Golden Rice is not going to solve the complex societal and public health problems underlying Vitamin A deficiency
Here are three excellent articles that go the heart of the problems with Golden Rice.
1."Golden Rice" not so golden
2.Missing the story on Golden Rice
3.Golden Rice: No Silver Bullet
NOTE: Check out the GMWatch resource page on Golden Rice with multiple links to other relevant articles plus reports, as well as 3 revealing charts showing the rapid decline in the problem of Vitamin A deficiency in the Philippines in recent years *without any use of Golden Rice*.
1. "Golden Rice" not so golden
Ground Tuth, 5 September 2013
Last month, a few news outlets carried a story about Filipino farmers trampling a test plot of genetically engineered (GE) “Golden Rice.” The news triggered a swift avalanche of more stories and opinion pieces, with ample space devoted to Golden Rice proponents’ harsh accusation that skeptics and critics are holding back a desperately needed, promising technology and, in so doing, are causing children’s deaths around the world.
We’ve seen all this before: both the promises that ultimately fail to deliver, and the attempts to silence those asking important questions. Why, after 30 years of research and millions of dollars poured into development of this supposed miracle seed, are we still talking about Golden Rice?
In reality, there is no new news here: Golden Rice is no closer to solving the complex societal and public health problems underlying micronutrient deficiencies than before (I’ll get into that below). We are simply getting bombarded again with the same broken promises from industry and the same prickly defensive reaction from GE scientists that play out in the mainstream media with some regularity. Having written on this topic years ago, I share Marion Nestle’s frustration with the “broken record” nature of this old argument.
But can it deliver?
Golden Rice is promoted as a technological intervention that can reduce Vitamin A Deficiency (VAD), a type of malnutrition that can cause blindness, stunting and even death. The yellow-tinted rice is touted as a way to help vulnerable populations fight VAD by delivering beta-carotene, a carotenoid which, under the right conditions, the body can convert into Vitamin A.
Can Golden Rice really accomplish this laudable goal in an efficient and effective way, or at least contribute enough to the battle against VAD to justify its expense? In considering this, it's important to get to the bottom of the following questions:
After storing and cooking, will there be sufficient carotenoid levels left in Golden Rice to have an impact?
How much remaining carotenoid will actually be "bioavailable" for already malnourished bodies to convert?
And are there likely, unintended health and safety risks associated with consuming Golden Rice?
We don’t know the answers to these questions, in large part because the necessary studies have not been completed (two flawed and controversial studies notwithstanding). Or if they have been conducted, they have not been published or released for public and independent scientific scrutiny. What we do know suggests that there are still pretty significant hurdles to be overcome by the Golden Rice developers, if their product is to have any relevance.
The bigger problem with the narrow technical fixes favored by the biotech industry and lab scientists, however, is that they fail to take into account the complex underlying social, economic, political and cultural drivers of micronutrient deficiencies and malnutrition.
So far, Golden Rice has swallowed up millions of research dollars over the past two decades and filled our media outlets with hype — but has failed to deliver. This failure is particularly harmful when one considers the enormous opportunity costs of the effort: diversion of attention, precious resources and support away from the established solutions that really work.
Although not nearly as glitzy as Golden Rice’s high-tech, lab-based genetic manipulations, the everyday, on the ground solutions to VAD and other micronutrient deficiencies continue to make considerable headway. Significant progress in many countries has been reported by the UN Standing Committee on Nutrition, UNICEF, the World Bank, USAID and other agencies, with success attributed to the use of vitamin supplements, fortification of foodstuffs (sugar, flour, etc.) and home gardens to diversify diets and enable lasting community-based solutions. But these solid, inexpensive workhorse solutions get scant attention in the media.
There’s also a larger political context to keep in mind: farmers’ access to land, seed and water, the influence of pesticide and biotech seed companies over national agricultural research and extension, and global trade agreements that influence the price of export commodities all strongly influence the ability of a family to grow, sell and buy food. So multi-tiered efforts to address malnutrition must also be backed by sustainable and equitable trade and development policies. This in turn requires that the farmers themselves, and social movements that are demanding and creating just and viable solutions on the ground, need to be in the forefront of these debates.
The politics of story-telling
The “Golden Rice will save children’s lives (and how dare you stand in the way)” message is a particularly heated version of one that has been getting lots of play in the mainstream media these days. The insidious problem with the media’s facile uptake of this industry frame is that it silences — rather than encourages — debate. And it sets up false choices: either you swallow our technical fix, despite its failure to deliver on its promises, or you consign millions to misery and death.
