Saturday, November 29, 2014

A Golden Rice Opportunity

SÃO PAULO – Finally, after 12 years of delay caused by opponents of genetically modified (GM) foods, so-called “golden rice” with vitamin A will be grown in the Philippines. Over those 12 years, about eight million children worldwide died from vitamin A deficiency. Are anti-GM advocates not partly responsible?

Golden rice is the most prominent example in the global controversy over GM foods, which pits a technology with some risks but incredible potential against the resistance of feel-good campaigning. Three billion people depend on rice as their staple food, with 10% at risk for vitamin A deficiency, which, according to the World Health Organization, causes 250,000-500,000 children to go blind each year. Of these, half die within a year. A study from the British medical journal The Lancet estimates that, in total, vitamin A deficiency kills 668,000 children under the age of five each year.

Yet, despite the cost in human lives, anti-GM campaigners – from Greenpeace to Naomi Klein – have derided efforts to use golden rice to avoid vitamin A deficiency. In India, Vandana Shiva, an environmental activist and adviser to the government, called golden rice “a hoax” that is “creating hunger and malnutrition, not solving it.”

The New York Times Magazinereported in 2001 that one would need to “eat 15 pounds of cooked golden rice a day” to get enough vitamin A. What was an exaggeration then is demonstrably wrong now. Two recent studies in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition show that just 50 grams (roughly two ounces) of golden rice can provide 60% of the recommended daily intake of vitamin A. They show that golden rice is even better than spinach in providing vitamin A to children.

Opponents maintain that there are better ways to deal with vitamin A deficiency. In its latest statement, Greenpeace says that golden rice is “neither needed nor necessary,” and calls instead for supplementation and fortification, which are described as “cost-effective.”

To be sure, handing out vitamin pills or adding vitamin A to staple products can make a difference. But it is not a sustainable solution to vitamin A deficiency. And, while it is cost-effective, recent published estimates indicate that golden rice is much more so.

Supplementation programs costs $4,300 for every life they save in India, whereas fortification programs cost about $2,700 for each life saved. Both are great deals. But golden rice would cost just $100 for every life saved from vitamin A deficiency.

Similarly, it is argued that golden rice will not be adopted, because most Asians eschew brown rice. But brown rice is substantially different in taste and spoils easily in hot climates. Moreover, many Asian dishes are already colored yellow with saffron, annatto, achiote, and turmeric. The people, not Greenpeace, should decide whether they will adopt vitamin A-rich rice for themselves and their children.

Most ironic is the self-fulfilling critique that many activists now use. Greenpeace calls golden rice a “failure,” because it “has been in development for almost 20 years and has still not made any impact on the prevalence of vitamin A deficiency.” But, as Ingo Potrykus, the scientist who developed golden rice, has made clear, that failure is due almost entirely to relentless opposition to GM foods – often by rich, well-meaning Westerners far removed from the risks of actual vitamin A deficiency.

Regulation of goods and services for public health clearly is a good idea; but it must always be balanced against potential costs – in this case, the cost of not providing more vitamin A to eight million children over the past 12 years.

As an illustration, current regulations for GM foods, if applied to non-GM products, would bar the sale of potatoes and tomatoes, which can contain poisonous glycoalkaloids; celery, which contains carcinogenic psoralens; rhubarb and spinach (oxalic acid); and cassava, which feeds about half a billion people, but contains toxic cyanogenic alkaloids. Foodstuffs like soy, wheat, milk, eggs, mollusks, crustaceans, fish, sesame, nuts, peanuts, and kiwi would likewise be banned, because they can cause food allergies.

Here it is worth noting that there have been no documented human health effects from GM foods. But many campaigners have claimed other effects. A common story, still repeated by Shiva, is that GM corn with Bt toxin kills Monarch butterflies. Several peer-reviewed studies, however, have effectively established that “the impact of Bt corn pollen from current commercial hybrids on monarch butterfly populations is negligible.”

Greenpeace and many others claim that GM foods merely enable big companies like Monsanto to wield near-monopoly power. But that puts the cart before the horse: The predominance of big companies partly reflects anti-GM activism, which has made the approval process so long and costly that only rich companies catering to first-world farmers can afford to see it through.

Finally, it is often claimed that GM crops simply mean costlier seeds and less money for farmers. But farmers have a choice. More than five million cotton farmers in India have flocked to GM cotton, because it yields higher net incomes. Yes, the seeds are more expensive, but the rise in production offsets the additional cost.

Of course, no technology is without flaws, so regulatory oversight is useful. But it is worth maintaining some perspective. In 2010, the European Commission, after considering 25 years of GM-organisms (GMOs) research, concluded that “there is, as of today, no scientific evidence associating GMOs with higher risks for the environment or for food and feed safety than conventional plants and organisms.”

Now, finally, golden rice will come to the Philippines; after that, it is expected in Bangladesh and Indonesia. But, for eight million kids, the wait was too long.

True to form, Greenpeace is already protesting that “the next ‘golden rice’ guinea pigs might be Filipino children.” The 4.4 million Filipino kids with vitamin A deficiency might not mind so much.

