First off, I realize I haven’t posted in a while but I have been working on this post for a long time and it got pretty long so please don’t be scared off by that. I promise it’s thorough! And now, for the information, thoughts, all that good stuff:
Golden rice is a variety of rice rich in beta-carotene (also written as β-carotene), a substance which the human body converts to vitamin A. Vitamin A is an important vitamin and helps with vision and immune function among other things. Beta-carotene gives carrots, pumpkins, and sweet potatoes their orange color and is responsible for the color and name of golden rice.
A single bowl of golden rice provides 60% of a child’s daily vitamin A needs. The rice could potentially help children in developing countries where vitamin A deficiency can lead to blindness and increased vulnerability to a number of diseases. Since many of these developing countries are in Asia where rice is often a staple, golden rice could be substituted for less nutritional rice to help alleviate vitamin A deficiency. According to a 2011 study, supplementing vitamin A can reduce child mortality of all causes by 24%. And golden rice can play a key part in alleviating vitamin A deficiency in the future.
At first golden rice sounds like an amazing solution to a number of problems, but unfortunately it isn’t that simple. Here comes the controversial part: golden rice is genetically modified. Scientists had to manipulate the genome of the rice plant to make it produce beta-carotene in its grains. (You can earn more about genetically modified organisms and my thoughts on them in my earlier post.) It is the genetic modification of golden rice that led a group of protesters to destroy a test plot of the rice in the Philippines earlier this month.
Though I disagree with the protester’s actions and reasoning, the event did have one positive outcome. It got people thinking and talking about golden rice in all its controversy. And people like Michael Pollan had a lot to say. Most of the scientific community strongly support golden rice. On the other hand, environmental groups like Greenpeace fight violently against the development of golden rice largely because of their dogmatic opposition to all GMOs. That said, I think they do bring up some good points that should be addressed.
First of all, is this solution effective and efficient? It’s true that golden rice doesn’t address the root problem that contributes to malnutrition in developing countries: poverty. But poverty is a complicated problem rooted in deep-seated political and societal factors. Long-term solutions to poverty are therefore complicated and require huge gradual changes. In the meanwhile though, I think that golden rice provides effective short-term aid, especially compared with other potential solutions.
Currently, some programs give vitamin A supplements (called mega doses) to children in developing countries twice yearly. Though this only costs $1 per child per year, there are several millions of children who need this help and it is a recurring cost. As economist/scientist Alexander Stein points out, many logistical problems arise when we consider the “lack of qualified medical personnel” in these countries and that “children in remote rural areas or in urban slums may not be reached and older children and adults are not covered at all.”
Golden rice on the other hand would be given to farmers for free. After that single first handout, the crop would likely spread naturally as the farmer replants the seeds the next season and distributes the rice and seeds to others. The technology gets to many people with little recurrent costs.
Some may make the argument that golden rice is just a marketing tool, something to help the PR of big businesses like Syngenta (the company that initially contributed intellectual property to the development of golden rice royalty free). It looks good to consumers that these companies seem to be working on such a admirable humanitarian cause. I agree that these companies may play the “we’re helping all the poor kids” card too often. However, the humanitarian intentions and origins of the golden rice project are undeniable. Golden rice was developed by two professors, the Swiss Ingo Potrykus and German Peter Beyer, not by any agribusiness giant with a stake in the American seed industry. The original idea for the plant came from a discussion in 1984 at the International Rice Research Institute (or IRRI), the NGO that is currently testing plots of golden rice.
The project has been in the works for 20 years or so. As Greenpeace estimates, tens of millions of dollars have been spent on golden rice, much of which game from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Many people and organizations like Greenpeace often doubt golden rice because of how long it has taken to develop. However, the project might be coming along faster if it weren’t from the harmful opposition of groups like Greenpeace itself.
Also, it is easy to understand why the process would take this much time and money. A lot needs to happen between the moment the idea is introduced and the moment people can start growing and eating the crop. It took about 10 years to find the right gene to trigger beta-carotene production in rice and to figure out how to implant this gene into the rice genome. In 2005, Syngenta introduced golden rice 2, with a higher amount of beta-carotene than the first prototype. After this, studies and tests must be done to see if the genetic engineering caused other changes in the plant’s nutrition, growth, or disease-susceptibility among other things. Lastly the palatability and effectiveness of golden rice as a vitamin A supplement must be tested. And it has been tested, with positive results.
One 2012 study on 68 children showed that “β-carotene in [golden rice] is as effective as pure β-carotene in oil and better than that in spinach at providing vitamin A to children” (Tang et al.). The children’s blood was tested to deduce the level of vitamin A present after eating spinach, golden rice, or pure beta-carotene in oil. There are debates about the validity of this study because the children tested weren’t vitamin A deficient as the target population is. That said, I still find this early study promising as it provides evidence that humans can metabolize the beta-carotene in golden rice.
From my view, the time that it is taking to fully test the crop counters some of Greenpeace’s arguments about the unintended consequences of genetic modification on the genome of the rice plant, the environment, and the health of the people eating the food. In a 2012 Greenpeace report, Though some of these are valid scientific concerns, I have faith that the people at IRRI are doing all they can to ensure the safety of the crop before distributing it (which will likely happen in the next two years).
One of Greenpeace’s concerns is that golden rice seed and pollen could contaminate the stock of traditional rice varieties in nearby fields. Rice is wind-pollinated so cross-pollination is common and as the Greenpeace report points out, there are already records of rice contamination (from non-GMO varieties). This contamination is a real possibility. For me though, the potential for good (relieving vitamin A deficiency across developing countries) outweighs the potential for bad (the possible contamination of the seed of traditional rice varieties).
Overall, despite some downsides of the crop, I support the continuing study and development of golden rice alongside author Michael Pollan, scientist/economist Alexander Stein, and environmental activist Mark Lynas.
If you agree with me about the potential of golden rice, I would urge you to sign this petition to show your support of the crop. Whichever side you’re on, make sure to check out my sources at the bottom for more information.
I find golden rice fascinating because it represents for me the positive potential of GMOs when they are developed in the right hands for the right reasons. I maintain my position against other GMOs because the majority of these crops are completely different than golden rice in every way: they were created with different intentions by companies with notoriously bad business practices. The place these GM crops hold in America’s pesticide-ridden large-scale agriculture and the industry that backs it is virtually the opposite of the place that golden rice could hold for citizens and societies of developing countries. Instead of paying the greedy, monopolistic seed companies (who are often the same as the pesticide companies) year after year as some American farmers do, farmers in developing countries could save their golden rice seed for free and they wouldn’t be under the control of any corporation.
In fact, my main opposition to GMOs comes from how they are used currently, not the process of genetic modification itself. And I believe that golden rice is being used in a truly beneficial way. It’s not perfect nor is it going to solve the root problems that cause vitamin A deficiency, but I think it’s a great crop, a great idea, and a great start.
I know I bashed the big seed companies pretty hard earlier so once again I would encourage you to check out my earlier posts on GMOs as well as other sources of information and different perspectives before forming your own opinion on GMOs. The issue is so complex and it is always best to hear from both sides.
The Alexander Stein writing I mentioned:
The Greenpeace writing I mentioned:
Other favorite articles:
All my other sources: