December 15, 2013
Remember golden rice? Thirteen years after the cover of Time Magazine heralded the vitamin-A infused grain for its potential to “save a million kids a year,” golden rice is back in the headlines, with backers drawing closer to approval in the Philippines, and anti-GMO activists ramping up their campaign against it—going so far as to destroy a valuable test crop there in August.
The scenario may seem like déjà vu for those who have followed food politics for a while. “Proponents of food biotechnology are still talking about golden rice? Sigh,” says New York University nutrition professor Marion Nestle, PhD, in her recent Food Politics blog.
Nutrition or distraction
But this time, the stakes may be higher. At a time when GMO labeling initiatives are in the works in dozens of states and public interest in the issue is at an all-time high, the debate over golden rice gets to the root of one of the stickier questions in the feud over genetic engineering in agriculture. If it turns out that genetically-modified crops can truly save lives in developing countries, should organic advocates still unequivocally oppose them?
In recent months, two famous former anti-GMO activists— Greenpeace founder Patrick Moore, and British environmental activist Mark Lynas—have come to the defense of golden rice, with Moore accusing its opponents of “crimes against humanity.” The New York Times has also chimed in, with columnist Nicholas Kristof tweeting that “Leftist hostility is so frustrating! It would reduce the number of kids dying of Vitamin A deficiency.” In September, Scientific American came out with an editorial explicitly opposing mandatory labeling of GMOs, because it would “strengthen the stigma against a technology that has produced enormous benefits to people in developing countries, and promises more.” It goes on to accuse anti-GMO activists of using “misinformation and hysteria” to delay the planting of golden rice.
Meanwhile, some skeptics of the technology are accusing the biotech industry of using golden rice as a suspiciously timed PR ploy and a Trojan horse to unleash GMOs on the developing world. Others say it’s simply too soon to declare it safe.
“Although there is potential for doing good, the harm has not been thoroughly evaluated, and it would be inappropriate and risky to put it out there before that happens,” says Mark Kastel, co-founder of the Wisconsin-based Cornucopia Institute, a farm policy research group.
A long time coming
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 250 million pre-school aged children are deficient in vitamin A, a critical immune-boosting nutrient found in animal products like milk, eggs, cheese and liver. No plants contain it, but the body can make it from beta-carotene—the rich red-orange pigment found in foods like sweet potato, kale and carrots. Roughly 500,000 go blind annually as a result of this deficiency. Others suffer developmental disabilities. According to some estimates, as many as 3 million die each year from immune deficiencies that arise from not getting enough A.
In countries where the staple food is white rice, and fresh fruits and vegetables are hard to come by, incidence of vitamin A deficiency is particularly high. For decades, nonprofits have handed out vitamin A supplements but in the early ‘90s, WHO expressed a preference for a different, more “sustainable” approach—“favoring locally available foods and taking into account local food habits.”
Enter Ingo Potrykus, a professor emeritus at the Institute of Plant Sciences in Zurich, Switzerland, who devised a plan to infuse white rice with vitamin A. “As the necessary genes for such an improvement were not available in the rice gene pool, genetic engineering was the only technical possibility,” he explained in a recent paper in Agbioworld. He says he approached Nestlé for funding support in the early ‘90s but was declined. So he and his research partner Peter Beyer toiled independently for years on the project, ultimately splicing genes from daffodils and bacteria into the rice to synthesize beta-carotene production and thus produce the golden color.
When Adrian Dubock, PhD, who was then working for biotech company Zeneca Agrochemicals (now Syngenta) got word of the project, he was intrigued. “We were thinking it could be a product sold to people in America and Europe who wanted to increase their antioxidant intake and improve macular degeneration,” recalls Dubock. He approached the inventors seeking commercial rights, and they responded with a different idea. “They said, ‘We want to make it available free of charge to help people in developing countries who suffer from vitamin A deficiency.’ I suggested a way to combine forces.”
They made a deal in which Syngenta acquired access to commercial rights to the technology, rights the company maintains but has never exercised. In return, the inventors got funding for further research and the right to provide their technology free of charge to public rice-breeding institutions who could then pass it along to small farmers who made less than $10,000 annually to use as they pleased. Those farmers would need no license, and would then be able to “plant, harvest, save seed, and locally sell golden rice,” as they wish, says Dubock.
“It was the first time anything like this had been done before,” he says, noting that golden rice was also the first crop intentionally biofortified to add a nutrient. Most GMO crops add qualities like insect and pesticide resistance that have little apparent value to the end consumer. Syngenta swiftly issued a press release and soon pro-biotech ads flooded the air waves, billing golden rice as a cure-all to “help prevent blindness and infection in millions of children.”
Skeptics like Michael Pollan fought back, pointing out that, due to poor bio-availability, “an 11-year-old would have to eat 15 pounds of cooked golden rice a day—quite a bowlful—to satisfy his minimum daily requirement of vitamin A.” Even one of the project’s major funders, Gordon Conway , head of the Rockefeller Foundation, reportedly took issue with the over-the-top PR campaign, stressing that “it is a research product that needs considerable further development before it will be available to farmers and consumers.”
Thirteen years and $15 million later, the rice has been significantly refined so it contains far more beta-carotene. One recent study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that 100-150 grams of cooked golden rice provided 60% of the RDA of vitamin A for a child. Dubock has since retired from Syngenta and is now executive secretary of the Golden Rice Humanitarian Board, spearheading the effort to see it approved.
"I am confident that within the next 12 months we will see it registered as safe for man and the environment,” in the Philippines, he says, predicting that Vietnam, Bangledesh, India and China will follow after. “It’s just so unjust that people in the world have had to die and go blind because some wacky ideologues are determined to block a technology that can help them. I never thought it would take this long.”
But golden rice is clearly not out of the woods yet. In August, a group of 400 protesters stormed a test plot in the Phillipines, trampling and uprooting plants to the condemnation of genetic researchers from across the globe.
In September, the Organic Consumers Association issued a press release suggesting that the “suspiciously timed” resurrection of golden rice in the news was a “public relations stunt” by desperate biotechnology defendants wanting to convert voters who haven’t made up their mind about GMOs yet in the run-up to several labeling initiatives. Dubock bristles at this suggestion, claiming there have been only three or four press releases issued in the history of the project, and that recent attention resulted from the anti-GMO lobby upping its efforts.
Ben Lilliston of the Minneapolis-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy says he still firmly opposes golden rice, but for reasons that often don’t make the news. “The main issue when thinking about technological solutions to hunger is this: Who is controlling the technology and is it really helping people feed themselves?” he says, noting that several farming organizations in the Philippines, including PAKISAMA and SEARICE oppose golden rice.
“The very nature of genetic engineering is that someone owns the technology via patents and they are setting it up to control the system. That is the opposite direction we need to go. We need to empower farmers,” says Lilliston. He points to the introduction of Bt corn in the Philippines as an example of the potential negative fallout of biotech intervention: “Farmers lost access to traditional varieties. They can no longer share or exchange seeds with other farmers, and they are paying double the cost for GE seeds for what is largely the same yield, leading to increasing indebtedness.”
Feeding the world?
Kastel agrees. He believes research into the environmental and health impacts of GE crops has been “proactively impeded” by biotech companies, and he still questions their safety for human consumption. Golden rice—which is explicitly targeted to pregnant women and children—is no exception.
Does Kastel ever see a day when he could endorse a genetically engineered crop for humanitarian good? “You get them to raise the cloak of secrecy around these things and open it up for wide unbiased scientific investigation, and then you come back to me in five years and I will be in a much better position to say yes or no. Until then, I will err on the side of caution.”
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