Considering that Golden Rice could substantially reduce blindness (half a million children per year) and deaths (2-3 million per year), the reluctance displayed by the responsible bodies, especially in the face of the great success and safety record of genetically modified crops, is hard to understand. -J.E. Mayer, P. Beyer, and I. Potrykus (2006)
Recently I wrote a blog post praising the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for investing in technology that would turn human waste into pure water for the billions of people who don’t have access to clean water sources. Although I was positive about the technology, I was skeptical of its acceptance, because of humanity’s propensity for magical thinking. I noted that this irrational form of belief was also responsible for people’s unreasonable fear of genetically-modified foods.
That fear, sadly, extends to political bodies who may have regulatory power over what foodstuffs may be grown or sold in the nations or regions over which they have jurisdiction. The result will be needless deaths in the tens of millions.
Golden rice is opposed by Greenpeace, various tin-foil-hat websites, and modern-day demagogues like activist Vandana Shiva. The opposition to golden rice – and frankly, any other genetically modified crop which has undergone far more biosafety testing than those arising through selective breeding or mutation breeding – is pig-headed, scientifically illiterate, and dangerous to the future of the world’s poorest people. It is, frankly, especially offensive when this resistance comes from people who have no trouble obtaining a nutritionally-replete diet. It’s easy to object to golden rice when it isn’t your 3-year old child going blind and ravaged by disease.
For millions of people, rice is a staple food. Rice provides plenty of carbohydrates and even enough dietary fat to sustain a person, but it is sadly lacking in micronutrients necessary for survival. Micronutrient deficiency is one of the leading causes of death in the developing world, with lack of zinc, iron, iodine, and provitamin A (beta-carotene) representing the largest problem.
Beta-carotene, which our bodies convert into vitamin A, is found in any number of sources. If you’re lucky enough to live in the developed world, your grocery store is likely loaded with a variety of options from farms around the world, and for a tiny portion of your take-home pay you can choose to meet your daily vitamin A requirements with any or all of carrots, spinach, kale, sweet potato, broccoli, eggs, cheese, mango, milk, peas, apricot, cantaloupe, not to mention fortified products like cereals.
If you live in Bangladesh or Ghana or Mongolia or India or the Philippines or Cambodia – you won’t have so many attractive options. Vitamin A deficiency causes blindness, skin lesions, and compromises immune system functioning, and affects over 15 million children. Once blindness occurs, death is usually not far away.
Cruelly, there is beta-carotene in the rice plant – in the leaves, but not in the grain that people eat. It occurred to some brilliant scientists that if the beta-carotene producing biosynthetic pathway existed in the grain of the rice – as it does in the leaves of the rice and as it does in the edible portions of countless vegetables – one could all but abolish vitamin A deficiency from the face of the earth. Thanks to the work of Ingo Potrykus and Peter Beyer, beginning about 20 years ago, golden rice came into being.
Borrowing a couple of genes – one from daffodil (newer varieties use a corn gene) and one from a bacterium – the DNA of a rice variety was minimally altered. Now, people who are prone to magical thinking might conclude that the rice takes on some of the properties of daffodils or bacteria (an irrational conclusion which has given rise to the pejorative expression “Frankenfood“), but that simply isn’t true. Genes don’t magically retain the spirit of their parent organism; they can’t imbue a new organism with characteristics of the old except in the most limited of senses. Genes are recipes for making proteins, and proteins do specific jobs inside the body, some of which may contribute to certain observable traits. For example, golden rice is orange in color because its grain is now capable of accumulating beta-carotene. That orange color is a sign that the rice, already an important staple food, can now be an even more important, life-saving, staple food. This new characteristic is true neither of daffodils or bacteria.
Why not just give people vitamin A pills?
The first answer to this question is: why? The question implies that manufacturing pills is preferable to genetically modifying a crop, and so the question assumes some undesirable consequence of gene modification that has never been shown to exist. I should, out of principle, refuse to answer this question, but there are other answers to this question which are so compelling that I will do so anyway.
Vitamin A pills have been used, of course, in many parts of the world. They are inexpensive to produce. Unfortunately, producing the pills is not the only cost – some poor countries spend millions yearly on educational programs. People don’t take pills unless it is explained to them that they are necessary. By contrast, the same people eat rice daily without a second thought.
Indeed, what is it that you do if you want to give someone a medication without their knowing about it or having to remember to take it? A child, a pet, an elderly person? You mix it in their food. Golden rice does this automatically.
Second, pills have a shelf life. They must be inventoried. Someone must obtain them, store them, use them, and replenish them. By contrast, golden rice is a part of the normal diet. There is no extra effort required.
Third, crops are more sustainable than pills. A humanitarian program invested in manufacturing vitamin A pills, delivering them, and educating the public about them, must obtain (yearly) funding, must operate at the discretion of the powers-that-be in whatever region of the world (many of which have unstable political situations), and must compete with other humanitarian priorities. Producing golden rice, by contrast, puts all of this on auto-pilot. The beta-carotene trait will be passed on generation after generation; the general population can cultivate rice whereas they wouldn’t necessarily have the technical skill to manufacture pills.
Fourth, the technology can be further improved in a very low-tech way. Once golden rice exists, different varieties can be created via selective breeding. Golden rice varieties can therefore be grown that tolerate different environments or that satisfy the culinary habits of regional cultures.
Is this really a humanitarian effort?
Golden rice was developed as a public-private partnership. Unquestionably, research into transgenic crops is usually done by corporations looking to improve their seed sales. However, as with many technologies, eventually this will most-likely lead to a win-win-win situation in which corporations make more money while simultaneously selling a less-expensive product, as genetically modified crops tend to increase yields, lower pesticide use, and make more efficient use of resources. I say “win-win-win” because both corporations and farmers’ profits go up while costs to consumers go down. Many people have difficulty imagining win-win situations, because they assume a zero-sum game, but like with computers or cell phones, technological enhancements can bring more product for less cost. The history of modern agriculture is replete with examples.
People also often have trouble imagining that corporations can lead humanitarian efforts, but that has certainly been the case with golden rice. A Humanitarian Board is in charge of providing free seeds to farmers in impoverished areas, allowing them to grow seeds for food and breed regionally-appropriate varieties.