Few GM crops are discussed as much — and misunderstood as much — as “Golden Rice.”
Golden Rice is modified to produce beta carotene in the endosperm, rather than only in the bran as in most rice. Beta carotene is a vitamin A precursor, and the hope was that this invention would mitigate Vitamin A Deficiency (VAD), which in extreme cases can cause blindness or death in malnourished children. After appearing on the cover as Time in 2000 as a rice that “could save a million kids a year,” Golden Rice has been a nearly ubiquitous talking point in GMO arguments. As a high-flying GM superfood, it is without peer.
But the battles over Golden Rice have been particularly heated even by the usual standards of GMO bombast. Critics see it as an unproven, expensive, and misguided bandaid—a Trojan Horse to open the floodgates of GM crops into the global south (Brooks 2010:76-83; RAFI 2000). Industry spokesmen, impassioned molecular biologists, and partisan journalists charge that children are being left blind by GMO critics having slowed the rice; hired activist Patrick Moore tirelessly (and cartoonishly) blames Greenpeace — which he claims to have founded — for “murdering” children (AllowGoldenRiceNow.org 2015).
Confusingly, other biotechnologists claim that Golden Rice is already in use and that it has “helped save many, many lives and improved the quality of life of those who eat it” (Krock 2009; also see Thomson 2002:1). These claims cause considerable discomfort to the scientists who are actually doing the Golden Rice breeding (Dubock 2014:73).
All the shouting tends to cover up a crucial issue with Golden Rice: who is it for, exactly? Proponents usually discuss it as a vitamin tablet headed for generic underfed children in “poor countries” (Beachy 2003), or “developing countries” (Enserink 2008), or occasionally “Asia” (Dawe and Unnevehr 2007).
But here’s the problem. Golden Rice is not just a vitamin tablet headed for malnourished kids wherever they may be. It’s not a tablet at all; it’s rice, the most widely consumed and arguably the most culturally freighted crop in the world (e.g., Ohnuki-Tierney 1993). And it is headed specifically for the Philippines. Golden Rice got its start in the Philippines (Enserink 2008), and it’s being bred and tested in a research institution in the Philippines, to be approved by the Philippine Bureau of Plant Industry, to be sold in Philippine markets to Philippine growers and potentially fed to Filipino children. (Breeders and researchers in Vietnam, India, and Bangladesh are also working with Golden Rice, but release is not on the horizon in any of these countries.) Most discussions of Golden Rice ignore this Philippine context. Even economic analyses purporting to calculate “The Cost of Delaying Approval of Golden Rice” (Wesseler, et al. 2014) make no mention of the Philippines.