Thursday, November 27, 2014

A Clear Case for Golden Rice

MELBOURNE – Greenpeace, the global environmental NGO, typically leads protests. Last month, it became the target.

Patrick Moore, a spokesperson for the protesters – and himself an early Greenpeace member – accused the organization of complicity in the deaths of two million children per year. He was referring to deaths resulting from vitamin A deficiency, which is common among children for whom rice is the staple food.

These deaths could be prevented, Moore claims, by the use of “golden rice,” a form of the grain that has been genetically modified to have a higher beta carotene content than ordinary rice. Greenpeace, along with other organizations opposed to the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), has campaigned against the introduction of beta carotene, which is converted in the human body into vitamin A.

Moore’s mortality figures seem to be on the high side, but there is no doubting the seriousness of vitamin A deficiency among children, especially in parts of Africa and Southeast Asia. According to the World Health Organization, it causes blindness in about 250,000-500,000 pre-school children every year, about half of whom die within 12 months.

The deficiency also increases susceptibility to diseases like measles, still a significant cause of death in young children, although one that is declining as a result of vaccination. In some countries, lack of vitamin A is also a major factor in high rates of maternal mortality during pregnancy and childbirth.

First developed 15 years ago by Swiss scientists, golden rice specifically addresses vitamin A deficiency, and the first field trials were conducted a decade ago. But it is still not available to farmers. Initially, there was a need to develop improved varieties that would thrive where they are most needed. Further field trials had to be carried out to meet the strict regulations governing the release of GMOs. That hurdle was raised higher when activists destroyed fields in the Philippines where trials were being conducted.

Critics have suggested that golden rice is part of the biotech industry’s plans to dominate agriculture worldwide. But, although the agribusiness giant Syngenta did assist in developing the genetically modified rice, the company has stated that it is not planning to commercialize it. Low-income farmers will own their seeds and be able to retain seed from their harvests.

Indeed, Syngenta has given the right to sublicense the rice to a nonprofit organization called the Golden Rice Humanitarian Board. The board, which includes the two co-inventors, has the right to provide the rice to public research institutions and low-income farmers in developing countries for humanitarian use, as long as it does not charge more for it than the price for ordinary rice seeds.

When genetically modified crops were first developed in the 1980’s, there were grounds for caution. Would these crops be safe to eat? Might they not cross-pollinate with wild plants, passing on the special qualities they were given, such as resistance to pests, and so create new “superweeds”? In the 1990’s, as a Senate candidate for the Australian Greens, I was among those who argued for strong regulations to prevent biotech companies putting our health, or that of the environment, at risk in order to increase their profits.

Genetically modified crops are now grown on about one-tenth of the world’s cropland, and none of the disastrous consequences that we Greens feared have come to pass. There is no reliable scientific evidence that GM foods cause illness, despite the fact that they receive much more intense scrutiny than more “natural” foods. (Natural foods can also pose health risks, as was shown recently by studies establishing that a popular type of cinnamon can cause liver damage.)

Although cross-pollination between GM crops and wild plants can occur, so far no new superweeds have emerged. We should be pleased about that – and perhaps the regulations that were introduced in response to the concerns expressed by environmental organizations played a role in that outcome.

Regulations to protect the environment and the health of consumers should be maintained. Caution is reasonable. What needs to be rethought, however, is blanket opposition to the very idea of GMOs.

With any innovation, risks need to be weighed against possible benefits. Where the benefits are minor, even a small risk may not be justified; where those benefits are great, a more significant risk may well be worth taking.

Regulations should, for instance, be sensitive to the difference between releasing a GM crop that is resistant to the herbicide glyphosate (making it easier for farmers to control weeds) and releasing GM crops that can resist drought and are suitable for drought-prone regions of low-income countries. Similarly, a GM crop that has the potential to prevent blindness in a half-million children would be worth growing even if it does involve some risks. The irony is that glyphosate-resistant crops are grown commercially on millions of hectares of land, whereas golden rice (which has not been shown to pose any risk at all to human health or the environment) still cannot be released.

In some environmental circles, blanket opposition to GMOs is like taking a loyalty oath – dissidents are regarded as traitors in league with the evil biotech industry. It is time to move beyond such a narrowly ideological stance. Some GMOs may have a useful role to play in public health, and others in fighting the challenge of growing food in an era of climate change. We should consider the merits of each genetically modified plant on a case-by-case basis.

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    1. CommentedMichael Lynch

      Are there any alternatives to this problem that don't require GMOs or, in the very least, are less of a risk?

