Have you heard of golden rice? It’s possibly the genetically modified product with the most controversy around it – a hard title to snag – because of its goal: to eradicate malnutrition in some of the world’s poorest societies.
Golden Rice is rice that has been genetically modified to biosynthesize beta carotine, a precursor to vitamin A – a vitamin that many people lack, especially in Asia and Africa. Vitamin A Deficiency is especially prevalent in children and pregnant women, with often dire consequences: An estimated 250,000 to 500,000 vitamin A-deficient children become blind every year due to this deficiency, half of them dying within 12 months of losing their sight. According to the World Health Organization, vitamin A deficiency can only be eradicated worldwide if both short-term nutritional supplements are distributed and in the long-term, vitamin A rich diets and food fortification is embraced.
This is where the Golden Rice comes in – it combines two favorable attributes in that rice is a staple food that is widely consumed, even in households with very low incomes. Secondly, it could provide the consumers with a natural source of vitamin A and thereby contribute to the eradication of that nutritional deficiency. Children are also often weaned on rice gruel, making rice an ideal vehicle to target their nutritional needs. An ingenious solution, right?
So why the controversy?
Because of its background goal linked to development cooperation, Golden Rice has often been seen as the “wunderkind” of genetically modified organisms and has been heralded as such by biotech companies. According to Neth Dano from the ETC group, the crop finally gives companies the opportunity to substantiate their claim that gen-tech is good for the poor, and effectively end a decade-long discussion. Thus, many ardent GMO opponents doubt whether the crop is more than a marketing ruse and would have any tangible benefits for the purported target group – children and mothers in developing countries.
This doubt in its effectiveness, in addition to the opposition by many environmentalists to the uncertain ecological risks associated with the introduction of a new species and potential crossbreeding, led to a rife debate on whether the GM crop should be approved for planting by governments – if its effects are below expectations, biotech companies would have still gained access to important markets where they could sell their products. In the Philippines, where researchers have undertaken the first field tests, the crop is currently still under consideration under the biosafety approval process.
Speaking of the crop’s effects, there has also been great discord over whether it actually reaches its goal of remedying vitamin A deficiency. Two recent tests have found that the beta-carotine in the rice grains is easily absorbed by humans and that “a 100- to 150-gram bowl of Golden Rice should give children about 60 percent of the daily vitamin A they need.” On the other hand, it has not yet been proven that daily consumption of Golden Rice actually improves the vitamin A status of people who are vitamin A deficient in the long term and would therefore be suitable to reduce related conditions such as night blindness.
Furthermore, NGOs argue that there already exist local, low-cost, efficient nutrition programs which combat vitamin A deficiency, and where the money invested in the development and marketing of Golden Rice would have been better spent. They allege that the concerted push to bring the crop to market has been carried out without sufficient public consultation and risk assessment, and are suspicious of the underlying corporate interests.
On the other hand, the researchers behind the program express frustration with the bureaucratic hurdles they have to overcome to finally bring an idea to life that could improve the lives of millions of people. They also reject corporate involvement: “We have developed this in conjunction with organisations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as a way of alleviating a real health problem in the developing world,” says Adrian Dubock, a member of the Golden Rice Project. “No one is going to make money out of it. The companies involved in developing some of the technologies have waived their licences just to get this off the ground.” (More on the licence waiving can be found here.)
What do you think? Is Golden Rice an ingenious idea to effectively combat malnutrition or a clever, if useful, marketing stint by biotech companies?
Bonus: For an interesting history of how golden rice went from brainchild to reality, head on over to the NPR story on the same issue. The International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines also has a transparent and informative blog about Golden Rice here. For an interesting dichotomy of opinions, I have two links for you: one from Foodwatch, an NGO which sees the issue very critically, and a Guardian article interviewing many of the researchers that collaborated on the project which hope for its speedy introduction.