'Golden' Rice Is Tarnished

The agricultural biotechnology industry hopes we will overlook fundamental questions about genetically engineered food. Yet as of today, nobody has convincingly assured consumers that genetically altered foods are beneficial, or even safe, for humans and the environment. The latest example of hype versus hope is the claim that a new, genetically modified rice will prevent blindness in malnourished children, in India and other parts of Asia. Unfortunately, it probably can't.

When opposition to genetically altered food began to develop in the United States, the industry mounted a $52 million public relations campaign to extol the virtues of biotechnology, especially the new rice, for improving world health. Corporate PR promised to put the so-called "golden rice" in bowls across Asia.

This altered rice was given the honorific "golden" because a daffodil gene was inserted, giving it an orange color. This gene produces beta-carotene in the rice, a nutrient humans can convert into vitamin A. Because vitamin A deficiency contributes to blindness and infectious diseases among the poor in developing countries, golden rice was aggressively advertised as a miracle grain to end suffering for millions around the world. More importantly, golden rice was the first of several foods the biotech industry said would make it possible to eradicate world hunger.

All told, more than $100 million went into developing golden rice, not including the money spent by biotech companies to advertise and promote this product to the American public, overseas governments and international health officials. For the moment, however, the only golden rice in the world resides in a Swiss greenhouse, and that's where it should stay until it truly measures up to claims.

Developers of this grain have been vague on how much golden rice a person must eat to get enough beta-carotene for the recommended daily vitamin A needs. But an analysis of industry data shows that in order for those most vulnerable to blindness -- infants -- to get enough vitamin A from breast milk, their mothers would have to consume almost 40 pounds of cooked rice per day.

Similarly, an adult male would need to eat 18 pounds of cooked golden rice to meet his daily vitamin A requirement. In other words, if golden rice were simply substituted for a daily diet of conventional white rice, a child or adult would receive only 8 percent of their daily vitamin A requirement. Even so, the body can convert beta-carotene into vitamin A only if adequate amounts of fat and protein are also part of the diet. Generally speaking, malnourished people, by definition, lack fat and protein in their diets.

But this raises another, even more fundamental question that the developers of golden rice apparently overlooked. Virtually all Asian populations eat white rice. Brown rice, readily available and considerably higher in essential nutrients, has never caught on throughout Asia. Why, then, do biotechnology promoters assume their rice will prove popular?

The answer is wishful thinking. Ninety percent of the world's rice is grown and consumed in Asia, making this region a vast potential market for a genetically engineered version of the crop. Asian agricultural officials are highly suspicious of golden rice, however, fearing that it will shift control over food security from villages to multinational corporations.

World health officials have concluded that poverty, not a lack of modern technology, is the fundamental cause of malnourishment. And they point out that nutritional deficits can be easily and cheaply corrected with a more varied diet. Green leafy vegetables, oranges and red palm oil all are high in vitamin A.

Any lingering illusion of altruism on the part of biotechnology companies dims when the subject of patents arises. By the middle of 1998, half the world's patents on genetically engineered rice were owned by just 13 companies. In the case of golden rice itself, Zeneca, the company that developed the vitamin-A gene plant, now holds exclusive commercial rights, which applies not just to rice but to all future crops that might carry the gene.

Contrary to the biotech industry's lofty claims, the aggressive promotion of golden rice does not spring from corporate generosity. Defying all logic, they are saying to Americans, "Accept largely untested, genetically altered ingredients in your food, because people are going blind in India."

As an Indian, I feel strongly that neither Americans nor Indians need eat these risky and unnecessary products. Healthy, readily available alternatives are abundant.

Anuradha Mittal is co-director of Food First/The Institute for Food and Development Policy (www.foodfirst.org).


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