of the United Nations whose mandate is to promote the development-friendly integration of countries into the global economy through trade, finance, investment and technology issues. In particular at the technology and innovation day that will be held on 24 April 2012. Our project is absolutely about innovation and development. The confirmation of the invitation has been slow in arriving. This week I was informed by the UN organisers: “To be frank with you, after my first email some of our partners started to have doubts about some aspects of the programme of the event, particularly concerning biotechnology. That is the issue that needs to be solved now.”

With respect to the barrier to overcoming prejudice against genetically engineered crops, a successful example is needed with high profile, with no “commercial interest” baggage, and which clearly benefits people. Adoption of our product Golden Rice, would provide the best example of that. Golden Rice is a biofortified crop to combat Vitamin A deficiency. We have human data showing that 40g per day (a Petri dish full) will prevent death and blindness. Even small children in rice consuming societies consume 300g per day, and overdoing is not possible.) And Golden Rice exists. What is needed is adoption. The science has been done—and incidentally the key breakthrough science to the initial proof of concept work was done by British scientists in Britain. And I—who have been working intimately with the inventors for the past 12 years—am also British.

Myanmar is one country where we have contacts who want to proceed with Golden Rice, and the UK and other governments want to engage and encourage the direction of recent policy changes there. Laos is another. There are many others. All that is needed is a tiny amount of funding to allow the catalysis of existing public sector institutions.

February 2012

Prepared 11th March 2013