Golden Rice: a golden ticket to health, or fool’s gold?

Many people’s diets are deficient in Vitamin A. It’s worst in poor countries. One solution might be for people to grow and eat Golden Rice. Or not.

It’s a huge leap to say that a problem of malnutrition (which is real) can, or should, be tackled by a biotechnological fix.

Golden Rice strains have been made by genetic modification (GM, also known as genetic engineering). The special feature of Golden Rice is that it contains beta-carotene. That’s the pigment that makes some vegetables yellow, so Golden Rice looks very pretty in the paddy field and in the bowl. More importantly, beta-carotene turns into Vitamin A after you’ve eaten it. Vitamin A is a key micronutrient for the eyes and other parts of the body.

The International Service for the Aquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA) tells us how Golden Rice was made. It’s exciting science, to geneticists, because it involved putting three genes into the plant that weren’t there before. Not just one gene.

My mother told me to eat carrots so that I’d see in the dark, and she was right about that. Vitamin A Deficiency (VAD) can cause night blindness, even total blindness. Here’s what Childinfo says about VAD-related blindness. I trust Childinfo because it provides information from the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), formerly called the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund.

Here’s Childinfo’s map showing where in the world VAD is prevalent. That map shows that VAD is a problem in poor countries – most of sub-Saharan Africa, large parts of Asia and some parts of South America.

The World Health Organization (WHO) agrees that VAD is no joke. WHO says that VAD ‘is the leading cause of preventable blindness in children and increases the risk of disease and death from severe infections. In pregnant women VAD causes night blindness and may increase the risk of maternal mortality.’ WHO says that the solution to the VAD problem lies in ‘planting the seeds, cultivating the garden.’ That means breastfeeding, because breast milk contains Vitamin A, and it means growing vegetables for people to eat, because my mother was right about eating veg to feed the eyes.

None of these sources have talked of Golden Rice, have they? Nor does the international not-for-profit Countdown to 2015. Countdown exists to promote the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals about mothers and children. It ‘promotes accountability from governments and development partners by compiling, publishing, and reporting on critical data… [about] health interventions.’ I don’t see Countdown to 2015 promoting Golden Rice.

What I do see are reports that Golden Rice is to be grown in the Philippines and perhaps also in Bangladesh, Indonesia and India. Here’s what the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) (based in the Philippines) says about field trials of Golden Rice.

I’m grateful to my fellow blogger Eideard for drawing attention to this story. Golden Rice has been a long time coming. People have been arguing about it for at least 12 years, maybe for 30 years, depending on when you start counting. People are still arguing about it (scroll down if you’d like to read the debate in the Observer).

As you know, I’m undecided about GM crops in general and about GM rice in particular. On GM Golden Rice, I’m watching. Here are some thoughtful words from the environmental group Greenpeace. I have doubts about Greenpeace in general, but I find that particular article well worth reading. Here are some points which catch my eye.

‘By encouraging a diet based on one staple rather than an increase in access to the many vitamin-rich vegetables, golden rice could – if introduced on a large scale – exacerbate malnutrition and ultimately undermine food security.’

‘The genetic engineering constructs used in golden rice (both GR1 and GR2) are more complex than many current GE crops (e.g. Roundup Ready soya and insect resistant (Bt) maize)… Attempting to introduce a new biochemical pathway has a high probability of altering another pathway. The genetic engineering of a biochemical pathway can result in unintended changes in plant composition.’

‘VAD remains a serious health problem in many countries; not because there is a lack of tools for combating the deficiency, but rather due to political instability, a lack of funds, or a lack of political will to combat the underlying causes.’

Is Greenpeace too idealistic here? ISAAA says that GM crops can help to prevent malnutrition. ‘An adequate and diverse diet, comprising fruits, vegetables and animal products, is the best solution for good nutrition… However, this remains out of reach for a large proportion of the world’s population. Introducing biofortified staple crops with increased nutritious content can therefore have a very big impact.’

What will become of the farmers and ecosystems of the Philippines now that they’re getting Golden Rice? Time will tell. There’ll be no going back.

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About argylesock

I wrote a PhD about veterinary parasitology so that's the starting point for this blog. But I'm now branching out into other areas of biology and into popular science writing. I'll write here about science that happens in landscapes, particularly farmland, and about science involving interspecific interactions. Datasets and statistics get my attention. Exactly where this blog will lead? That's a journey that I'm on and I hope you'll come with me.
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13 Responses to Golden Rice: a golden ticket to health, or fool’s gold?

  1. Wade says:

    This is a very complicated issue. I’m wondering if a partial solution would be to grow more sweet potors. A high yield high calotype crop with a good amount of beta carotine might solve some of the problem.

  2. Wade says:

    Sweet potatoes!

    • argylesock says:

      I’ve been thinking of sweet potatoes, too. Also perhaps mangoes. No doubt people with more knowledge of the climates, soils, and local wild plants could add to these suggestions.

    • argylesock says:

      I forgot to mention that spinach is another good source of Vitamin A. People grow crops with leaves resembling our spinach, everywhere that crops can be grown.

      I also should have mentioned that Vitamin A drops are given to poor children in several countries.

  3. Pingback: Clarifying recent news about Golden Rice | Science on the Land

  4. Finn Holding says:

    Some good points here, particularly the one about political instability. Where that situation prevails there will always be hungry and malnourished people. Attempts to address this with a tech solution are done with only one beneficiary in mind and making the hungry people dependent on seed supplies from a biotech company is not a long term solution.

    • argylesock says:

      You may be right. I’ve seen accusations that anti-GM is a ‘feelgood’ response but I think that’s just mudslinging. That Greenpeace writer sounds intelligent.

      Do you happen to know how Golden Rice is to be marketed? I’ve not heard of it being a ‘terminator’ plant. (For anybody reading this who’s not familiar with terminator GM, it means that some crops have been engineered to grow infertile seeds so that farmers won’t be able to save seed for next year. That would force farmers to keep buying from the seed supplier who owns the patent. There’s been controversy about this and I wonder whether terminator GM crops still being sold.) Apart from the seed-saving issue, I wonder whether GM rice breeds true or whether it’s an F1 hybrid.

      • Finn Holding says:

        I haven’t read any details about the genetics of this plant.

        But I also wouldn’t be at all surprised if the anti-anti-GM brigade are at least partially supported, possibly even funded, by the GM industry. I imagine that in the US in particular there will be a vociferous and well funded pro-GM political lobbying campaign. And I would imagine that with the sums of money involved it will receive a fairly warm reception.

  5. Pingback: Sweet potatoes to let you see in the dark | Science on the Land

  6. Pingback: Nutrients in rice | Science on the Land

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