Monday, September 21, 2015

On Golden Rice

Around the world, between a quarter and half a million children go blind each year as a result of a deficiency in vitamin A and within twelve months, half of them die. Golden Rice was created to tackle this problem, by genetically engineering Vitamin A into the rice grain. It is golden because its vitamin A comes from beta carotene, which also puts the orange in carrots. One of the areas of the world where Golden Rice is designed to be consumed is Asia, where a high proportion of calories are derived from rice consumption, and where vitamin A deficiency is endemic. [….] The technology presents itself as a feel-good solution for politicians who’d rather not face the more profound, persistent and difficult questions of politics and distribution. There’s more than enough vitamin A to go around. Half a carrot contains the recommended dose of vitamin A. The plain fact is that the majority of children in the Global South suffer and die not because there is insufficient food, or because beta-carotene rice is nationally lacking. They are malnourished and undernourished because all their parents can afford to feed them is rice.

The best that crops such as Golden Rice can do is to provide supplement in diets where nutrients are unavailable. And when a balanced diet is unavailable, the cause has more to do with poverty than with anything that can be engineered into the crop. It is absurd to ask a crop to solve the problems of income and food distribution, of course. But since this is precisely the root cause of vitamin A deficiency, the danger of crops such as Golden Rice is not merely that they are ineffective publicity stunts. They actively prevent serious discussions of ways to tackle systemic poverty.—Raj Patel, in Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System (Brooklyn, NY: Melville House Publishing, 2008): 136-37. 
“Few GM crops are discussed as much — and misunderstood as much — as ‘Golden Rice.’”
By Glenn Davis Stone (Professor of Anthropology and Environmental Studies at Washington University in St. Louis)
August 28, 2015

Golden Rice is modified to produce beta carotene in the endosperm, rather than only in the bran as in most rice. Beta carotene is a vitamin A precursor, and the hope was that this invention would mitigate Vitamin A Deficiency (VAD), which in extreme cases can cause blindness or death in malnourished children. After appearing on the cover as Time in 2000 as a rice that ‘could save a million kids a year,’ Golden Rice has been a nearly ubiquitous talking point in GMO arguments. As a high-flying GM superfood, it is without peer.

But the battles over Golden Rice have been particularly heated even by the usual standards of GMO bombast. Critics see it as an unproven, expensive, and misguided band aid—a Trojan Horse to open the floodgates of GM crops into the global south (Brooks 2010:76-83; RAFI 2000). Industry spokesmen, impassioned molecular biologists, and partisan journalists charge that children are being left blind by GMO critics having slowed the rice; hired activist Patrick Moore tirelessly (and cartoonishly) blames Greenpeace — which he claims to have founded — for ‘murdering’ children ( 2015).

Confusingly, other biotechnologists claim that Golden Rice is already in use and that it has ‘helped save many, many lives and improved the quality of life of those who eat it’ (Krock 2009; also see Thomson 2002:1). These claims cause considerable discomfort to the scientists who are actually doing the Golden Rice breeding (Dubock 2014:73).

All the shouting tends to cover up a crucial issue with Golden Rice: who is it for, exactly?  Proponents usually discuss it as a vitamin tablet headed for generic underfed children in ‘poor countries’ (Beachy 2003), or ‘developing countries’ (Enserink 2008), or occasionally ‘Asia’ (Dawe and Unnevehr 2007).

But here’s the problem.  Golden Rice is not just a vitamin tablet headed for malnourished kids wherever they may be.  It’s not a tablet at all; it’s rice, the most widely consumed and arguably the most culturally freighted crop in the world (e.g., Ohnuki-Tierney 1993). And it is headed specifically for the Philippines.  Golden Rice got its start in the Philippines (Enserink 2008), and it’s being bred and tested in a research institution in the Philippines, to be approved by the Philippine Bureau of Plant Industry, to be sold in Philippine markets to Philippine growers and potentially fed to Filipino children.   (Breeders and researchers in Vietnam, India, and Bangladesh are also working with Golden Rice, but release is not on the horizon in any of these countries.)  Most discussions of Golden Rice ignore this Philippine context. Even economic analyses purporting to calculate ‘The Cost of Delaying Approval of Golden Rice’ (Wesseler, et al. 2014) make no mention of the Philippines. [….]

The remainder of Professor Stone’s blog post (including the sources cited) is here.

See too these blog posts by Marion Nestle: “Proponents of food biotechnology are still talking about Golden Rice? Sigh,” and “Retraction of the Golden Rice paper: an issue of ethics.” 

I have some titles germane to the discussion in two compilations: The Sullied Science & Political Economy of Hyper-Industrial Agriculture (Or: Toward Agroecology & Food Justice)—A Basic Bibliography, and The Ethics, Economics, and Politics of Global Distributive Justice: A Select Bibliography.


Anonymous Agricultural blog said...

Dear PATRICK S. O'DONNEL, Thank you so much for the posting article on Golden Rice. Our country also has the problem with children go blind each year (not million but still a huge numbers)! I also wanna write something in my blog about this topic. Thank you in advance for your assist!

10/31/2015 5:44 PM  

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