Golden Rice was engineered from normal rice by Ingo Potrykus and Peter Beyer in the 1990s to help improve human health. Golden Rice has an engineered multi-gene biochemical pathway in its genome. This pathway produces beta-carotene, a molecule that becomes vitamin A when metabolized by humans. Ingo Potrykus worked at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, Switzerland, and Peter Beyer worked at University of Freiburg, in Freiburg, Germany. The US Rockefeller Foundation supported their collaboration. The scientists and their collaborators first succeeded in expressing beta-carotene in rice in 1999, and they published the results in 2000. Since then, scientists have improved Golden Rice through laboratory and field trials, but as of 2013 no countries have grown it commercially. Golden Rice is a technology that intersects scientific and ethical debates that extend beyond a grain of rice.
Farmers have long relied on genetic diversity to breed new crops, but in the early 1900s scientists began to study the importance of plant genetic diversity for agriculture. Scientists realized that seed crops could be systematically bred with their wild relatives to incorporate specific genetic traits or to produce hybrids for more productive crop yields. The spread of hybrids led to less genetically diversity than normal plant populations, however, and by 1967, plant scientists led an international movement for conservation of plant genetic resources through the United Nations's Food and Agricultural Organization, and later through the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research, both of which are headquartered in Europe. To conserve plant genetic resources, researchers must collect and store plant germplasm-the genetic material required to propagate a plant-usually in the form of a seed.
Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov proposed theories of plant genetic diversity and participated in the political debate about genetics in Soviet Russia in the early twentieth century. Vavilov collected plant species around the world, building one of the first and most comprehensive seed banks, and he spent much of his life researching plant breeding and genetics. Vavilov also developed a theory of the historical centers of origin of cultivated plants. Vavilov spent most of his scientific career in Russia, although he studied abroad and traveled extensively. The ascent of geneticist Trofim Lysenko, favored by Joseph Stalin, and Vavilov's public criticism of him lead to Vavilov's arrest in 1940 and his death in prison three years later.
In the early twentieth century, scientists and agriculturalists collected plants in greenhouses, botanical gardens, and fields. Seed collection efforts in the twentieth century coincided with the professionalization of plant breeding. When scientists became concerned over the loss of plant genetic diversity due to the expansion of a few agricultural crops around mid-century, countries and organizations created seed banks for long-term seed storage. Around 1979, environmental groups began to object to what they perceived as limited access to seed banks, and they questioned the ownership of the intellectual property of living organisms. Controversy also ensued over the uneven flow of genetic resources because many of the seed banks were located in the global North, yet plants were collected largely from countries in the global South. The environmental groups' campaigns, which some called the seed wars, and the movement for biodiversity conservation intersected in ways that shaped debates about plant genetic material and seed banking. Several significant shifts in governance occurred in 1994 that led to the creation of the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute in Italy, and to changes in the governance of several international seed banks.
The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, referred to as the Plant Treaty, was approved on 3 November 2001 by Members of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), headquartered in Rome, Italy. The FAO is an agency of the United Nations, headquartered in New York City, New York. The Plant Treaty established international standards for the conservation and exchange of plant genetic material between participating countries. Plant genetic material is a term for plant germplasm, the physical material used by plants to reproduce themselves, and the term connotes seeds, vegetative propagations, and DNA. Plant genetic resources are the collective genetic diversity of plant species in the laboratory, farm, and field. They are described as resources because of their value for food and agricultural purposes.