Golden Rice first hit the headlines in 2000 when it made the cover of TIME magazine with the claim, "This rice could save a million kids a year." Not to be outdone, U.S. President Bill Clinton declared, "If we could get more of this golden rice, which is a genetically modified strain of rice, especially rich in vitamin A, out to the developing world, it could save 40,000 lives a day, people that are malnourished and dying." According to Adrian Dubock, an executive of Zeneca, now part of Syngenta - the GM giant which at one stage hoped to market Golden Rice and commercialise it in richer countries, there was no time to lose: "One month delay = 50,000 blind children [a] month."
An article on CNN emphasized that Golden Rice was ready to be deployed: "GM food scientists have already developed a yellow rice, or ‘golden’ rice, that is rich in vitamin A and iron and helps prevent anemia and blindness, especially in children." An invitation from the United States Congress to a Special Congressional Forum, "Can Biotechnology Solve World Hunger?" went further, declaring that "'golden rice', which has been modified to include certain vitamins… is already saving the sight of thousands of children in the poorest parts of Asia."
But none of these claims were true. Not only was Golden Rice not "already saving the sight of thousands of children", there was no evidence to support the claim that it was capable of doing so.
The critical issue was the levels of expression of beta-carotene. The available figures showed Golden Rice produced only small amounts of this vitamin A precursor, or provitamin A. Worse still, after the rice was cooked, the amount of provitamin A was reduced by another 50 per cent.
This was completely at odds with claims like this one from Zeneca's Adrian Dubock, made in 2000: "The levels of pro-vitamin A that the inventors were aiming at, and have achieved, are sufficient to provide the minimum level of pro-vitamin A to prevent the development of irreversible blindness affecting 500,000 children annually, and to significantly alleviate Vitamin A deficiency affecting 124,000,000 children in 26 countries."
But as the co-inventor of Golden Rice, Ingo Potrykus was forced to concede in 2001 when Greenpeace highlighted the criticisms of the low level of vitamin A precursor obtainable from Golden Rice: “I am happy to acknowledge, that Greenpeace is arguing on a rational basis… I also acknowledge, that Greenpeace has identified a weak point in the strategy of using Golden Rice for reducing vitamin A-deficiency… We will know for sure of course only, when all the standard biosafety assessments have been performed… we need far more data, than we have to date.”
According to Potrykus, “We are, of course, also working on an increase in provitamin A concentration, and there are several possibilities we are testing.” He also said, “We have good reasons to believe, that the approach has a fair chance to be successful. We have to be patient for a few years, until this can be verified or falsified.”
Potrykus wasn’t the only one ready to acknowledge that considerably more work needed to be done. The same year, Gordon Conway, the head of the Rockefeller Foundation, which has funded the development of Golden Rice, wrote: "the public relations uses of Golden Rice have gone too far. The industry's advertisements and the media in general seem to forget that it is a research product that needs considerable further development before it will be available to farmers and consumers."
As the full extent of "the public relations uses of Golden Rice" became apparent, it triggered a critical response in parts of the media. The celebrated food writer Michael Pollan, for instance, wrote of The Great Yellow Hype in The New York Times. Naomi Klein was equally scathing in an article in Canada's Globe and Mail.
Even though today Golden Rice still hasn’t reached farmers’ fields, Ingo Potrykus has claimed this is only because it is being obstructed by excessive regulation of GM crops. According to Potrykus, Golden Rice has been ready to be deployed since 2002. In the abstract of a presentation made to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 2009, Potrykus says that although “Golden Rice will not reach the farmer before 2012… If Golden Rice were not a GMO, development and registration would have been completed by 2002. The difference in time between traditional variety development and that of a GMO-based variety of ten years is due to routine, regulatory requirements. This difference translates, on the basis of the calculated impact, to far more than 400,000 lives lost.”
Other GM promoters have taken their cue from the claims made by Potrykus. Andrew Apel, for instance, has claimed that the critics of Golden Rice may be responsible for more deaths than Stalin during the Great Famine in the Ukraine in the early 1930s in which millions died - the implication being that opposition to Golden Rice represents an even greater crime. Another avid GM promoter, Bruce Chassy, has even gone so far as to claim, "Not to have disseminated the seeds of GR [Golden Rice] until now has allowed as many people to die silently as were killed in the holocaust."
Such highly emotive claims are based on two premises - one, as stated, that Golden Rice has been available to be deployed since at least 2002 and has only been blocked from use by excessive regulation. The other key premise is unstated - that there is no alternative to Golden Rice that could be deployed in combating VAD. We’ll turn first to the question of the availability of Golden Rice.
