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Proof That Biotech Companies Are Getting Desperate

Biotech is back promoting 'Golden Rice' as a nutritional saviour — but 13 years after they started, there's little evidence it will help children of the developing world.

Photo Credit: Zurijeta/ Shutterstock


Thirteen years after Golden Rice was featured on the cover of Time magazine under the headline “This Rice Could Save a Million Kids a Year,” biotech’s golden child is back in the headlines. Just when public opposition to genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is at an all-time high, and the biotech and junk food industries are once again pouring millions of dollars into a campaign to defeat laws that would require labels on foods containing GMO ingredients.

Coincidence? Industry spokespeople say the suspiciously timed resurrection of Golden Rice in the news is not a public relations stunt aimed at converting GMO skeptics. But absent any new news on a crop that hasn’t gained traction in more than a decade, the move looks more like an act of desperation than a legitimate defense of biotechnology.

After all, in the real world, the genetic engineering that has taken over vast tracts of cropland, the kind that has led to the proliferation of crops that require drenching our soil and polluting our waterways with obscene amounts of toxic herbicides and pesticides, has little in common with the DNA tinkering that produced Golden Rice.

But the real issue is this. Golden Rice is no closer to saving the world’s kids than it was 13 years ago. Because then, as now, there is still no proof that it can. And better alternatives exist.

In case you missed the fuss, in a nutshell, Golden Rice is engineered to contain high amounts of Vitamin A. Its target market includes children in impoverished regions of the world who are susceptible to blindness resulting from diets deficient in Vitamin A. The grain’s first iteration, GR1, was discovered to contain Vitamin A in quantities too low to make a difference. GR1 was followed by GR2, engineered to contain Vitamin A in much higher quantities.

More Vitamin A in a bowl of rice, better nutrition, healthier kids. It sounds good on the surface, but as scientists point out, it’s not that simple. Here are just a few of the reasons scientists say Golden Rice is not a silver bullet.

The wrong food for the wrong regions

According to Dr. Michael Hansen of the Union of Concerned Scientists, both GR 1 and GR 2 (released in 2005) are Japonica rices – the sticky, short-grained variety that grows only in drylands. But in the areas where people are starving and/or Vitamin A-deficient, the vast majority of the population eat Indica rice, a long-grained variety that grows in submerged rice paddies.

And, as food writer Beth Hoffman wrote recently in Forbes magazine, Africans, who make up 25-35 percent of the world’s Vitamin A-deficient population, don’t eat rice:

Therefore, even more than convincing people to switch from white sweet potatoes to orange, for example, or from yellow corn to that with a more orange hue, the challenge of getting large numbers of Africans to eat Golden Rice will be enormous.

Not proven safe

What little safety testing that has been done on Golden Rice has been inadequate and controversial. In February 2009, a group of 22 international scientists and experts complained that clinical trials of Golden Rice had been conducted on adults and children, in breach of the Nuremberg Code, and that the trials had been “inadequately described in terms of biological and biochemical makeup.”

In an open letter to Prof. Robert Russell at Tufts University School of Medicine, who was in charge of the clinical trials, the scientists backed up their concerns with a large body of evidence showing that genetically engineered crops produce unintended effects, which can result in damage to health. “There is no evidence to suggest that Golden Rice is any safer than these GM foods,” the scientists concluded.

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