Golden rice is a genetically modified rice that is a cost-effective way to combat vitamin A deficiency which has killed millions of children in less-developed countries for at least 30 years. Unfortunately, activists who are opposed to transgenic and genetically modified foods raised false concerns that led governments to delay the approval of golden rice.
This is sad since the safety of GMO foods has been firmly established over the years. Because of the pseudoscience pushed by the anti-GMO forces, the world hasn’t been able to provide a nutritional food source for children who are dying across the world. I’m not one to push morality or ethics, but what is the morality of fighting against this life-saving food? There isn’t any based on the science of GMO foods.
Let’s take a look at vitamin A deficiency and golden rice.
Vitamin A deficiency
Vitamin A is in a class of nutritional compounds called antioxidants. It is needed by the body to help with vision, reproduction, cell growth, and the immune system. It works to protect your cells against free radicals and to support cell growth and function.
Vitamin A is used to prevent and treat xerophthalmia (unable to see in low light) and night blindness. Individuals with vitamin A deficiency are at risk of mortality from measles (although vitamin A supplements do not prevent measles).
People most at risk for vitamin A deficiency are those with a limited variety of food in their diet, with cystic fibrosis, and with malabsorption problems (problems absorbing food).
About 2 million people died annually in the early 1990s from vitamin A deficiency. More recently, it is estimated that over 200,000 die from it every year.
Golden rice was first developed in the 1990s and then modified in 2004 with transgenes from maize and the soil bacterium Erwinia uredovora. This genetically modified rice produces beta carotene, a precursor to vitamin A, in the normally white endosperm of the rice.
Golden Rice is now awaiting final approval in Bangladesh. In July 2021, it was approved for cultivation in the Philippines. Other countries will likely follow.
A recent study has estimated that substituting golden rice for conventional rice could provide 89% to 113% and 57% to 99% of the recommended vitamin A requirement for preschool children in Bangladesh and the Philippines, respectively. Even if there were no other dietary vitamin A sources, golden rice would provide sufficient vitamin A to prevent diseases that are associated with vitamin A deficiency.
Golden rice is also financially viable. Bangladesh tries to produce rice that is fortified with vitamin A and zinc which increases the cost of rice by 5-6%. And, it is only applied to about 1 million metric tonnes of rice out of the total of 25 million metric tonnes produced by Bangladesh. Golden rice adds no extra cost to governments, farmers, or consumers.
Every bit of real scientific data says that Golden Rice is safe for humans and the environment. A group of Nobel laureates wrote:
Scientific and regulatory agencies around the world have repeatedly and consistently found crops and foods improved through biotechnology to be as safe as, if not safer than those derived from any other method of production. There has never been a single confirmed case of a negative health outcome for humans or animals from their consumption. Their environmental impacts have been shown repeatedly to be less damaging to the environment, and a boon to global biodiversity.
Opposition to golden rice
Much of the opposition to golden rice comes from the environmental activist group, Greenpeace.
Greenpeace is opposed to the planting of golden rice because it is genetically engineered, so it is “environmentally irresponsible,” poses a risk to human health, and could “compromise food, nutrition, and financial security.” Of course, none of this is based on real scientific data, just on Greenpeace’s continued belief in the appeal to nature, that is, if it isn’t “natural,” it must be dangerous.
I want to examine each of their points one by one:
- Environmentally irresponsible. Greenpeace believes in unscientific things like golden rice will contaminate organic farms (no scientific evidence), or that there could be some unknown environmental effect, sometimes called the precautionary principle, a logical fallacy. But here’s the thing – if the most brilliant scientific minds can’t see this, then maybe it’s a false flag.
- Human health risk. Similar to the application of the precautionary principle above, Greenpeace claims there’s some possibility that genetically modified rice could have some unknown harm to humans. Again, there is simply no evidence that any genetically modified crop has had any harm to any human or animal. Humans have been genetically modifying crops, including rice, for over 10,000 years – why golden rice should be different is not explained by any scientific research at all.
- Compromise security. Greenpeace has invented some myth that genetically modified foods somehow affect food security. For example, using that appeal to nature fallacy, Greenpeace tries to claim that GMO crops, like golden rice, do harm to family farms and good nutrition. They think that there are other methods to prevent vitamin A deficiency, including supplements and more vegetables in diets. Of course, most of these solutions are expensive in areas of the world where rice is a staple of the diet. Greenpeace seems to want to push the white privileged method of keeping children from dying, all out of an anti-science belief set.
Greenpeace and other groups, who oppose transgenic or genetically-modified organisms, raised concerns that lead governments and policymakers to delay the approval of golden rice.
