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March 7th, 2013

Here’s Why Golden Rice Is Not A Golden Bullet

GoldenRice_DP-WEBBy Genna Reed

Dan Charles’s NPR piece this morning asserts that GE technology in the form of golden rice will help feed the developing world, but there is no evidence that GE technology has had any positive impacts on feeding the developing world, or creating more nutritious, vitamin-rich foods for consumers.

Although some scientists and development advocates have promoted biotechnology as a means to combat malnutrition, there has been no indication that poor and hungry people would actually benefit from the technology. Golden rice adds beta-carotene to rice to help fight the vitamin A deficiency that causes blindness in quarter million children annually. Yet engineering crops with beta-carotene may not even reduce vitamin A deficiency because consumption alone does not ensure absorption. Diets of malnourished people often lack the fats and oils crucial to absorbing vitamin A.

The first set of clinical trials on humans to examine golden rice’s nutrition effects studied only five, healthy American volunteers hardly representative of the target population. Charles discusses the 2012 golden rice study as a benchmark of the potential for golden rice, yet even this looked at healthy Chinese children. There is still no evidence that this technology will actually help those that need Vitamin A most. A much better way to combat Vitamin A deficiency is with orange produce, like sweet potatoes, carrots or mangos, and dark leafy green vegetables, supplemented with fats and oils.

The biotechnology industry and trade groups have touted golden rice in the same manner as they did drought-tolerant corn (which doesn’t even help those most affected by severe drought). The fact remains that despite 20-years-worth of claims that GE crops would help feed the world, most of GE development has led only to dozens of herbicide-tolerant crops that have provided short-term gains for GE growers (now cancelled out by the spread of herbicide-resistant weeds) and huge profits for biotechnology companies.

And in the case of higher yielding drought-tolerant crops, conventionally bred varieties have shown comparative and even better results than engineered varieties. Yet, today’s plant breeding research is predominantly focused on developing new genetically engineered crops, despite the potential for similar discoveries through traditional breeding.

Development agencies, foundations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and biotech companies are investing in uncertain technological solutions to a problem that needs a more practical solution. Instead, Charles should have examined how providing low-income rural families with the capacity to grow crops that provide balanced nutrition is a more effective, practical approach than asking them to spend more money for seeds that may not have better yield or bear more nutritious food. But perhaps he was too mesmerized by the so-called beauty of the golden rice to see past its false promises.

7 Comments on Here’s Why Golden Rice Is Not A Golden Bullet

  1. Since I didn’t get a very good answer on twitter, perhaps I should add it here. On twitter, you (the Food and Water watch account) claimed Golden Rice would be expensive to farmers (specifically a claim that Golden Rice is forcing expensive GE seeds on farmers). When I pointed out that Golden Rice is intended to be given away free of charge or at no more the cost of local rice (the Golden Rice trait itself is intended to be bred into locally popular rice varieties which farmers grow and save just as they do now), I got no answer. Can you clarify?

    Further, on my blog, I pointed out that your story here is setting up an unrealistic double standard. Other methods of decreasing deficiency do not work perfectly or cover all those in need and yet we advocate them. Moreover, in this piece, you specifically claim that Golden Rice wouldn’t work because nutritionally deficient people sometimes are lacking the dietary fats necessary to absorb beta carotene. But then, later in this very piece, you suggest eating sweet potatoes with fat supplementation as a solution. However, not all cultures eat sweet potatoes on a regular basis. Many cultures eat rice. If sweet potatoes plus fat supplementation is a workable idea, why isn’t nutritionally enhanced rice plus the same supplementation workable?

    • aghosh says:

      Dear Rachael,
      We appreciate you bringing up these issues for a more in-depth discussion. Here is our position.

      Food and Water Watch understands that IRRI plans to distribute Golden Rice free of charge for those that make under $10,000, but those who make just above that figure will need a commercial license from Syngenta. Licensing agreements for Golden Rice would still put small-holder farmers (although maybe not from the smallest farms) in a dependent relationship with a multinational corporation, which is a model that does not work well for the developing world. Additionally, there is no evidence that Syngenta will continue giving away these seeds for free as future generations are patented.

