Golden Rice 'Restrictions' Are Reasonable

Food and Water Watch responded to my questions about their post. As you might guess, I think they exaggerate problems while ignoring the very real similarities between Golden Rice and other bio-fortification projects.

Their first objection is that there is a $10,000 limit on farmer income for free of charge distribution of a Golden Rice variety (as mentioned before, there will in fact be many Golden Rice varieties) and that Syngenta (who are not actually the only patent holders licensors1) will charge farmers who make more than that and haven’t actually guaranteed they will keep giving away their patent rights licensing the traits1. Their objection shows they either haven’t read (or believe false) the IP page provided by the Golden Rice project.

Updated 2013-03-15, morning: I incorrectly said Syngenta owned the Golden Rice patents. In fact they licensed it from the inventors. See footnotes.

Food and Water repeatedly says “Syngenta” but it is not only Syngenta that had to grant royalty-free licenses for Golden Rice to work. There are at least four other companies involved. While it’s unfortunate (in my mind) that a humanitarian project has to worry about intellectual property laws, it would risky for them to ignore it. However, I don’t think it likely Syngenta or any other company involved would withdraw support at this point. With so many companies involved and so much history, any denial of reasonable license terms would result in strong public backlash.

The main concern however is that the $10,000 limit on farm income for royalty-free seeds may force some farmers to pay royalties. While this may seem like not very much money to Americans2, in poor countries with significant vitamin A deficiency problems, $10,000 is more than most farmers who would benefit from Golden Rice would make. For example, in the Philippines, $10,000 a year income is five times the per capita income. Since the Philippines has significant wealth inequalities, the income of a typical farmer is likely far less. Farmers making more than $10,000 probably don’t need Golden Rice. But even if that $10,000 limit were too small, isn’t the proper response to ask the Golden Rice project to raise the limit?

Food and Water Watch is also concerned that “landrace varieties of rice grown in the area could be tainted or lost due to gene flow”3. Landraces are not fixed crop varieties. A landrace is a variety that is constantly changed and improved by farmers themselves. Seeds that show desirable traits are kept from year to year and new features are added (and removed) over time. A landrace cannot be “lost” just because a handful of genes are added to it. The word “taint” is itself a loaded word as it implies the genes “tainting” the landrace variety are not desirable to the farmer. If Golden Rice traits did appear in landraces, it would be because farmers wanted to keep those traits. Unlike other biotech traits, it would be obvious to farmers: there are no yellow rice grains in the wild. Farmers who do not want their rice to be Golden Rice cannot be tricked or forced into adopting it.

Finally, Food and Water questions the sustainability and cost effectiveness of the program. They support programs for “working with small-holder farmers in the at-risk developing countries to help them grow vitamin-A-rich foods themselves.” Of course, those projects have been ongoing. Oxfam and other major organizations have been working on this issue for, quite literally, decades. One reason why Golden Rice is promising is that it can fill in where other solutions have fallen short (again, no one solution is a “silver bullet”). That’s why organizations like HarvestPlus are trying to bring micronutrient-improved varieties of crops to farmers4. The sweet potato (one Food and Water praised in their original post) is actually one of their target crops. HarvestPlus estimates that the development costs for biofortified varieties are less than one year of traditional fortification (around USD $75 million). A 2006 paper has Golden Rice development costing less than $30 million5 but overall estimates that it will be very effective for the dollars spent6. Why is it cost effective to encourage farmers to grow sweet potatoes or other improved crops but not Golden Rice? The numbers aren’t that different.

So what is the difference between orange-fleshed sweet potato and Golden Rice? I can’t help but believe that if some breeder had found a rice variety that already produced beta carotene we wouldn’t be having this discussion.

  1. Ralf Reski corrects me on twitter. Syngenta doesn’t own the Golden Rice patents. The inventors Potrykus and Beyer own the patents and they’ve licensed them to Syngenta because it’s easier for a large company to bring it to market. 2

  2. Although, $10,000 is nearly the federal poverty line for a single individual in the United States so it’s not that small!

  3. That same paragraph also contains a claim by Food and Water Watch that Bt cotton in India is viewed unfavorably by farmers — it has actually been wildly popular.

  4. Most of HarvestPlus’ project crops are not genetically engineered, although they don’t rule out modern biotech methods of crop development.

  5. No doubt the cost estimates have increased but it still seems likely to be cost effective.

  6. There is a very wonky measure (started by the World Health Organization) of the cost effectiveness of an intervention involving monetary cost per disability-adjusted life years (DALY) that I didn’t want to go into. That paper describes a bit how they calculate it for Golden Rice.