Fortunately, we do not have to fall for this. We can think for ourselves and examine the story behind the story. And we can draw our own conclusions.
p.s. For an incisive dissection of how the interests of powerful industry players and philanthro-capitalists have converged in ways that continue to push narrow and inappropriate GE “solutions” to complex problems, see Sally Brooks’ pieces, here and here: http://www.opendemocracy.net/sally-brooks/investing-in-food-security-on-philanthrocapitalism-biotechnology-and-development
For many more critiques, see the list of resources provided by GM Watch here:
2. Missing the story on Golden Rice
IATP, 6 September 2013 http://www.iatp.org/blog/201309/missing-the-story-on-golden-rice
In the wake of protests in the Philippines over genetically engineered Golden Rice, a series of articles have appeared in the U.S. mainstream press (e.g., the New York Times) and alternative publications like Slate and Grist, all coming to the vigorous defense of the latest incarnation of this wonder rice designed to prevent malnutrition. Through veiled and at times explicit condescension, the U.S. media consensus seems to be that opposition to this wonder rice is based on scientific ignorance: Why wouldn’t you want to address global malnutrition?
A gaping hole in U.S. coverage is the perspectives of Philippine farm organizations, like the Asian Farmers Association affiliate PAKISAMA, or really anyone from the Philippines who opposes Golden Rice. By not including these voices, these reports miss a fundamental issue at the center of all issues around genetically engineered (GE) foods: power. Who controls the technology? Who controls what farmers can grow, and what people eat? Not coincidently, these questions are also at the center of addressing global hunger.
While most GE crops have virtually no benefit for eaters (they are fed to animals or used as ingredients in processed food or are non-food items like cotton), Golden Rice has always been touted as the exception. Golden Rice, still in the pipeline after more than a decade of research, intends to boost Vitamin A levels in rice and promises to address a number of nutritional challenges, including blindness, for the world’s hungry.
Opposition to Golden Rice needs to be placed in the global context of how the biotech industry has relentlessly and aggressively (with the assistance of the U.S. government) thrust this technology on the rest of the world. Resistance to GE crops is widespread around the world among both developed and developing countries, often led by farmers and aligned organizations. SEARICE (the Southeast Asia Regional Initiatives for Community Empowerment) offers insight by describing the experience of Philippine farmers after the introduction of GE Bt corn: corn 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.
Farmers have had similar experiences with GE crops all over the world, where legal and policy frameworks (bolstered by global trade rules) empower biotech seed companies over the rights of farmers and communities.
SEARICE writes in their critique of Golden Rice: “The issue on GMO is not on genetic engineering per se, but on how this has been used and is being used to wrest control and access over plant genetic resources on which the farmers’ over time have been the stewards and innovators so that we would have sufficient food to eat and raw materials for the wide range of economic and industrial uses […]. Science and technology then for the farmers should be able to strengthen not supplant their traditional knowledge and it should democratize access to plant genetic resources and not control or monopolize it.”
While Golden Rice supporters argue that it is different than other GE crops—it has a “Humanitarian license” which sublicenses the technology to public research institutions and low-income farmers in developing countries free of charge—SEARICE points out that Syngenta still holds the commercial rights to the Golden Rice patent for some mysterious future use.
Suggesting that we have to pick between supporting Golden Rice or mass malnourishment is a false choice. What if the billions of dollars (and now over a decade of time) spent on developing Golden Rice had instead been invested on a program supporting food sovereignty goals linked to farmer and consumer empowerment, like what Philippine groups are calling for: increased capacity for technical support and farmer-led seed breeding; promotion of the many other locally produced natural food sources of vitamin A; and encouraging the planting of small, bio-intense gardens in homes and communities.
At the heart of efforts to push for GE labeling here in the U.S., to opposition to new GE crops in Europe, the Philippines, Chile or India, is power. Who controls seeds, who controls the research agenda, who controls what happens on the farm, and who controls what we feed ourselves? These are all issues on which the biotech industry hasn’t ceded an inch– they want it all. Power is not an issue the scientific community likes to talk about openly, but journalists can and should.
3. Golden Rice: No Silver Bullet
Katherine Paul and Ronnie Cummins
Organic Consumers Association, 5 September 2013
Thirteen years after Golden Rice was featured on the cover of Time magazine under the headline "This Rice Could Save a Million Kids a Year," biotech's golden child is back in the headlines. Just when public opposition to genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is at an all-time high, and the biotech and junk food industries are once again pouring millions of dollars into a campaign to defeat laws that would require labels on foods containing GMO ingredients.
Coincidence? Industry spokespeople say the suspiciously timed resurrection of Golden Rice in the news is not a public relations stunt aimed at converting GMO skeptics. But absent any new news on a crop that hasn't gained traction in more than a decade, the move looks more like an act of desperation than a legitimate defense of biotechnology.
After all, in the real world, the genetic engineering that has taken over vast tracts of cropland, the kind that has led to the proliferation of crops that require drenching our soil and polluting our waterways with obscene amounts of toxic herbicides and pesticides, has little in common with the DNA tinkering that produced Golden Rice.
But the real issue is this. Golden Rice is no closer to saving the world's kids than it was 13 years ago. Because then, as now, there is still no proof that it can. And better alternatives exist.