Problem no. 1: Not enough vitamin A precursor
The first varieties of Golden Rice contained too little provitamin A to effectively combat vitamin A deficiency (VAD). This problem continued until 2005 when Syngenta, which was assisting the Golden Rice project, introduced a new variety of the rice called GR2, and registered it for patenting. In the new strain, the Syngenta scientists replaced the daffodil gene used by Potrykus with a maize gene that produces a significantly higher amount of provitamin A. Note that this only occurred three years after Potrykus now claims Golden Rice was ready to go into farmers’ fields. Efforts to improve Golden rice, by increasing the levels of or the bioavailability of pro-vitamin A and other nutrients, continue. And there are still many unanswered questions which make its reliability uncertain.
Problem no. 2: Unanswered questions
Although the Golden Rice project has not in recent years published even the most simple and basic data, it has repeatedly been claimed that delays in commercialization are due to consumer rejection of GM crops in Europe and exaggerated criticisms by environmental organizations. However, this claim may be designed to deflect attention from the many questions that the project managers, the Golden Rice Humanitarian Board, have so far failed to answer.
(i) Is Golden Rice safe to eat?
No animal feeding trial data have been published, so basic toxicological safety has not been established. This has led to an international outcry from scientists protesting against clinical trials in which adults and children are being fed unapproved and inadequately tested Golden Rice. The results of these trials have not been published as of May 2009.
(ii) Is Golden Rice effective in treating vitamin A deficiency?
Tests on healthy adult humans published online are said to show that the beta-carotene in Golden Rice successfully converts to vitamin A. But the target consumers for Golden Rice are not healthy adults. People who suffer from vitamin A deficiency are frequently deficient in other nutrients, including ones that are vital to the absorption of vitamin A, such as fat. So this is an important question. But no results have been published.
The constantly changing discipline of nutritional science also means that genetically engineering foods for altered nutritional content risks building the current state of scientific ignorance into the crop. A study published in 2012 showed that beta-carotene (a precursor to Vitamin A that's been engineered into Golden Rice) is processed into a number of compounds, not just Vitamin A. Some of these compounds actually block the action of Vitamin A. The authors of the study said this may have implications for Golden Rice: "A concern is that if you engineer these crops to have unusually high levels of beta-carotene, they might also have high levels of these [Vitamin A-blocking] compounds."
(iii) How much beta-carotene in Golden Rice degrades during storage?
(iv) How much beta-carotene is left in Golden Rice after cooking?
No data have been published on this.
(v) What is Golden Rice’s biological and biochemical makeup?
This is inadequately described in published material. Worryingly, GR2 is not a GM variety based on a single transformation event. On the contrary, the scientists who developed GR2 state: “The reported transgenic rice events [emphasis added] are experimental.” Each GM transformation event can result in a completely different variety with unpredictable properties. This is why Europe’s GM approvals process requires “event specific characterization”. This is particularly of concern for the adults and children who are being fed Golden Rice in clinical trials. There is no way of knowing whether all the children or adults taking part in the trials were given Golden Rice from the same GR2 event. So the results of the clinical trials, as yet undisclosed, could be worthless.
(vi) Is Golden Rice stable over time?
No data on this have been published. Other GM crops have been found to be unstable in that their genetic makeup as revealed in tests has differed from that described by the company – and scrambling of the genome at the site of insertion sometimes occurs.
(vii) What environmental risks does Golden Rice present?
No data have been published on the environmental risks of Golden Rice, including the likelihood of its GM genes getting into other cultivated rice varieties or wild relatives.
(viii) Who has evaluated Golden Rice for approval?
Golden Rice has never been through a regulatory/approvals process anywhere in the world.
The Golden Rice Humanitarian Board has not been able to answer these most basic of questions about its product. In an article for FoodWatch, Christoph Then comments, “This lack of transparency calls the entire authenticity of the project into question.”
Problem no. 3: Producing a reliable crop that appeals to farmers
Golden Rice still needs to go through the process of being crossed with tried-and-tested local varieties in order to ensure that the final products can survive in local conditions before it is used in farmers' fields. For any kind of commercial crop, factors such as seed multiplication to a usable level, selection for adaptation to target environments, testing for UPOV requirements, field trials for performance either by breeders or national organisations and seed certification, all contribute to a "time drag" before exploitation.
In a recent submission to the UK's Royal Society, the British Society of Plant Breeders indicated a 10-15 year requirement for production of new cereal varieties in the UK in straightforward programmes which involved little or no research input. The implication was that this estimate would be extended if there was a need for additional research in the initial stages of a programme to introduce an unusual character.
