July 14, 2015 | By

Golden Rice: Solution or Symbol?

A scientist shows "Golden Rice" (R) and ordinary rice at the International Rice Research Institute. REUTERS/Erik De Castro

Science & Our Food Commentary Series

By Marcus Glassman, Research Associate, Global Agriculture & Food

Worldwide, a quarter of a billion children are vitamin A deficient. This is a big deal: Vitamin A deficiency during childhood can cause blindness, while vitamin A deficiency at any time in a person’s life can weaken the immune system; annually, two million people with vitamin A deficiencies, largely women and children, die from illnesses a healthy immune system could otherwise fend off.

The primary culprit of those maladies is rice. Plain white rice is a staple for over half the world’s population; globally, rice provides one out of every five calories humanity consumes, and in some of South and Southeast Asia’s poorest countries—like Bangladesh and Vietnam—rice provides two-thirds of all calories eaten. However, while rice provides the calories to keep many from going hungry, it cannot singlehandedly nourish: White rice is remarkably low in vitamins and nutrients, and contains no vitamin A. Where farmers and consumers can augment their diets with nutrient-dense foods, like vegetables and meats, rice’s nutritional shortcomings are complemented.  But for those whose diets consist of only white rice—particularly young children who, in parts of Asia, are often weaned using a diet of only mashed white rice—the consequences can be a public health disaster.

There are multinational programs, NGOs, and governmental inventions that address this vitamin A deficit through nutrition education campaigns, vitamin distribution networks, and agricultural assistance. But these are costly; inefficient; and fatally dependent on precarious, donation-funded supply chains that often fail to reliably reach the neediest in impoverished agricultural communities in the interiors of countries across Asia. Hence the drive to create Golden Rice.

Golden Rice is a variety of genetically engineered (GE) rice under development at the nonprofit International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines. Researchers have taken the gene that produces beta carotene from a corn plant, and inserted it into the rice genome. Beta carotene is the chemical that gives corn, melons, carrots, and sweet potatoes their yellow-orange color—it is also what the human body needs to produce vitamin A. A single cup of Golden Rice—named for the yellow color the beta carotene gives the rice grains—meets 60 percent of a child’s daily vitamin A needs. Golden Rice is the only rice that contains vitamin A.

Work to develop Golden Rice is primarily funded by The Rockefeller and the Bill & Melinda Gates foundations. The main goals of the project are to cross-breed Golden Rice with the locally preferred varieties of rice across Asia, and to give those seeds away for free, with no use restrictions. Farmers could farm golden rice in lieu of plain white varieties; the new Golden Rice varieties could be used in local foods just like traditional rice; and babies weaned on a mash of Golden Rice would not face vitamin A deficiency, nor the associated blindness and immune weakness. Farmers would be permitted to save and replant seeds, ending the perpetual need for vitamin and supplement distribution networks.  No commercial interests would be involved, no profits made. At least, those are the goals.

The reality is less neat and tidy. Research at IRRI is woefully behind schedule. Golden Rice produces benchmark beta carotene concentrations, but produces gain yields blow those of non-GE rice plants. Critics of genetic engineering have seized on the project, and drummed up fear among rural farmers and governments. In 2013, activists broke into a study site of IRRI’s and destroyed the Golden Rice plants within. Critics have called Golden Rice a PR stunt by biotechnology companies—a “Trojan horse” intended to initiate trade with countries whose regulations forbid GE crops. Skepticism worsened when IRRI partnered with Syngenta—a global agriculture biotech firm—for technical assistance when early field trials produced sub satisfactory beta carotene concentrations. Even the project leader for Golden Rice at IRRI, Garard Barry, one of the world’s foremost plant geneticists, complicates the project: Prior to joining IRRI, Dr. Barry spent 20 years with Monsanto, and is credited with creating the company’s signature Roundup Ready GE crop line—arguably the most controversial GE invention ever.

The delays in research and development, the activist smear campaigns, the at-time blurred lines between the program’s humanitarian mission and biotech companies’ involvement: They all point to the real barrier to Golden Rice’s acceptance. If researchers cannot produce a Golden Rice product that farmers will want to grow, then children will still go blind, and every year, two million illnesses that shouldn’t kill, will. For as complicated as the science is behind Golden Rice development, the real barrier to success lies with consumers, farmers, and governments—that misinformation, mishandled PR, and trade constraints may be the undoing of this project highlights the grave complexity of biotechnology’s role in our food supply.

It’s said that Golden Rice has become “the symbol of an idea: That GE crops can be a tool to improve the lives of the poor.” This lofty proclamation may be true about Golden Rice. But Golden Rice is first and foremost food. And if farmers are afraid to grow it; if consumers are scared to eat it; and if governments ban it; it could be another painful reminder that symbolism alone is no tool against poverty.   

Read additional posts in the Science & Our Food series:


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