But opposition to GMOs in some countries could keep it from those who need it most
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 GM crop opposition.
Golden Rice could be a lifeline to millions of children suffering from vitamin A deficiency (VAD) in impoverished areas of Africa and Asia. But it faces opposition, revealing a gap 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 more than half the needed daily vitamin A intake for children.
Syngenta gave sublicensing rights to the nonprofit Golden Rice Humanitarian Board, which 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.
Golden Rice research is progressing, says Rob Bertram, chief scientist at the U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Bureau for Food Security. If it moves forward as currently expected, he says farmers will be able to plant Golden Rice 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.
Bertram believes Golden Rice will emerge from the regulatory pipeline in roughly five years. This will leave the question up to individual countries to decide whether to approve it. “We hope the scientific facts allow people to make rational decisions,” Bertram says. “Will they? I can’t say.”
Golden Rice opposition groups base their aversion on a boilerplate list of unforeseen environmental detriments, contamination of conventional varieties, lack of nutrition and ill health effects. Their solution to VAD? Supplements, capsules, food fortification and a diverse diet. Those solutions are keys, but supplements and capsules require logistics, administration and financing, and most sufferers tend to be poor.
“Golden Rice has become something of an international poster child for how delaying scientific innovation can have dire humanitarian consequences,” says GMO supporter Mark Lynas, a former opponent. “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.”