The journalist Ashok B. Sharma, who wrote an article in the Indian press in which Potrykus yet again blamed excessive regulation and the anti-GM lobby for delays in commercializing Golden Rice, pointed out that even in 2006, the product was still stuck in the lab: “Golden Rice in India is still at the stage of development in the labs and the developers are yet to apply for permission for contained field trials and hence Potrykus’ charges against Indian regulatory authority seems to be misplaced.”
Sharma noted, “Scientists at Indian Agricultural Research Institute, Tamil Nadu Agricultural University and BRRI are transferring the new trait into 8 carefully selected Indian rice varieties.” In April 2008, a largely sympathetic article on Golden Rice in the journal Science admitted that, “There’s a long way to go” with this cross-breeding process. The article says, “Both the original Golden Rice, now called GR1, and GR2 were created with Japonica cultivars that are scientists’ favorites but fare poorly in Asian fields. Researchers are now backcrossing seven GR1 and GR2 lines with the long-grained, nonsticky Indica varieties popular among Asia’s farmers.” The article notes that “in early April”, researchers at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines started a field trial with a GR1 backcrossed into a widely used Indica variety. This field trial in 2008 appears to have been the first ever in Asia, some 6 years after Potrykus says Golden Rice was ready to be deployed. Several years of trials are likely to be necessary. “The new varieties,” points out the Science article, “must not only produce enough beta carotene but also pass muster in terms of yield, seed quality, and appearance.”
Note that this laborious cross-breeding process has absolutely nothing to do with regulations demanding that Golden Rice be proven safe to eat or safe for the environment. Instead, it is the most basic product R&D (research and development), such as every manufacturer has to do with every product before it comes to market. In the case of Golden Rice, this R&D process is about trying to produce a rice that is attractive to farmers, performs satisfactorily, and contains enough beta carotene to do what it is claimed to do. It is cynical in the extreme to blame the regulators and critics for the time taken by the type of groundwork that is a prerequisite to marketing any product, GM or not.
Although much basic R&D work clearly remains to be done on Golden Rice, Potrykus’s apparent expectation that GM Golden Rice should be exempt from safety tests seems irresponsible, considering that a number of peer reviewed published studies have shown ill effects of GM foods on experimental animals and the environment. Given that any responsible company would want to conduct several years of field trials regardless of whether a plant variety is GM or not in order to make sure it grows properly, any safety data could be collected while these unavoidable trials are going on.
There are better alternatives
The World Health Organisation (WHO) says that simple, affordable, tried and tested remedies for VAD are already available, including Vitamin A supplementation, which WHO says has already “averted an estimated 1.25 million deaths since 1998 in 40 countries.” According to WHO malnutrition expert Francesco Branca, giving out supplements, fortifying existing foods with vitamin A, and teaching people to grow carrots or certain leafy vegetables are, as things stand, more promising ways to fight VAD than Golden Rice.
And if people really want to go down the food fortification route in solving nutrition problems in the third world, there are alternatives that involve none of the uncertainties of GM. The Dutch food supplement company DSM has created a rice fortified with vitamins and iron that can be eaten like a breakfast cereal, aimed at the 2 billion people worldwide who suffer from vitamin and mineral deficiencies.
In short, there seems little doubt that with the money and the right political will, VAD could be eliminated in a very short period of time. The distraction of attention and big resources to uncertain and expensive techno-fixes like Golden Rice does nothing to make that happen.
Update March 2011:
According to Patrick Moore, GMWatch are "low-life" "murdering creeps", "profiteering on ignorance". Not to mention, "a bunch of murdering bastards" with an "anti-human, murderous agenda." How come? Read: Why Patrick Moore calls GMWatch "a bunch of murdering bastards".
Update Sept 2012:
A probe into cloud of suspicion over GM rice test. People's Daily Online, China, 6 Sept 2012. Newspaper investigates what exactly happened in the Golden Rice trial.
Updates Dec 2012:
China sacks officials involved in GM rice test. Comtex News, 6 Dec 2012.
China sacks officials over Golden Rice controversy. Jane Qiu, Nature, 10 Dec 2012.
"Discrepancies remain over the full details of the trial. For instance, the CDC's investigation revealed that the children ate Golden Rice just once during the study – and not lunch every day during the three-week study as the paper states.
“'How much Golden Rice did the children have exactly?' asks Wang Zheng, a policy researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Policy and Management in Beijing. 'Either the researchers are lying about this now or they lied about it in their paper. It’s a serious offence either way.'"
