When I saw that NPR was doing a story on Golden Rice I was glad. I was even more happy when it aired on their national morning show. While I could quibble with parts of it, it was overall good. Sadly, one idea went unchallenged. In the story, a Phillippines-based member of the ETC Group is paraphrased saying that Golden Rice “will be more expensive and less effective than traditional nutrition programs”. A Food and Water Watch post even repeated a common claim in their headline: “Here’s Why Golden Rice Is Not A Golden Bullet”. Nothing in agriculture or social policy is a golden (or silver) bullet. So, why is Golden Rice held to this standard? Why must it work perfectly and always better than alternative solutions? Why is it held to this arbitrary unfair standard?
I’ve written about Golden Rice before and made some of these same points, but it deserves repeating. Let’s take the cost question first. It’s a common claim by people who oppose Golden Rice that it’s too expensive. Golden Rice, should it ever become available, will either be given to farmers free of charge or at no more than the cost of local, regular rice. So Greenpeace and ETC can’t mean cost to farmers. Perhaps they mean the costs of developing Golden Rice to non-profit organizations. That is admittedly a high cost. But by that standard, supplementation and fortification program costs would have to include the research and development costs for those programs. That’s clearly unreasonable.
But what about effectiveness? Studies have already shown that the beta carotene is effectively taken up in the body and turned into vitamin A. There are other studies to perform, but let’s assume the science checks out: a vitamin A deficient individual eating Golden Rice will become significantly less deficient, similarly to deficient individuals offered other high beta-carotene foods. Effectiveness is then a matter of convincing enough families to grow and eat it. This is admittedly a tricky problem, but at least once a family is given Golden Rice seed, they can keep growing it year after year. The typical solutions offered by Food and Water Watch, Greenpeace and the ETC Group — which I emphatically support — are supplementation programs (vitamin shots and pills), industrial food fortification (like many foods in developed countries) and diet diversity (eat more high beta carotene foods). Those solutions don’t (and likely never will) reach every individual held back by deficiency illnesses. Food and Water Watch even suggests sweet potatoes combined with fat supplementation (to increase uptake of beta carotene). If that solution is okay for people who prefer to eat sweet potatoes, why isn’t Golden Rice reasonable for people who prefer to eat rice?
Golden Rice is held to an unfair standard. No solution is a silver bullet. We need everything on the table. Opposing Golden Rice because it’s won’t solve all problems is an unfair standard. If it prevents only some deaths and blindness in children, I see it as worth trying.
The link about costs to farmers for Golden Rice was corrected after posting.