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    1. CommentedPaul Gregory Ahearn

      This classic debate between GMO, Monsanto issues and improving nutrition of humanity is very nicely presented by Professor Lomborg. The farm industry has been very uneasy to allow Monsanto and others to uniquely control their seed stock; and that body of I.T. law really needs both challenge and amending legislation. However, improved nutrition to over 4 million Fillipino children is slam dunk GOOD --- end the debate, GMO science wins and protect the family/corporate farms both. Without the economic wellness of the farm community; our entire world will suffer. Do NOT bite the hand that feeds you !!! :):):)

    2. CommentedBill Thomas

      Lomborg shilling for the corporations as usual.

      The Golden Rice Hoax. "In order to meet the full needs of 750 micrograms of vitamin A from rice, an adult would have to consume 2 kg 272g of rice per day. This implies that one family member would consume the entire family ration of 10 kg. from the PDS in 4 days to meet vitamin A needs through "Golden rice"."

    3. CommentedInderpreet Singh

      Mr. Lomborg,

      while I appreciate your concern for the millions of lives at risk due to Vitamin A deficiency, I cannot disagree with you more. However, my biggest concern is not that you are advocating for the adoption a GM crop variety. An even bigger concern is that a well-meaning intellectual like yourself who is in a position of "power" and "influence" is so far removed from the reality on the ground and carries a very abstract understanding of the real issues in relation to an extremely complex subject as modifying the genetic code of a naturally existing substance and claiming it to be good for humanity and nature. It's noticeable how one abstract point of view about something complex like GM gets propagated from one intellectual to another without much critical thinking or even attention to the real problems and trends on the ground.

      India, the country that I come from, has been growing food and feeding its people sustainably for over 4000 years in ways that not only sustained but enhanced the natural fertility of soil. Then came along the so called 'Green Revolution' on the pretense that millions are going to die of famine. So we were forced to let go of the "traditional" and "out-dated" ways of farming and adopt "modern" techniques such as intensive irrigation, fertilizer and pesticide inputs. No body bothered to ask the question - "how come a country that has been able to sustainably grow food and feed it's people for over 40 centuries has come to the brink of famines?". 35 years after the Green Revolution started, yes the yields of our grains have increased but levels of hunger at a historical high, levels of poverty amongst the smallholding farmers are at a historical high, and our soil systems have lost the capacity to produce food without the excessive doses of chemical inputs. Who's the winner? The fertilizer and the chemical inputs industry. Thanks in no measure to the resilience of the farming communities that they are realizing this and making efforts to revive the land by shunning chemical inputs and reverting back to their traditional knowledge systems of agriculture and food production.

      And here again, we hear the same argument - we have to introduce this 'Golden Rice' because if we do not, millions will die. The answer is obvious to the question as to what is the primary objective of a private corporation - to maximize profits for its shareholders or to save millions of lives and improve the nutrition and well being of people.

      Mr. Lomborg, you may be surprised to know that India used to grow more than 200'000 (yes, that's is two hundred thousand) varieties of rice before the Green Revolution. All of these varieties were bred by farmers on the fields and developed to suit myriads of local climates and conditions. Not only that, many varieties of rice were bred and developed to have certain medicinal properties. Practically all of these varieties are now replaced by a handful of so called high-yield varieties, and the traditional ones are now sitting either in the seed banks of agricultural universities or of the International Rice Research Institute (many of these varieties were illegally procured by the IRRI from local Indian universities).

      The point is that obviously there is a whole lot more to the GM debate. So, Mr. Lomborg, please make an effort and do some research, travel, visit the Phillipines, visit India, meet with farmers, ask them about the issues they are facing, make an effort to understand the historical context of agriculture and then form your opinion. Please do not just repeat the same mistake that many intellectuals and scholars have become so good at - quoting each other and pushing for a certain agenda just because it's the easier thing to do.

    4. CommentedJeffrey Scofield

      Drawing attention to the near monopoly power of companies like Monsanto is definitely not putting the cart before the horse.  The rise of fertilizer and chemical companies came about with help of the petroleum industry and patent law abuse.  If you follow the money throughout history and through the mergers, you would notice the impetus comes from these companies - most recently using political money to embed corporate lawyers in the legal system. 

      Have a highly regulated GM industry, but there is no acceptable rational behind patenting life. That's the can of worms that Mr. Lomberg intentionally left closed. Greenpeace did not lobby politicians to allow the patenting of life (or for that matter patent monopolies) and Mr. Lomberg's deliberate omission of this key factor contradicts his argument. The fact that the GM industry - which has become synonymous with the fertilizer and pesticide industry - has extended this technology to seed sterilization demonstrates the enormous waste this industry has intentionally engineered.

      Perhaps Bjørn could trace the evolution of the agribusiness industry in detail along with mergers, political spending, judicial appointments, patenting, etc.  How much of that came from Greenpeace? Of all the corporatist lawyers on the Supreme Court, how many were endorsed by Greenpeace? How much lobbying did they do to get those appointments? If the patent laws granted to living organisms didn't exist, how much money would be invested in this technology? Did Greenpeace establish the agribusiness model or set up the subsidies for wealthy corporate farms that are monopolistic, both horizontally and vertically? Little credence can be given to Bjørn's claim that Greenpeace's activities made these companies as collusive/monopolistic as they have become.

