Golden Rice

20th February 2009 - by Fr Sean McDonagh

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How could anyone oppose crop that promises to deliver untold benefits to poor people? This the cri de coer (cry from heart) will be voiced by Dr. Igno Potrykus during the Pontifical Academy of Sciences Study-Week on Transgenic Plants for Food Security in the Context of Development (151-19 May). In his abstract “My Experience With Golden Rice,” he claims that onerous regulatory processes in many countries have slowed down access to this Vitamin A enhanced rice for the past 10 years. In his estimation the fact that it has taken more than 10 years for this genetically engineered rice to complete the regulatory process has led to the death of 400,000 people. He alleges that, “there is probably no scientific justification for the world-wide established regulatory system which is responsible for such damage.” This is quite a generalisation but at superficial reading of the situation many unbiased people might be inclined to agree with Dr. Potrykus‟s comments on golden rice. However, once one digs a little beneath the surface things appear to be different.

“Foodwatch”, a German non-government organisation, raises serious questions about the Golden Rice. The rice is modified to generate carotenoids which the human body synthesizes into vitamin A. They claim that the serious questions which have been raised about the quality and safety of the product have not yet been answered. Even data about how much carotenoid remains in the rice after it has been cooked or stored have not been made available to the public.1 In the absence of such basic data it is difficult to judge whether this product is helpful or harmful to human beings and the environment “Foodwatch” points out that, while Dr. Potrykus claims that the product meets the highest safety standards, he is actively campaigning for a broad loosening of the regulatory process. In fact one of the goals of the Pontifical Academy‟s Study Week is to “explore ways how to change regulations such that it enables use of the technology for the benefit of the poor, without compromising safety……”

The Indian Scientists Dr. Vandana Shive dismisses “ Genetically Engineered „Vitamin A Rice‟ ( as) A Blind Approach to a Blindness Prevention. She points out that there are many other sources of Vitamin A such as eggs, chicken, meat, milk and butter. Betacarotene, the vitamin A precursors, is also found in green leafy vegetables such as spinach, carrots and pumpkin. It is also available in fruits such as mangos. She makes the point that concurs with my own experience during the years I spent working in Mindanao with the T‟boli people, that the way to achieve lower-cost, accessible and safer alternatives to genetically engineered rice is to increase biodiversity in agriculture.”2 She points out that a shift to rice and irrigation will have serious consequences for water conservation in communities where water is often scarce. Cultivating Vitamin a rice will lead to mining water from aquifers or building of large irrigation dams with associated environmental problems such as salinization and water logging. Sourcing Vitamin A from indigenous green vegetables and fruit is better both for humans and the environment. Furthermore, eating Vitamin A rice at every meal is both monotonous and not a balance died. Why shouldn‟t the poor have access to a balanced diet which would includes cereals, root crops, fruit and meat?

Other reputable scientists dispute Potrykus‟s claims about the safety of Vitamin A rice. In a letter to Professor Russell of Tufts University in February 2009, more than 20 scientists, including the well-known geneticist David Suzuki, criticised the feeding trials on golden rice which were being carried out at the university. The letter stated, “ we wish to remind you that the variety of Golden Rice used in these experiments (GR2) is inadequately described in terms of biological and biochemical characterisation on the Clinical Trials website and indeed anywhere else in the publicly available literature and has woefully inadequate preclinical evaluation. It is a genetically modified product which has not been shown to be distinctive, uniform and stable over time. It has never been through a regulatory/approval process anywhere in the world…. More specifically, our greatest concern is that this rice, which is engineered to overproduce beta carotene, has never been tested on animals and there is an extensive medical literature showing that retinoids that can be derived from beta carotene are both toxic and cause birth defects. In these circumstances the use of human subjects (including children who are already suffering illness as a result of vitamin A deficiency) for GM feeding experiments is completely unacceptable. The three Projects listed breach the Nuremberg Code/medical ethics code on a number of counts, and we urge you to call them to a halt immediately.”3

Finally, golden rice is being used by corporations as a battering ram to get support for GMOs globally under the cloak of helping the poor. In fact corporate controlled GM crops would lead to a disaster in food production globally.

1 (downloaded February 16th 2009)
2 Vandana, Shiva, “Genetically Engineered „Vitamin A Rice‟: A Blind Approach to Blindness Prevention” in Redesigning Life: The Worldwide Challenge of Genetic Engineering” (ed.) Brian Tokar, 2001, Zen Books, London.
3 (downloaded on February 14th 2009)