    2. CommentedNassim N.

      The second problem: why not give rice + vitamins separately? There is a logical flaw in the need for bundlng except the commercial story for Monsanto. see

        CommentedAlexandru Balasescu

        From the onset: I am instinctively (not rationally, nor ideologically) cautious if not outright opposed when talking about GMOs, however I am open to consider arguments like those in prof. Singer's article. At the same time I am a "follower" of Mr. Nassim N. Taleb's theories and analysis. After reading "The Precautionary Principle" I have the following question that may point to a fallacy in the argument: Mr. Taleb et al. argue that "nature has thin tails, even if tails are thick at a microlevel", and than goes on to argue that the use of GMOs introduce thick tails. My questions are: 1. are not we, humans, along with our brains and our capacity of modifying genetics, a product of that same "nature"? 2. If yes, is the risk we introduce already "computed" in the nature's thin tails (albeit thick at microlevel)? And if the answer at the first question is "no" (and somehow it so seems in the PP article, since nature and human induced risks are treated separately), than what are we? - I guess the answer to this question would allow to move further with the argument that separates human from nature's design. It seems to me - and I would like to know if my perception is wrong - that "The Precautionary Principle" changes scale in order to move form thin to thick and back.

    3. CommentedNassim N.

      Prof Singer makes no sense. We posted this non-naive version of the precautionary principle

    4. CommentedStepan February

      My concern with GMOs is explained by analogy to amateur programming. Changing DNA is like rewriting code in an operating system. The authors themselves unwittingly build bugs into code. These are folks that conceived and executed the program. Even for them the interaction of the many operations is impossible to predict and control.

      Modern genetic scientists are rogue amateurs in comparison. They dont even know what the program does and how it functions. All they know is that when you push button A thing B happens. They change one line of code and the whole operating system of the planet can go haywire.

      No amount of patronizing shoulder-patting even from the likes of Peter Singer would make me ok with messing with the ecological operating system, since no one knows whether there is a risk that many more people will die than be saved. We just dont know well enough what we are doing yet.

    5. CommentedJames Goodman

      Opposition to GM foods makes no kind of sense on a number of levels. Firstly, we have been genetically modifying plants and animals since the dawn of farming. Secondly, GM foods lead to greater yields (or in the case of Golden Rice, better nutrition) and thus reduce pressure on land use, as opposed to so-called “organic” foods. Thirdly, there is no significant evidence that “organic” foods have better nutrition than GM foods. Instead of avoiding confrontation with anti-GM sentiment in lobby groups and “organic” industry, pro-active government policy would protect and enforce a minimum level of GM innovation in crops and livestock.

    6. CommentedDavid Olivier

      I gather that wild carrots, which are much paler than the ones we eat today, had less vitamin A (carotene). A carrot is a root; carotene is a photosynthetic pigment, and there is little sense for it to be abundant in roots, just like there is little sense in it being abundant in seeds such as rice. Carrots were probably genetically engineered over the centuries by humans to have more vitamin A, and that's a good thing. What's wrong with doing the same to rice? It's just with faster and better techniques.
      There clearly are issues with GMOs being patented. There are issues with patents generally. There were already big patent issues with F1 hybrid seeds, long before modern genetic modification came along. We didn't make such noise about that then. (We probably should have.)
      It's clear that the heated opposition to GMOs has a lot to do with the idea that nature is sacred. I think we should get over that.
      I hope the day will come when we have open-source GMOs produced in the home laboratories of geeks all over the world. For the benefit of all.

    7. CommentedMr Econotarian

      Monsanto and other companies have offered free licensing of golden rice to farmers in developing countries.

    8. CommentedMK Anon

      there is a clear 'wrong' in patenting life.. that triggers from many sources:
      1) IDEOLOGY: religious beleives can be against that
      2) PRACTICALLY: being dependent on buying seeds.
      3) PRACTICALLY: these patented genes spread all over: you use them without knowing it and are liable of fines to big corporations. Especially if they are more resistant, then naturally, by cross polination, everyone will use the patented genes and will have to use it
      4) JUSTICE: risks are public: once a genes is out of the box, no one can stop it. But the profit a private. (for example, creating super-bacterias resistant to antibiotics)
      5) The case to patent crops that already exist (such as the indian rice case) and charging everyone afterwards?
      6) It impedes research: genes are a piece of genetic code, or a "basic material" for further construction, or for further scientific research (including to prove wether or not they cause damage or not !).

      Given all these features, I think only publicly owned and publicly assessed genes can be be publically released for everyone to use for free - or maybe pay a higher price of the unintended consequences. Only then can "WE consider the merits of each genetically modified plant on a case-by-case basis".
      Under the current system, with billions of dollars at stake, can we really trust the companies that produce the seeds? The scientists who made the security check? The politicians at FDA who allow it? Do "WE" consider the merit on a casa by case? I don't think so, do you? But, as with the big banks or nuclear facilities, everyone will pay the price.

    9. CommentedPrem Swaroop

      None of these Biotech companies are there for charity and they tend to make a lot of money selling GM Crops. The sad part is that the places where the GM crops would leave a positive impact, especially the lesser developed countries is where they are inaccessible to the farmers due to high acquisition costs and permanent dependency on the Biotech companies for the seeds.