One of their arguments is that it will bring huge profits to biotechnology companies. However, the golden rice technology is available at no cost for humanitarian uses, like supplementing vitamin A for children in underdeveloped areas. There are also no limitations, except for export, on golden rice seed — anyone can replant, sell, or give away the seed, which is different from other transgenic crops
There are many things that bother me about the anti-GMO rhetoric, but one of the major ones is a matter of privilege and entitlement. Unfortunately, Greenpeace and others are presenting fake science to support an issue that is irrelevant to rich countries, while ignoring the deaths and harm caused to poor countries by keeping golden rice out of farmers’ hands.
In high-income nations where populations have access to a diversity of foods, vitamin A deficiency is rare. On the other hand, in many low-income nations, people have limited access to foods rich in vitamin A or beta-carotene, a vitamin A precursor — vitamin A deficiency rates remain dangerously high in children.
As an example, children in sub-Saharan Africa and South and Southeast Asia continue to disproportionately experience vitamin A deficiency and its associated risks — infectious and diarrheal diseases, irreversible blindness and other sensory losses, and premature death.
Vitamin A deficiency is endemic in areas of poverty and agricultural market constraints. Meat and produce that is rich in vitamin A are unavailable or so expensive that they are effectively unavailable. Supplementation is expensive and may not be available to individuals outside of urban centers.
On the other hand cereal grains, such as rice, are less expensive and more readily available. Although they do provide sufficient calories for survival, they tend to be missing key nutrients such as vitamin A. This is where golden rice is truly golden.
In an editorial in PNAS, Felicia Wu and colleagues wrote:
The arguments used by organizations to delay adoption of GR often resemble the arguments of anti-vaccination groups, including those protesting vaccines to protect against COVID-19. Some of the opponents of GR and agricultural biotechnology more generally see the introduction of GR as forcing the consumption of GMOs on the population. However, for the case of GR, consumers have the option of easily avoiding consumption because GR is very easily identifiable by its color.
The tragedy of GR is that regulatory delays of approval have immense costs in terms of preventable deaths, with no apparent benefit. The approval of GR is even more urgent with the ongoing pandemic, which has made access to healthcare services more difficult in vulnerable populations worldwide. The World Bank has recommended that micronutrient biofortification of staple crops, including specifically GR, should be the norm and not the exception in crop breeding.
This is part of the reason why I started writing about GMO foods — their arguments sound like the pseudoscience and misinformation presented by climate change deniers and anti-vaxxers. I used to joke that science deniers get together at annual conventions to share tactics and pseudoscience to help one another.
It’s ironic that most of the anti-GMO nonsense comes from the left, generally, those who accept anthropogenic climate change and the safety and effectiveness of vaccines, especially the COVID-19 vaccine.
The number of studies that have shown that GMOs are safe for humans, animals, and the environment is overwhelming. This evidence led to the AAAS releasing a statement of consensus science on genetically modified foods (pdf):
The science is quite clear: crop improvement by the modern molecular techniques of biotechnology is safe … The World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the British Royal Society, and every other respected organization that has examined the evidence has come to the same conclusion: consuming foods containing ingredients derived from GM crops is no riskier than consuming the same foods containing ingredients from crop plants modified by conventional plant improvement techniques.
I haven’t discovered all of the reasons why people are scared of GMOs — they fear that the genes can get into humans (no, they can’t), that nature is better (a logical fallacy), that ancient agriculture was healthier (GMOs started at the beginning of agriculture), or that GMOs cause cancer in rats (no, they don’t). There are some liberals who conflate GMOs with Monsanto, which fails to grasp the importance of genetically modified foods to the people of Earth.
All of this pseudoscience about GMOs and golden rice are causing deaths. Period. These people need to shut up and let us save children from death. Period.
If Greenpeace and these other anti-GMO activists would get behind golden rice to prevent vitamin A deficiency, that would be the moral and ethical choice, but they don’t. They argue from privilege using junk science and ignorance of science to harm their fellow humans. And I am calling them on it.
Golden rice can effectively control VAD. Delaying the uptake of a genetically modified product shown to have clear health benefits has and will cost numerous lives, frequently of the most vulnerable individuals. Policymakers must find ways to overcome this resistance and accelerate the introduction and adoption of Golden Rice.
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- Swamy BPM, Samia M, Boncodin R, Marundan S, Rebong DB, Ordonio RL, Miranda RT, Rebong ATO, Alibuyog AY, Adeva CC, Reinke R, MacKenzie DJ. Compositional Analysis of Genetically Engineered GR2E “Golden Rice” in Comparison to That of Conventional Rice. J Agric Food Chem. 2019 Jul 17;67(28):7986-7994. doi: 10.1021/acs.jafc.9b01524. Epub 2019 Jul 8. PMID: 31282158; PMCID: PMC6646955.
- Wu F, Wesseler J, Zilberman D, Russell RM, Chen C, Dubock AC. Opinion: Allow Golden Rice to save lives. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2021 Dec 21;118(51):e2120901118. doi: 10.1073/pnas.2120901118. PMID: 34911769.
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