Current General Studies Magazine: “Golden Rice isn’t Ready Yet” July 2016

Current General Studies Magazine (July 2016)

General Studies – III “Science & Technology Based
Article” (Golden Rice isn’t Ready Yet)

Recently 110 Nobel Laureates issued a strongly worded plea to
Greenpeace to “abandon their campaign against [genetically modified organisms] in general and Golden Rice in particular.” This is not the first time notable
scientists have waded into the controversy surrounding genetically modified (GM)
crops. What is remarkable about this latest foray, however, is their poor grasp
of the facts surrounding Golden Rice.

Golden Rice is an orange-yellow-coloured rice, genetically
modified to produce beta-carotene, the precursor of Vitamin A. Advocates claim
it is a powerful way to combat Vitamin A deficiency, the cause of diseases like
childhood blindness, and deaths, particularly among the poor in Africa, South
and Southeast Asia. Golden Rice was first developed around 1999 by two European
scientists, Ingo Potrykus and Peter Beyer. The transnational agribusiness
corporation Syngenta currently holds commercial rights to it. Moved apparently
by humanitarian sentiments, Syngenta decided in 2004 to sub-license it free of
charge (subject to several conditions, not all of which are straightforward) to
agricultural research institutions in developing countries, through an entity
named the Golden Rice Humanitarian Board. The project of taking Golden Rice to
developing countries is housed within the International Rice Research Institute
(IRRI) in Philippines.

The Nobel Laureates argue that the reason this innovation has
not started saving lives yet is Greenpeace’s criminal opposition. This narrative
of conspiracy glosses over the rather more straightforward explanation: As IRRI
itself admits on its website, Golden Rice is not ready for farmers, yet. There
are above-board reasons for this which have little to do with anti-GM activists.

The Laureates say that Golden Rice has “ the potential to
reduce or eliminate much of the death and disease caused by Vitamin A
deficiency” (emphasis added). This statement begs the question: Under what
conditions might that potential be actualised? At least two conditions need to
be met for Golden Rice to work as hoped: it should be suitable for cultivation
by farmers; and it should be bio-available, that is, the digestive system should
be able to extract the beta-carotene and make it available to the body, thus
improving Vitamin A levels. Questions remain on both counts.

Suitability for cultivation

The two versions of Golden Rice developed so far, Golden Rice
1 and 2, are both Japonica (sticky, dryland) rices, while people in areas with
Vitamin A deficiency in South and Southeast Asia generally cultivate and consume
the non-sticky, submerged Indica paddies. Japonica varieties are easier to
modify genetically, but do not perform well in Asian fields. IRRI is still in
the process of crossing Golden Rice into Indica varieties. In 2014, IRRI stated,
“Results of the first round of multi-location trials of Golden Rice showed that…
yields of candidate lines were not consistent across locations and seasons,
prompting research direction toward assessing [other] Golden Rice versions.”
This is hardly a rice ready for cultivation by farmers — it has not even entered
the stage of biosafety evaluation by government regulatory institutions.

The question of bioavailability is even more vexed. The body
does not necessarily absorb beta-carotene because one eats Golden Rice. The
Golden Rice Humanitarian Board’s website quotes a study published in 2012 in The
American Journal of Clinical Nutrition for establishing the effectiveness of
Golden Rice. On July 29, 2015, the journal retracted this paper citing ethical

Even assuming that ethical concerns do not detract from the
paper’s findings, the study design merits attention. The study saw
middle-income, healthy Chinese children consuming a total of 210 grams of pork
and other foods over breakfast and lunch daily, with 40 per cent of their total
calorie intake coming from fat. Fats help the body absorb beta-carotene, since
the latter dissolves easily in fats. Unlike customary practice, the Golden Rice
fed to the children had been stored at minus 70{+o}C after drying for three
days, to avoid any decline in beta-carotene levels with time. Thus, the study
design favoured Golden Rice, rather than reflecting the actual lives and habits
of poor Asians and Africans, who generally cannot afford fat-rich meals every
day. So far, there is no answer to the real question: How will Golden Rice
perform as part of meals that poor people, typically malnourished, actually eat?

The Nobel Laureates accuse Greenpeace’s campaign of raising
the regulatory bar for GM crops. The facts above suggest that neither Greenpeace
nor regulatory hurdles have delayed Golden Rice’s release. In fact, in 2009, the
distinguished biotechnologist, Dr. Swapan Datta, former Deputy Director-General
(Crop Science) of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, who had worked on
Golden Rice at IRRI, categorically stated, “The regulatory system is not the
barrier to releasing Golden Rice in India.” IRRI itself, in its last update
released in 2014, said: “Golden Rice will only be made available broadly to
farmers and consumers if it is successfully developed into rice varieties
suitable for Asia, approved by national regulators, and shown to improve Vitamin
A status in community conditions.”

Let us, for the moment, ignore the political aspects of
Golden Rice and GM crops. Let us overlook the fact that many sciences (other
than physics, chemistry, and medicine represented in the letter) have something
to contribute to the debate over GM crops — in India, agricultural scientists,
ecologists, nutritionists, and sociologists, among others, have insightfully
contributed to the debate. Let us instead ask two basic questions. Is Golden
Rice ready to be cultivated by farmers? IRRI itself answers no. Does Golden Rice
improve Vitamin A levels among people as they actually live and eat? We don’t
know yet.

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