3. Executive summary of a presentation by Dr. Adrian C. Dubock, of Zeneca Plant Science (now Syngenta) at a conference on sustainable agriculture organised by Friends of the Earth, Oxfam, Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation and supported by the European Commission on "Sustainable Agriculture in the New Millenium: The Impact of Biotechnology on Developing Countries," May 28-31, 2000, Brussels
6. This information was communicated verbally by the scientists who did the testing. See Christoph Then, “The campaign for genetically modified rice is at the crossroads: A critical look at Golden Rice after nearly 10 years of development”, report commissioned by Foodwatch, Germany, January 2009, p. 3
7. Executive summary of a presentation by Dr. Adrian C. Dubock, of Zeneca Plant Science (now Syngenta) at a conference on sustainable agriculture organised by Friends of the Earth, Oxfam, Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation and supported by the European Commission on "Sustainable Agriculture in the New Millenium: The Impact of Biotechnology on Developing Countries," May 28-31, 2000, Brussels.
8. Ingo Potrykus, “Potrykus Responds to Greenpeace Criticism of ‘Golden Rice’”, undated response by Ingo Potrykus to Greenpeace press release, “Genetically engineered ‘Golden Rice’ is fool’s gold”, 9 February 2001, AgBioWorld website
9. Gordon Conway of the Rockefeller Foundation, in a letter to Dr Doug Parr of Greenpeace, 22 January 2001
10. Michael Pollan, “The Great Yellow Hype”, The New York Times, 4 March 2001
11. Naomi Klein, "There's nothing like a feel-good bowl of golden rice. Or not", Globe & Mail (Canada), 2 August 2000
12. Ingo Potrykus, “My experience with Golden Rice”, in Transgenic Plants for Food Security in the Context of Development, document for Study Week, The Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Rome, 15-19 May 2009, p.15
13. Andrew Apel, 'Rogue's gallery opposes Golden Rice', GMObelus, accessed 16 May 2009
14. Bruce Chassy quoted in Golden Lies: The Seed Industry's Questionable Golden Rice Project, A foodwatch report by Dr. Christoph Then, testbiotech, Berlin, January 2012
15. This information was communicated verbally by the scientists who did the testing. See Christoph Then, “The campaign for genetically modified rice is at the crossroads: A critical look at Golden Rice after nearly 10 years of development”, report commissioned by Foodwatch, Germany, January 2009, p.3
16. Paine, J.A., C.A. Shipton, S. Chaggar, R.M. Howells, M.J. Kennedy, G. Vernon, S.Y. Wright, E. Hinchliffe, J.L. Adams, A.L. Silverstone, and R. Drake. 2005. Improving the nutritional value of Golden Rice through increased pro-vitamin A content. Nature Biotechnology, 23, 482-487.
17. “Golden Rice: A dangerous experiment”, bangmfood.org, May 2009
18. “Golden Rice: A dangerous experiment”, bangmfood.org, May 2009
19. Eroglu, A., D. P. Hruszkewycz, et al. 2012. Naturally occurring eccentric cleavage products of provitamin A beta-carotene function as antagonists of retinoic acid receptors. J Biol Chem 287(19): 15886-15895.
20. Humanitarian Board website, 10 October 2008, cited by Christoph Then in “The campaign for genetically modified rice is at the crossroads: A critical look at Golden Rice after nearly 10 years of development”, report commissioned by Foodwatch, Germany, January 2009, p. 3
21. “Golden Rice: A dangerous experiment”, bangmfood.org, May 2009
22. Paine JA, Shipton CA, Chaggar S, Howells RM, Kennedy MJ, Vernon G, Wright SY, Hinchliffe E, Adams JL, Silverstone AL and Drake R. Improving the nutritional value of Golden Rice through increased pro-vitamin A content. Nature Biotechnology 2005, 21, 482-7.
23. “Golden Rice: A dangerous experiment”, bangmfood.org, May 2009
24. “Golden Rice: A dangerous experiment”, bangmfood.org, May 2009
25. Christoph Then, “A Critical Look at Golden Rice”, Foodwatch, 7 January 2009
26. “Royal Society Investigation into biological approaches to enhance food crop production”, British Society of Plant Breeders, undated, p. 3
27. Ashok B. Sharma, “Golden Rice still at development stage”, The Financial Express (India), 28 November 2006
28. Ashok B. Sharma, “Golden Rice still at development stage”, The Financial Express (India), 28 November 2006
29. Martin Enserink, “Tough Lessons From Golden Rice”, Science, 25 April 2008, Vol. 320. no. 5875, pp. 468–471
30. See studies referenced in “Genetically modified (GM) foods - renewed threat to Europe”, bangmfood.org, December 2008
31. “Vitamin A deficiency”, World Health Organisation website, accessed 10 June 2009
32. Enserink, M. 2008. Tough Lessons From Golden Rice. Science, 230, 468-471.
33. Peter Foster, “Fortified rice to save millions of lives each year”, Daily Telegraph, 14 May 2009, accessed 9 June 2009