Golden Rice is in the news again. Sadly, it’s not in the news for saving lives or preventing blindness by decreasing vitamin A deficiency. No, Greenpeace is alleging a recent study on effectiveness was improperly done. Further, they’re trying to halt a field trial in the Philippines1. But I don’t want to talk about the intransigent position of a dogmatically anti-GMO organization which leads them to malign the ethics of scientists with little evidence. I want everyone to know what Golden Rice is and why I think it is good way to improve the lives of millions of people.
What is Golden Rice?
Golden Rice is the name given to rice varieties modified to produce more beta-carotene which when eaten is used by your body to produce vitamin A. The rice plant itself already produces beta-carotene in the green parts of the plant. The difficult part was to make the seed develop beta-carotene. Regular rice is white (with a brown outer husk). Golden Rice is light golden orange. It took scientists Ingo Potrykus and Peter Beyer over ten years to get to the first version of a viable beta-carotene rice. By 2005, the Golden Rice foundation’s research improved the line to produce even more beta-carotene. The recent study in the news demonstrated that the beta-carotene in Golden Rice is just as available to the body as that in spinach or vitamin A supplement capsules2.
Why Golden Rice?
When I was growing up, I was told to eat my carrots or I might go blind. A lack of vitamin A can cause blindness, greater susceptibility to infectious disease and even death. Millions of children worldwide are deficient in vitamin A: hundreds of thousand go blind or die every year because they don’t get enough vitamin A. I was obviously never at risk for this.
Golden Rice is intended to allow families who already depend on rice as a staple to have get significantly more vitamin A and thus lower their risk of health problems caused by its deficiency. People would grow and eat essentially the same rice varieties, including saving and replanting their seed. The Golden Rice project has ensured that any country wanting to breed a locally appropriate Golden Rice variety will be given a free license from all organizations with intellectual property interests. Golden Rice really is intended to be free of all the usual concerns about GMO crops: multinational companies can’t sue farmers; farmers don’t have to use new or expensive farming techniques, fertilizers or pesticides; and replanting from seed is encouraged.
We don’t really need Golden Rice, right?
People are understandably a bit concerned about the idea of transgenic crops. Do we really need to distribute a transgenic crop to solve this deficiency problem? I think that it’s necessary to add Golden Rice to our tool basket because other solutions have fallen short. While Golden Rice will not prevent all vitamin A deficiencies, it could significantly reduce them in rice-eating cultures because its use fits into the existing cultural and economic situation.
Supplementation programs require either local governments or international aid organizations to spend money continuously to maintain a program to give vitamin A shots or pills to the population. People are inevitably missed. Some people are naturally suspicious of being asked to accept a shot or swallow a pill. Worse, it’s easy to let programs go underfunded over time. People in distant rural areas may be overlooked entirely. But a farmer offered a fortified food crop can just keep growing it. The distribution of Golden Rice only has to be done once and is naturally maintainable3. Reducing the need for costly vitamin A supplementation using Golden Rice leaves resources available for other humanitarian efforts.
Another solution given to vitamin A deficiency is understandably seen as the right one: a varied diet. When I was told as a child that I should eat my carrots or “go blind”, it was an idle concern: I, like most everyone I know, grew up with a varied diet. A lack of carrots didn’t matter. In the United States, we are overflowing with a variety of fruits and vegetables such that generally the only barrier to an excellent diet is a person’s dislike of vegetables.
But for millions of people worldwide a varied diet isn’t common. Millions of people worldwide may only have a suitably varied diet part of the year, if at all. There are — and I realize this is hard to believe — millions of people who eat rice every day and little else. This situation has been the case for thousands of years in various parts of the world at different times. I don’t see this situation improving permanently soon. Golden Rice gives us the opportunity to decrease the numbers of children going blind and dying now rather than waiting to solve a problem that has plagued humanity forever4.
Golden Rice has been very slow coming. The experiment that Greenpeace is making noise about was actually completed in 2009. The current Golden Rice traits being field tested in the Philippines were put together in 2005. No one is going to force farmers to grow Golden Rice, but given an informed choice, I believe many will5. Sitting in the West where nutrient deficiency disorders are rare, it’s easy to let our fears of genetic engineering dominate. But transgenic crops are generally safe and the scientists are doing all the right tests to make sure it is in this case. There’s no evidence of harm from Golden Rice and many reasons to think it could do great good. Trying to prevent the testing and distribution of Golden Rice is willfully ignorant. It is also immoral.
- Golden Rice is not a single plant variety. The Golden Rice traits are actually bred into regionally appropriate varieties and each variety obviously has to be tested. The idea is to breed the important traits into a variety of rice that is already grown in a particular area so that the only difference will be the additional vitamin A content. ↩
- When I read this study I found out how they measure the bio-availability of the beta-carotene in foods and the process is really cool. ↩
- Obviously an extreme circumstance such as complete crop failure would disturb Golden Rice as a partial solution to vitamin A deficiency, but obviously any effort to help a deficiency disorder is going to have a problem during periods of crop failures. The IP rights obtained for Golden Rice explicitly allow local trade and sale of rice as well so if one region in a country has a failed crop, rice grown elsewhere can be sold or distributed there. ↩
- To answer a question that inevitably gets thrust about by certain organizations: I don’t believe Golden Rice will stop families from eating vegetables. Given the opportunity to eat a varied diet, most choose to. Many don’t have that choice. But we can make it so people don’t go blind. ↩
- One of the common arguments against transgenic, bio-fortified crops is that farmers in the developing world will be forced to use them without understanding what they are. I think this idea is repugnant: it assumes that farmers in the developing world who use other modern technologies such as cell phones are stupid and not capable of understanding the kind of information that farmers throughout the world use all the time. But people in the developing world can definitely benefit from scientific advances. A book that helped shake my thinking here was Starved for Science. ↩