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‘Golden Rice’ and Vitamin A Deficiency

Bill Freese / Earth Focus / FOE Spring 2001

"If anyone tells you that GM is going to feed the world, tell them that it is not… To feed the world takes political and financial will – it’s not about production and distribution." 
Steve Smith, head of Novartis Seeds

High-tech cure for Vitamin A deficiency?

"Biotechnology and GM crops are taking us down a dangerous road, creating the classic conditions for hunger, poverty and even famine. Ownership and control concentrated in too few hands and a food supply based on too few varieties planted widely are the worst option for food security."
Christian Aid Report: "Biotechnology and GMOs"

In 1999, Swiss and German scientists announced the development of a "golden rice" genetically engineered to produce beta-carotene, a substance which the body can convert to Vitamin A. The new rice was quickly heralded as a miracle cure for vitamin A deficiency (VAD), a condition which afflicts millions of people in developing countries, especially children and pregnant women. Severe VAD can cause partial or total blindness; less severe deficiencies weaken the immune system, increasing the risk of infections such as measles and malaria. Women with VAD are more likely to die during or after childbirth. Each year, it is estimated that VAD causes blindness in 350,000 pre-school age children, and it is implicated in over one million deaths. At first glance, then, golden rice would seem to be a godsend. But a closer look reveals a different picture.

A long road from lab to field

"…the public relations uses of Golden Rice have gone too far. The industry’s advertisements and the media in general seem to forget that it is a research product that needs considerable further development before it will be available to farmers and consumers."
Gordon Conway, President of the Rockefeller Foundation, the chief funder of the Golden Rice project

Golden rice is produced by splicing three foreign genes – two from the daffodil and one from a bacterium – into japonica rice, a variety adapted for temperate climates. The developers anticipate at least five more years will be required to breed the Vitamin A trait into rice varieties adapted to local climates in developing countries. This is probably overly optimistic, given the unprecedented difficulties presented by engineering a complex three-gene trait (all current GE crops are spliced with single-gene constructs), and the need for safety and environmental testing before field introduction.

Too little, too late

Even if golden rice is successfully introduced, it will likely do little to ameliorate VAD because it produces so little beta-carotene – just 1.6 micrograms per gram rice (µg/g) at present, with a goal of 2.0 µg/g. Even if scientists reach this goal, a woman would need to eat 16 lbs. of cooked rice every day in order to get sufficient Vitamin A, if golden rice were her only source of the nutrient. A child would need 12 lbs. More realistically, three servings of ˝ lb. cooked golden rice per day would provide only 10% of her daily Vitamin A requirement, and less than 6% if she were breast-feeding. Yet even these modest contributions are uncertain. In order to absorb beta carotene, the human body requires adequate amounts of zinc, protein and fats, elements often lacking in the diets of poor people. Those with diarrhea – common in developing countries – are also unable to obtain vitamin A from golden rice.

Magic bullets miss the mark

"A single nutrient approach towards a nutrition-related public health problem is usually, with the exception of perhaps iodine or selenium deficiencies, neither feasible nor desirable." 
John R. Lupien, Director, Food and Nutrition Division, Food and Agricultural Organization, United Nations

Nutrition experts thus confirm what common sense tells us – a balanced, diverse diet supplying a full range of foods and nutrients is the only sound way to promote health and prevent VAD and other nutritional deficiencies. According to Dr. Samson Tsou of the Asian Vegetable Research and Development Center, VAD is not a major problem in countries with vegetable consumption of more than 200 grams per day. A pre-school child’s daily requirement of vitamin A can be met with just two tablespoons of yellow sweet potatoes, half a cup of dark green leafy vegetables, or two-thirds of a medium-sized mango. And unlike golden rice, these vegetables supply other micronutrients as well.

Shall man live by rice alone?

"Seeking a technological food fix for world hunger may be…the most commercially malevolent wild goose chase of the new century."
Dr. Richard Horton, editor of the British science journal The Lancet

The Green Revolution of the 1960s and 70s replaced diverse cropping systems with monocultures of new wheat and rice varieties. These new hybrids required irrigation, fertilizers and herbicides to deliver increased yields. These herbicides killed off many green, leafy vegetables that had been important sources of Vitamin A. They also poisoned rice paddy waters, causing steep declines in fish and shrimp populations in areas such as Bangladesh, where integrated rice-fish farming is practiced. Monoculture in the fields predictably led to less diverse diets. In India, household consumption of vegetables has decreased 12% over the past two decades. In Thailand, 80% of caloric intake now comes from rice, up from less than 50% before the Green Revolution. An impoverished diet that consists of little else but rice (golden or not) will never provide a solution to world hunger or malnutrition.

Alternatives to golden rice

"If it were not for the vast array of alternatives on offer, the arguments for the GM approach might be genuinely compelling."
Hugh Warwick, Splice, magazine of the Genetics Forum, March/April 2000

Even if golden rice is successfully developed, many question whether it is an efficient use of scarce public funds. An educational project in Bangladesh begun in 1993 by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization has helped landless families develop home gardens with vitamin A-rich crops such as beans and pumpkins. This successful program grew to involve at least three million people by 1998. A public education campaign in Thailand that utilized radio, posters and street theater taught farmers the advantages of growing the ivy gourd, another good source of vitamin A. A project in the Jiangsu province of China has helped spawn a huge increase in rice/aquaculture systems, which resulted in 10-15% increases in rice yields and, more importantly, 750 kg of fish per hectare of rice paddy. The fish also helped reduce the incidence of malaria by consuming mosquito larvae.

There are innumerable small-scale projects such as these throughout the developing world, only we rarely hear about them. And they don’t get nearly the amount of funding that they deserve. According to Hans Herren, Director of the Kenyan-based International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology, "half of Rockefeller’s agricultural money now goes to biotechnology." Herren, recipient of the World Food Prize in 1995, helped avert famine in Africa through introduction of a natural predator that eliminated a serious cassava pest. And this elegant solution didn’t cost farmers anything. One must wonder how many other low-tech, sustainable, people-centered solutions to hunger and malnutrition go unfunded thanks to government and biotech industry obsession with the hugely expensive technology of genetic engineering.

source: http://www.foe.org/safefood/rice.html 4jun01

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