      There are also risks involved with the distribution of royalty-free genetically engineered seeds. Once Golden Rice becomes widely spread in the target countries, landrace varieties of rice grown in the area could be tainted or lost due to gene flow. Although the United States boasts about the promise of GE seeds for food security and claims that the developing world is demanding GE seed, we don’t often hear the same tune coming from the countries in question. India is one of the target countries for Golden Rice, yet farmers and the public have had very unfavorable reactions to Bt cotton and Bt brinjal.

      As far as treating nutritional deficiency, FWW feels that Golden Rice is not worth all of the resources that have been put into it over the past 20 years. Instead of spending millions of research dollars on one trait in a crop that still hasn’t been tested for efficiency in the target population, resources could be spent on working with small-holder farmers in the at-risk developing countries to help them grow vitamin-A-rich foods themselves. This would not only help to deal with malnutrition, but would increase the region’s capacity to help combat VAD, while benefitting them economically as well. Resources could also be put into traditional breeding, which has been relatively ignored since the introduction of GE crops. Exporting expensive seeds into a developing country may help in the short-term as you claim, but FWW questions the sustainability of this model. I’ll also send you an email in case you’d like to connect directly with our lead GE researcher further.

  2. Bill Price says:

    aghash: The sub-license agreements do not “put farmers in a dependent relationship with a multinational corporation.” Read the license agreements: http://www.goldenrice.org/Content1-Who/who4_IP.php . Farmers can save seed and replant. New varieties can be developed and distributed. The restrictions that do exist are meant to keep the trait on a humanitarian level and prevent someone from cornering it at the expense of others.

    Your assertions on lack of acceptance of GE in developing countries is also wrong, especially in India. See here for example: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/home/opinion/gurcharan-das/men-ideas/Let-biotech-crops-bloom/articleshow/2515942.cms?

    or here for a broader scope:

    http://belfercenter.ksg.harvard.edu/publication/22783/developing_country_farmers_bridge_the_biotechnology_divide.html?breadcrumb=%2Fproject%2F39%2Fscience_technology_and_globalization

    Indian farmers were pirating biotech seed because they wanted it. Cotton production has increased dramatically. Developing countries now lead the world in biotech crop production.

    GE is not a cure all, it is a tool. Tools can be used well or poorly, and certainly GE has been used poorly in some cases, but GR is not one and the model it uses to break out of IP protectionism are ground breaking.

    • aghosh says:

      The Times of India piece you cite is an opinion piece. We respectfully hold a different perspective on this issue.

      • Bill Price says:

        So the word opinion appeared in the link and you just dismissed it. That says volumes. Unfortunately for you, the facts about the acceptance and increase in production of cotton are not opinion. We do differ in perspective. I value evidence.

  3. Brad Wilson says:

    Not enough is said here about the authoritarian character of biotechnology, which is a kind of megatechnics, nor about the scientific character of megatechnics. Biotechnology, in focusing narrowly on crops and even on traits, has violated the science of ecology. It’s not really science, then, in the broad sense. Lewis Mumford warned that, while megatechnics is effective for inventing an atom bomb, it’s a radically inappropriate technology for inventing a neighborhood. Monsanto and other biotech “Manhattan Projects” have similarly failed to provide ecological and social (ie. agricultural) advances. The results have been a mass of lawsuits against farmers (ie. when Monsanto contaminates them,) a massive reduction in biodiversity, and massive concentration among biotech firms (ie. at the expense of the genetic diversity of available products). Here in Iowa, for example, it’s been an important part of the overall wealth, jobs, community and ecosystem destruction that has been brought by agribusiness in general. Where’s any plan to reverse these negative effects. Is it through some new single trait in a single crop (ie. without regard for Resource Conserving Crop Rotations and rural culture as a pattern of history)?

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