In case you missed the fuss, in a nutshell, Golden Rice is engineered to contain high amounts of Vitamin A. Its target market includes children in impoverished regions of the world who are susceptible to blindness resulting from diets deficient in Vitamin A. The grain's first iteration, GR1, was discovered to contain Vitamin A in quantities too low to make a difference. GR1 was followed by GR2, engineered to contain Vitamin A in much higher quantities.
More Vitamin A in a bowl of rice, better nutrition, healthier kids. It sounds good on the surface, but as scientists point out, it's not that simple. Here are just a few of the reasons scientists say Golden Rice is not a silver bullet.
The wrong food for the wrong regions.
According to Dr. Michael Hansen of the Union of Concerned Scientists, both GR 1 and GR 2 (released in 2005) are Japonica rices - the sticky, short-grained variety that grows only in drylands. But in the areas where people are starving and/or Vitamin A-deficient, the vast majority of the population eat Indica rice, a long-grained variety that grows in submerged rice paddies.
And, as food writer Beth Hoffman wrote recently in Forbes magazine, Africans, who make up 25-35 percent of the world's Vitamin A-deficient population, don't eat rice:
"Therefore, even more than convincing people to switch from white sweet potatoes to orange, for example, or from yellow corn to that with a more orange hue, the challenge of getting large numbers of Africans to eat Golden Rice will be enormous."
Not proven safe.
What little safety testing that has been done on Golden Rice has been inadequate and controversial. In February 2009, a group of 22 international scientists and experts complained that clinical trials of Golden Rice had been conducted on adults and children, in breach of the Nuremberg Code, and that the trials had been "inadequately described in terms of biological and biochemical makeup."
In an open letter to Prof. Robert Russell at Tufts University School of Medicine, who was in charge of the clinical trials, the scientists backed up their concerns with a large body of evidence showing that genetically engineered crops produce unintended effects, which can result in damage to health. "There is no evidence to suggest that Golden Rice is any safer than these GM foods," the scientists concluded.
Other scientists, including Hansen, question Golden Rice's safety on the basis of its containing retinoic acid (RA). RA is a potent teratogen, which is a substance linked to birth defects. Hansen points out that RA is the active ingredient in an acne medication that will not be prescribed to women of childbearing age.
"When I pointed out at the Philippine House of Representatives that GR experiment led to an unexpected increase in β-carotene, and that they should look at RA levels, since there are only two steps in a metabolic pathway between β-carotene and RA, and since trying to engineer biosynthetic pathways can cause all sorts of unintended effects, the IRRI scientist could produce no data on RA levels, much less the levels of other retinoids. He argued that people have been eating foods such as carrots, that are high in β-carotene levels (higher than the levels of GR), for hundreds of years, yet there's no evidence of a big problem with birth defects. I had to point out that people and the food they eat have long co-evolutionary history. If there had been varieties of carrots that did have high RA levels that lead to birth defects, those carrot varieties would tend not to be used over time."
No proof of beta carotene stability over time.
Beta carotene, the primary source of Vitamin A in Golden Rice, breaks down when exposed to oxygen and light. That leads experts to wonder if genetically engineered Golden Rice that has been stored for several months still provides higher levels of Vitamin A. We don't know, because we have no studies on the longer-term stability of beta carotene in Golden Rice. Says Hansen:
"So, the real question is what are the β-carotene levels in rice that has sat in storage at room temperature for month or two, similar to the local storage conditions for those who might grow this rice. Again, no studies have been done."
Better Vitamin A alternatives exist.
As World Health Organization (WHO) nutrition expert Francesco Branca and more recently, Michael Pollan and others point out, there are better ways to provide Vitamin A-rich diets than relying on an unproven genetically modified "techo solution." That was also the conclusion drawn back in 2009, by Dr. Mae-Wan Ho and Prof. Joe Cummins of Institute of Science in Society, who advocated a combination of food fortification, food supplements and general improvements in diets as a way to improve both Vitamin A consumption and absorption. They cited a United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) study that revealed that the absorption of pro-vitamin A depends on a person's overall nutritional status, which in turn depends on the diversity of the food consumed. Ho and Cummins wrote:
The main cause of hunger and malnutrition in the Third World is the industrial monocultures of the Green Revolution, which obliterated agricultural biodiversity and soil fertility, resulting in ever-worsening mineral and micronutrient deficiencies in our food. Golden Rice, like other GM crops, is industrial monoculture only worse, and will exacerbate this trend, as well as the destruction of agricultural land, and the impoverishment of family farmers that also accompanied the Green Revolution.
Golden Rice is a long way from reality.
As food writer Beth Hoffman put it in her recent post in Forbes magazine:
"Golden Rice remains a theoretical product with many, many questions and logistics to still be figured out, aimed at serving a hypothetical population who might actually benefit from its invention, if and when it becomes both viable and legally available."
In the meantime, the Golden Rice story remains little more than a thinly disguised, if well-funded, public relations ploy intended to distract consumers from the very real threat GMOs pose to our health, safety and our increasingly depleted and polluted soil and water.
Katherine Paul is director of communications for the Organic Consumers Association.
Ronnie Cummins is national director of the Organic Consumers Association.