'Golden' rice: All glitter, no gold

Feature story - 16 March, 2005
It was a great sales pitch: adopt this genetically engineered rice, and it'll save millions of children from blindness! It will end Vitamin A deficiency. They called it 'Golden' rice. But if you queried their claims, or had concerns about possible genetic contamination of a global staple food, you were an environmental extremist who cared more about trees than children. It was, and is, fool's gold.

GE rice threatens biodiversity

'Golden' rice is a technical failure. It won't overcome malnutrition. Worse, it is drawing funding and attention away from the real solutions to combat the very real problem of vitamin A deficiency.

Vitamin A is essential to humans. It has several functions in the human body and is important for eyesight. Vitamin A deficiency can lead to blindness and death, and is a severe problem for many countries in the global south.

More hype than substance

'Golden' rice was presented in 2000 as a rice variety that was genetically engineered in a laboratory to produce pro-vitamin A (beta-carotene). The media hype was more robust than the science, however, and our analysis revealed that people would need to consume 12 times more rice than normal to satisfy the minimum daily adult requirements of vitamin A. Subsequent studies have questioned the very notion that 'Golden' rice would be effective in addressing vitamin A deficiency.

"Industry tries to sell 'Golden' rice as a magic solution. Their strategy is misleading the public, they are oversimplifying the actual problems in combating vitamin A deficiency and try to turn down other, more effective solutions," says Christoph Then, Greenpeace International GE campaigner. "The 'Golden' rice project simply aims to help industry to gain support for their controversial GE-food in markets, such as India and Europe".

Close reading of the 'Golden' rice publications reveals that technical problems were glossed over. The initial reports did not fully, nor accurately, describe the type of pro-vitamin A present in 'Golden' rice. Other factors limiting the effectiveness of 'Golden' rice were ignored.

The human food safety of GE rice is unknown. However, the environmental risk of GE rice is clear. 'Golden' rice could breed with wild and weedy relatives to contaminate wild rice forever. If there were any problems the clock could not be turned back.

When the risk is high, the potential consequences devastating, and the benefits unclear, precaution is called for.

Real solutions

Since 'Golden' rice was presented in 2000, solutions such as increased food diversity, vitamin supplements and home gardening have proven to be working solutions for vitamin A deficiency. While vitamin A deficiency is still a serious problem in countries such as Bangladesh, these solutions helped to virtually eliminate vitamin A related blindness in children. There are also traditional rice varieties that could combat vitamin A deficiency.

"GE rice could, if introduced on a large scale, exacerbate malnutrition and undermine food security because it encourages a diet based on a single industrial staple food rather than upon there introduction of the many vitamin-rich food plants with high nutritional value that are cheap and already available." says Professor Klaus Becker, from University of Hohenheim, Germany.

The promoters of 'Golden' rice will shortly be presenting new research, claiming that new versions will have ten times the content of beta-carotene as the first generation.

But despite five years of propaganda about potential benefits, 'Golden' rice has failed to deliver real results. There are better answers to the problem of vitamin A deficiency -- solutions that are cheaper, more effective, more sustainable for the environment, and free of risk to one of the world's most important foods. The only problem for the GE industry is that the only profit in those solutions is for the poor.