On the 16th of October, the global community celebrates World Food Day – this year, with a special emphasis on the role of cooperatives in feeding the world. But even as we celebrate the noble ideal, it is important to pay heed to rising concerns about one of the most controversial projects ever to be proposed as part of a humanitarian agenda: the introduction of genetically engineered ‘golden’ rice.
‘Golden’ rice is a genetically engineered (GE; also called genetically modified, GM) rice variety developed to produce pro-vitamin A or beta-carotene. It is positioned as a humanitarian project, providing a high-tech, quick-fix solution to Vitamin A Deficiency(VAD), which is a health problem in many developing countries.
‘Golden’ rice received a lot of media attention in September, following a scientific publication (1) stating that researchers, backed by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) (2), fed genetically engineered Golden Rice to 23 children (3) in China. Unsurprisingly, most of the discourse revolved around the ethics of such a study: Was the Chinese government fully aware of the study? Did all relevant authorities correctly sanction it? Were the right protocols followed? And most importantly, were the parents of the children concerned properly informed of the risks and was their consent correctly sought? These are all important questions, but underlying them all are more fundamental questions:
Why do we need ‘golden’ rice at all? Is it really safe for human consumption and health?
There are strong voices of caution being raised, particularly in Asia, in response tothe impending threat of GE rice entering traditional food and agricultural production systems. And there is no denying that behind all the hype about the supposed benefits of ‘golden’ rice, it is in fact no different from other genetically engineered rice varieties: it is an untested, unproven technology, poses significant risks to health, the environment and indeed the farming community, and most significantly, poses a very real threat to traditional rice varieties.
This week, questions have also been raised by Fr. Gariquez, the executive director ofthe National Secretariat of the Social Action Center of the Catholic Bishop Conference of the Philippines (CBCP). CBCP is the highest decision making body of the Catholic church in the predominantly Catholic Philippines. Fr. Gariquez, who has received the Goldman award for his environmental services, called for an independent review to evaluate the safety of GE crops in the country, including that of ‘golden’ rice. As Fr. Gariquez emphasised, as faras the Church is concerned, GMOs are (considered) hazardous to health as long as precautionary principles are concerned. Addressing VAD and malnutrition in general requires an integrated, holistic approach and several countries have started to successfully address the problem through proven strategies. In the Philippines, for instance, the use of Vitamin A pills, fortified foods and the promotion of a diverse diet, along with an integrated home-school-community approach to nutrition education and food production has led to a significant decline in the incidence of VAD – from 40.1% in 2003 to 15.2% in 2008 – in the vulnerable age group of children aged six months to five years old. Data from the same times howed that VAD in pregnant and lactating mothers declined from 17.5% to 9.5% and from 20.1% to 6.4%, respectively.
Despite these positive results, proponents of ‘golden’ rice continue to tout it as a quick-fix solution to VAD. In fact, as outlined in ‘Golden Illusions’ a recent Greenpeace briefing, introducing ‘golden’ rice to an already vulnerable sector of society raises several concerns: not only is golden rice an ineffective tool to combat VAD, it is also environmentally irresponsible, poses risks to human health, and compromises food security.
As we mark World Food Day, it is only right to focus on the ‘golden’ rice threat to food security and nutrition – as with other GE crops, once in the field, ‘golden’ rice poses an ever-present risk of cross contamination of non-GE crops. Contamination aside, considering the complex genetic engineering behind ‘golden’ rice, there is a strong chance of it presenting unintended effects further down the line. But even if we were to cast aside for a minute all the environmental concerns, the agronomic logic and the scientific reasons why ‘golden’ rice is a threat, there still remains one fairly simplistic reason why ‘golden’ rice is simply the wrong approach to tackling VAD: it encourages a diet based on one staple rather than a diverse diet with increased access to many vitamin-rich vegetables. Nutritionists point out that Vitamin A is the easiest micro-nutrient deficiency to address (compared to iron, for instance) because the nutrient is readily available in leafy vegetables. In effect, they are onlyechoing what parents have said all along… you have to eat your greens!
So, on a day when we celebrate food around the world, should we not in fact be celebrating the rich variety that exists around the world? Should we not rejoice in diverse diets, pursue a healthier, more holistic approach and steer well clear of questionable ‘inventions’ clouded in uncertainty? Considering the high risks and many potential negative impacts of ‘golden’ rice, surely we should promote the better, safer, healthier alternatives that already exist? To me, that would be a fitting celebration of World Food Day.
- Tang et al. 2012, “Beta-carotene in Golden Rice is as good as beta-carotene in oil at providing vitamin A to children” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 96: 658–64.
- The authors are affiliated with the American Research Service (ARS), which is the in-house research arm of USDA. The Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging (HNRCA) (where 3 of the principal researchers are affiliated) is one of the six centres in the US supported by ARS. HNRCA has a cooperative agreement with Tufts University, as the research centre is located within Tufts University.
- 68 children were randomly assigned to consume GR. The results of the study indicate that 23 children in the GR group were used: 12 boys and 11 girls.
- Food and Nutrition Research Institute (FNRI), Philippines 7th National Nutrition Survey; and
- Philippines Department of Health, Food Fortification Program
Ditdit Pelegrina is Senior Campaigner with Greenpeace International for Sustainable Agriculture and Genetic Engineering based in Asia.