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Thirteen years after Golden Rice was featured on the cover of Time magazine under the headline "This Rice Could Save a Million Kids a Year," biotech's golden child is back in the headlines. Just when public opposition to genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is at an all-time high, and the biotech and junk food industries are once again pouring millions of dollars into a campaign to defeat laws that would require labels on foods containing GMO ingredients.
Coincidence? Industry spokespeople say the suspiciously timed resurrection of Golden Rice in the news is not a public relations stunt aimed at converting GMO skeptics. But absent any new news on a crop that hasn't gained traction in more than a decade, the move looks more like an act of desperation than a legitimate defense of biotechnology.
After all, in the real world, the genetic engineering that has taken over vast tracts of cropland, the kind that has led to the proliferation of crops that require drenching our soil and polluting our waterways with obscene amounts of toxic herbicides and pesticides, has little in common with the DNA tinkering that produced Golden Rice.
But the real issue is this. Golden Rice is no closer to saving the world's kids than it was 13 years ago. Because then, as now, there is still no proof that it can. And better alternatives exist.
In case you missed the fuss, in a nutshell, Golden Rice is engineered to contain high amounts of Vitamin A. Its target market includes children in impoverished regions of the world who are susceptible to blindness resulting from diets deficient in Vitamin A. The grain's first iteration, GR1, was discovered to contain Vitamin A in quantities too low to make a difference. GR1 was followed by GR2, engineered to contain Vitamin A in much higher quantities.
More Vitamin A in a bowl of rice, better nutrition, healthier kids. It sounds good on the surface, but as scientists point out, it's not that simple. Here are just a few of the reasons scientists say Golden Rice is not a silver bullet.
The wrong food for the wrong regions.
According to Dr. Michael Hansen of the Union of Concerned Scientists, both GR 1 and GR 2 (released in 2005) are Japonica rices – the sticky, short-grained variety that grows only in drylands. But in the areas where people are starving and/or Vitamin A-deficient, the vast majority of the population eat Indica rice, a long-grained variety that grows in submerged rice paddies.
And, as food writer Beth Hoffman wrote recently in Forbes magazine, Africans, who make up 25-35 percent of the world's Vitamin A-deficient population, don't eat rice:
Therefore, even more than convincing people to switch from white sweet potatoes to orange, for example, or from yellow corn to that with a more orange hue, the challenge of getting large numbers of Africans to eat Golden Rice will be enormous.
Not proven safe.
What little safety testing that has been done on Golden Rice has been inadequate and controversial. In February 2009, a group of 22 international scientists and experts complained that clinical trials of Golden Rice had been conducted on adults and children, in breach of the Nuremberg Code, and that the trials had been "inadequately described in terms of biological and biochemical makeup."
In an open letter to Prof. Robert Russell at Tufts University School of Medicine, who was in charge of the clinical trials, the scientists backed up their concerns with a large body of evidence showing that genetically engineered crops produce unintended effects, which can result in damage to health. "There is no evidence to suggest that Golden Rice is any safer than these GM foods," the scientists concluded.
Other scientists, including Hansen, question Golden Rice's safety on the basis of its containing retinoic acid (RA). RA is a potent teratogen, which is a substance linked to birth defects. Hansen points out that RA is the active ingredient in an acne medication that will not be prescribed to women of childbearing age.
When I pointed out at the Philippine House of Representatives that GR experiment led to an unexpected increase in β-carotene, and that they should look at RA levels, since there are only two steps in a metabolic pathway between β-carotene and RA, and since trying to engineer biosynthetic pathways can cause all sorts of unintended effects, the IRRI scientist could produce no data on RA levels, much less the levels of other retinoids. He argued that people have been eating foods such as carrots, that are high in β-carotene levels (higher than the levels of GR), for hundreds of years, yet there's no evidence of a big problem with birth defects. I had to point out that people and the food they eat have long co-evolutionary history. If there had been varieties of carrots that did have high RA levels that lead to birth defects, those carrot varieties would tend not to be used over time.
No proof of beta carotene stability over time.
Beta carotene, the primary source of Vitamin A in Golden Rice, breaks down when exposed to oxygen and light. That leads experts to wonder if genetically engineered Golden Rice that has been stored for several months still provides higher levels of Vitamin A. We don't know, because we have no studies on the longer-term stability of beta carotene in Golden Rice. Says Hansen:
So, the real question is what are the β-carotene levels in rice that has sat in storage at room temperature for month or two, similar to the local storage conditions for those who might grow this rice. Again, no studies have been done.
Better Vitamin A alternatives exist.
As World Health Organization (WHO) nutrition expert Francesco Branca and more recently, Michael Pollan and others point out, there are better ways to provide Vitamin A-rich diets than relying on an unproven genetically modified "techo solution." That was also the conclusion drawn back in 2009, by Dr. Mae-Wan Ho and Prof. Joe Cummins of Institute of Science in Society, who advocated a combination of food fortification, food supplements and general improvements in diets as a way to improve both Vitamin A consumption and absorption. They cited a United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) study that revealed that the absorption of pro-vitamin A depends on a person's overall nutritional status, which in turn depends on the diversity of the food consumed. Ho and Cummins wrote:
The main cause of hunger and malnutrition in the Third World is the industrial monocultures of the Green Revolution, which obliterated agricultural biodiversity and soil fertility, resulting in ever-worsening mineral and micronutrient deficiencies in our food. Golden Rice, like other GM crops, is industrial monoculture only worse, and will exacerbate this trend, as well as the destruction of agricultural land, and the impoverishment of family farmers that also accompanied the Green Revolution.
Golden Rice is a long way from reality.
As food writer Beth Hoffman put it in her recent post in Forbes magazine:
Golden Rice remains a theoretical product with many, many questions and logistics to still be figured out, aimed at serving a hypothetical population who might actually benefit from its invention, if and when it becomes both viable and legally available.
In the meantime, the Golden Rice story remains little more than a thinly disguised, if well-funded, public relations ploy intended to distract consumers from the very real threat GMOs pose to our health, safety and our increasingly depleted and polluted soil and water.
Katherine Paul is director of communications for the Organic Consumers Association.
Ronnie Cummins is national director of the Organic Consumers Association.