      The people of the Philippines have many choices. They can choose more perfect information.  They can choose to reject patent law originating from foreign corporations. They can choose to innovate and invest in their own GM technologies.  They may even seek research from foreign universities. They can choose to diversify their crops for a wide variety of ecological reasons.  They can also choose to invest in alternative methods of nutrition, understanding the costs can be offset by a more diverse and competitive market, void of rent seeking abuses.

    5. CommentedNitin Pandit

      Given the huge potential to tap inefficiencies in the agricultural system, i.e., potential to provide food, and of good practices (, the debate over who to blame for taking sides over GM seems as unnecessary as GM foods themselves.

    6. CommentedLeo Arouet

      In total disagreement. Genetically modified foods have unintended long-term. If you want to fight malnutrition, it can be done, but that depends on rich countries to commit to the cause, but not say that the solution is the genetically modified food. Is this a joke or what? And who benefits from its implementation?

    7. CommentedBhagirath Choudhary

      The most trusted source of data, as correctly referred in Lomborg's article comes from the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), the Philippines. If you r really interested in peer-reviewed papers and authentic information on golden rice browse IRRI golden rice page :
      I understand Golden rice would be made available in varietal background by respective Govt funded public sector institutes in the Philippines, Bangladesh, Indonesia and India. Enriching crops with nutritional traits is the most cost effective, timely and desirable way to reach those most vulnerable and malnourished women and children, often left out of various fortification schemes. The big moral question is how long they be denied of this golden opportunity?

        CommentedInderpreet Singh

        Mr. Choudhary, if you are really interested in understanding the work of IRRI, please check out the book 'Oryza Nirvana' - which reviews the birth and evolution of IRRI in the context of rice in the Phillipines and Asia.

    8. CommentedP Jacob

      Mr. Lomborg, once again, writes from myopic thinking. Health is not simply a business of cost effectiveness. I strongly recommend Mr. Lomborg looks deeper into the genetically modified debate before drawing such simplistic conclusions. Rice is a staple daily diet (often the only food) for many cultures. Fortifying natural rice with anything can risk many reactions, allergies and even death. In this instance one should be aware that there is such a thing as Vitamin A overdose... There is a great danger of creating even greater problems by the use of this gene altered rice which may take years to show up in the human body. But then Big Pharma will reap the spoils eh? Restoring nature to a balanced biodiversity instead of taking a gmo colonial approach may serve the world much better Mr. Lomborg.

        CommentedShawn Richardson

        Considering a serving of golden rice will only provide a small fraction of the daily Vitamin A requirement, Vitamin A toxicity is not really much of a concern.

    9. Commentedmoderate Guy

      "...opposition to GM foods – often by rich, well-meaning Westerners..." No, you cannot absolve them of this because they think they are "well-meaning". These people, and they are present here in the comments section are responsible for the death and crippling of millions of children. That is not "well-meaning" by any yardstick. These people are monsters and evildoers and need to be "outed" as such.

        CommentedShawn Richardson

        Larry, the PDF that you posted makes an outrageous scientific error right in the first "myth". Horizontal gene transfer does happen in nature. It has been known for quite sometime that there is horizontal gene transfer between mosses and ferns. Parasitic plants and their hosts wage a type of genetic warfare. About 25% of the cattle genome comes from viral transfers of DNA from reptiles. You may want to hold off on the condescension until you get the basic science right.

        CommentedLarry Spellman

        "moderate guy": even if you work for Monsanto or Syngenta, those are ridiculous comments. Opposition to GM food is evil? That's laughable. Start here (with peer-reviewed journal articles) to educate yourself:

    10. CommentedVenu Madhav

      I am surprised and shocked at this spin on facts and specially the huge endorsement from Lomborg on this subject.
      There are multiple sources for Vitamin-A, millk, green leafy vegetables, carrots, eggs included; and yet the push with a circuitous approach to make it available sounds utterly ridiculous.

    11. CommentedAvraam Dectis

      "golden rice would cost just $100 for every life saved from vitamin A deficiency."
      Why would it cost anything at all ?

      Where does the additional cost come from?

    12. CommentedFrank O'Callaghan

      The great issue with GM is that the technology is used for profit and control rather than for the benefit of humanity.

      We need a better GM. Research should be publicly and internationally funded with the results made freely available.

    13. CommentedFaruk Timuroglu

      You choose the question, eventually you answer as you please, in a monolog. Creating beings that aren't capable producing offspring is simply outrageous. Whole world would become depend upon you to survive. If one could acquire the power to control life on earth with vitamin A, vitamin A must be something very dangerous. Next step would be Manipulating human population on earth.

    14. Commentedjimmy rousseau

      Vendana Shiva is completely right, the problem is not a lack of foodstuffs that can be grown containing enough vitamins, the problem is poverty and education. Also so long as poor third world farmers must compete with highly mechanized 1st world farms, there is no future for any of these countries. the first world countries all developed their economies through closed borders, and now dictate to the third world that there must be free trade. these are the problems, not the lack of gmo's