Each day more than 1,000 children go blind; each year more than 1 million children die; and each decade the losses mount, all due to a lack of vitamin A. The staggering numbers, made all the more tragic by the needless nature of the losses, highlight a glaring reality: Real-world consequences are tethered to opposition to genetically modified crops.
Golden Rice may be a lifeline to millions of children suffering from vitamin A deficiency (VAD) in the impoverished nations of Africa and Asia, but antidotes don’t ensure access. Saddled by opposition at every research and regulatory turn, Golden Rice reveals a chasm between reasoned caution and radicalism.
In 1999, two scientists, Ingo Potrykus of Switzerland and Peter Beyer from Germany, inserted beta-carotene genes from daffodils and corn into rice DNA. (Conventional rice contains no beta-carotene.) Yellow in color, beta carotene is vital to the human body as a precursor of vitamin A production. Syngenta modified Golden Rice in 2005, and a single bowl packs over half of needed daily vitamin A intake for children. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates 250 million children are vitamin A deficient. In addition, WHO projects 250,000 to 500,000 children lose eyesight each year due to VAD, and roughly 50% of those children die within 12 months of going blind.
Potrykus and Beyer’s efforts were driven by humanitarian aims from the start. Syngenta gave sublicensing rights to the non-profit Golden Rice Humanitarian Board (GRHB), which in turn provides Golden Rice to research institutions. As Golden Rice continues through regulatory hurdles, Greenpeace, GMWatch, Soil Association, and other advocacy groups have cast the yellow grain as fool’s gold. Their opposition has been steady and grounded in a consequences-be-damned march.
All the while, Golden Rice research is progressing, says Rob Bertram, chief scientist at the United States Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Bureau for Food Security, and GRHB board member. “If it moves forward as currently expected, a Golden Rice approval request could reach regulators in some countries in 2016 or early in 2017. Once a country has approved its use, there would still be a couple of years of lag time for seed testing and standard environmental testing. Based on that timeline, farmers would be able to plant Golden Rice seed early in the coming decade.”
Golden Rice research is boosted by investment from humanitarian organizations such as USAID and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. There are no issues of ownership or patent; Golden Rice technology is freely available through public domain. “Sometimes, new science raises concerns in some quarters about ownership and the roles of the global private sector,” Bertram says. “Golden Rice is intended to be a publicly available technology to benefit the world through improvement in global nutrition. It catches attention because it juxtaposes resistance to transgenic crops with a new opportunity to address an age-old scourge in terms of (Vitamin A deficiency).”
He believes Golden Rice will likely emerge from the regulatory pipeline in roughly five years, leaving individual countries to make a crucible decision. “Each country has its own approach and rules. We work with their agencies to build up science-based regulatory capabilities but then it is up to them to decide,” Bertram explains. “Enthusiasm and opposition may both rise over Golden Rice. We hope the scientific facts allow people to make rational decisions. Will they? I can’t say.”
Just 100 grams of Golden Rice per day (3 to 4 oz.), would meet half a child’s vitamin A needs and act as a buffer against the worst symptoms of Vitamin A deficiency, Bertram emphasizes. Gladys Ebron, communications officer with the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), echoes Bertram’s contention. “Research indicates about one cup a day of Golden Rice could provide half an adult's vitamin A needs. This estimate is based on research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2009.”
Golden Rice opposition groups cite a boilerplate roster of unforeseen environmental detriments, contamination of conventional varieties, lack of nutrition, and ill health effects. Their solution to Vitamin A deficiency? Supplements, capsules, food fortification and a diverse diet. Those solutions all have key roles to play, but don’t change a simple reality: Vitamin A deficiency sufferers are the poorest of the poor. They reach for rice as their dietary staple and can’t afford the relative luxury of fruits and vegetables in quantity. Supplements and capsules require logistics, administration, and tremendous financing.
Staunchly refusing to embrace Golden Rice as a cost-effective, complementary means to fight vitamin A deficiency, activist groups seek to block Golden Rice at the pass. Yet, the present methods of addressing Vitamin A deficiency are failing, evidenced by 1 million child deaths per year. It doesn’t take Solomonic judgement to note a gaping moral hole surrounding the arithmetic: As more than 1,000 children go blind each day (and half of those die within a year of losing sight), anti-GM advocates bleat about the detrimental effects from a bowl of transgenic rice.
Without activist opposition, would Golden Rice be nearer to the plate? “We have to develop Golden Rice varieties that approximate the agronomic traits and yield of conventional varieties. This takes considerable time and resources,” Ebron says. “Responding to anti-GM activism also takes a lot of our time, and that’s time which could productively be used in research.”
Patrick Moore, chairman of the Allow Golden Rice Now campaign, speaks in a far blunter manner. “Activists are responsible for the byzantine set of regulations making it very difficult to get through the approvals process. They are also responsible for the toxic political environment where the International Rice Research Institute is based.”
Moore was one of Greenpeace’s original leaders in the early 1970s, and served as president of Greenpeace Canada for nine years and director of Greenpeace International for seven years. He quit the organization in 1986. “If Golden Rice were a cure for Ebola, malaria or HIV-AIDS, it would have been approved years ago,” he says.
Mark Lynas, a pioneer in the anti-GM movement, experienced a road-to-Damascus change in 2013, and reversed course to become a prominent GM advocate. Lynas doesn’t mince words, and says Golden Rice has been hindered by its GMO association. “Golden Rice has become something of an international poster child for how delaying scientific innovation can have dire humanitarian consequences. But the truth is more complicated: Plant breeding aspects of initial Golden Rice varieties are still being sorted, so no final version is ready for release. However, the fact it has the GMO tag makes it infinitely more expensive, complex and difficult to take to farmers.”
Golden Rice is a benchmark separating reason and radicalism. It promises a complementary and partial solution to Vitamin A deficiency. Rather than stepping aside and allowing the destitute to make their own choices, anti-GM activists lob out a litany of alarmist charges related to ill health, contamination or multinational corporation takeovers – whatever takes the given day. As millions of children go blind and die, opponents of Golden Rice appear to be whistling past the graveyard.
Would anti-GM activists push a bowl of sustenance just beyond the reach of a malnourished child, all the while howling about the contents causing allergies or lacking nutrition? Would anti-GM activists promote current Vitamin A deficiency treatments and exclude Golden Rice, while 1 million children continue to die each year? The questions answer themselves, evidenced by 16 years of opposition to Golden Rice.
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