GM food fight: Why the Gates Foundation wants to make rice golden | 

Golden Rice grain being held by IRRI scientist Parminder Virk
Golden Rice grain being held by IRRI scientist Parminder Virk

Imagine if you could prevent hundreds of millions of children from suffering malnutrition maladies such as blindness, stunting, poor health overall and death by simply dropping a missing vitamin in their daily bowl of rice. Or by messing around with a few genes.

That’s essentially what scientists, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, hope to accomplish with a new form of rice dubbed ‘golden rice.’

It’s golden because, unlike natural rice, it has been genetically modified to produce the very yellow nutrient and precursor to vitamin A known as beta carotene. Experts estimate that 250 million poor children don’t get enough vitamin A in their diet, at least half a million die, go blind or otherwise suffer greatly for the lack of it.

Despite its intended humanitarian purpose, golden rice is highly controversial – because it is a GMO, a genetically modified organism.

For example, a report today from NPR’s Dan Charles, Golden Rice Study Violated Ethical Rules, is the latest in a long-running dispute over the still-experimental foodstuff. Here’s an earlier report from Nature on the same ‘scandal’ in China that erupted because unwitting volunteers were reportedly fed the golden rice to test for nutritional benefit but not told they were eating a GMO.

Further, in the Philippines where golden rice is under study, field tests of the crop have been ripped up and some Filipino farmers have vowed to prevent the GM crop from being approved for the market.

The scientists found that the golden rice did a good job at providing the nutrient, but the researchers were punished by Chinese officials and lost their jobs for failing to warn participants that they were eating GMO rice. Tufts researchers, in the NPR story today, said the sackings appeared justified for breaching research ethics.

Vitamin A deficiency worldwide
Vitamin A deficiency worldwide

Missed in all this is the simple fact that the Chinese study did show golden rice can prevent deadly vitamin A deficiency with no apparent adverse health effects. Informed consent is important in research, of course, but perhaps it’s worth noting that most Americans are already eating GMOs on a daily basis (most of our corn and soy, for example) to little furor. Nobody here feeding us this stuff is getting fired or embroiled in scandal.

That may all change, as I noted yesterday, as the battle over GM foods heats up with Seattle shaping up to become one of the main fronts. Accurately or not, the Gates Foundation is regarded as a leading advocate for the expanded use of GM crops globally.

“We fully expect golden rice will continue to be a lightning rod in this debate,” said Alex Reid, a spokeswoman for the Gates Foundation on its agricultural programs. The Seattle philanthropy supports research into a variety of GM crop technologies as one of many options aimed at improving agricultural productivity and utility in poor communities, Reid said, but their spending on GMOs remains less than 10 percent of the entire agricultural program budget. She noted that the Gates Foundation has spent about $2 billion on agriculture since adding that to its humanitarian portfolio in the mid-2000s. The most recent annual report, Reid said, put agriculture spending at more than $370 million in 2011 (with the golden rice project getting about $10 million).

Support for golden rice research also comes from the Rockefeller Foundation and the US Agency for International Development.

“If it turns out to be safe an effective, we would support it,” she said. “For now, we just see it as one of many options. We would describe our position on this as ‘technologically agnostic,’ meaning we are neither for or against GM crops. We just want to use what works.”

And for vitamin A deficiency, the Seattle philanthropy believes a biotechnological solution may be the simplest and most effective solution.

Lawrence Kent
Lawrence Kent
Gates Foundation

“One of the biggest problems in the developing world is micronutrient deficiencies,” added Lawrence Kent, a program officer at the Gates Foundation overseeing the philanthropy’s support for research into golden rice.

An estimated 2 billion people suffer from micronutrient deficiencies in their diets, Kent noted, which can kill but also undermines their mental and physical development. Vitamin A deficiency is one of the leading culprits.

“The best way to deal with micronutrient deficiencies is to get people out of poverty, of course, ” he said. “But until we can accomplish that, we can prevent a lot of death and disability in poor communities by expanding the use of bio-fortified staple foods like rice, maize and cassava.”

Most of the world’s poorest people are smallholder farmers, Kent noted, so improving agriculture is critical to the fight against poverty and inequity. But the golden rice program was originally supported by the Gates Foundation as a health project based on the recognition that micronutrient deficiency was killing and disabling almost on the same scale as AIDS, TB or malaria.

“Golden rice is a project where our goals in health and agriculture meet,” he said. “Many approaches to bio-fortification can be done through conventional breeding or hybridization of crops. That’s not true for vitamin A and rice. The only way to fortify the rice was through genetic engineering.”

Kent finds the opposition to golden rice a bit confusing and off-target.

While he acknowledged there are sometimes legitimate points raised by opponents of GM crops when it comes to costs, corporate control of agriculture and the like, he said none of these apply to golden rice. With support from the Gates Foundation, this GM crop — should it gain approval for use by farmers (years away) — would be given away by its developers (the biotech firm Syngenta and the International Rice Research Institute) as seed to farmers to be sold at the same price as regular rice seed and with no corporate strings attached.

“Nobody’s going to be making much money on this,” Kent said. “This is aimed at solving a major global health problem first and foremost.”

There’s been no evidence of any potential health risks or problems from golden rice, he noted, yet the popular narrative around GM food is to imply these modified foods are somehow a threat to human health.

“Genetic modification of food is, in a sense, much more precise and predictable than what we do now,” Kent said. Some argicultural scientists irradiate seeds to produce new crop strains through mutations. This is way more of a ‘crap shoot’ in terms of what kind of genetic modification you get, he noted, but the public and activist community are focused on GM. Even traditional hybridization can produce some weird mutants, he noted (think of those half-apple-half-grape fruits), yet it is this more precise approach that is drawing all the fire.

“Our support for golden rice is controversial. But we will continue to support the research into it because we think, if it works, we can save millions of lives with it,” Kent said. Those who oppose golden rice on principle, as opposed to evidence, he said, should be challenged to come up with a better alternative for those millions of children dying, going blind or suffering life-long disability.

“This isn’t just an experiment to see if we can make a GM crop,” Kent said. “This is a matter of life and death.”

  • Anne Starks Acosta

    So, can anyone out there explain to me why one should oppose Golden Rice?

    • rudy reyes

      Malnutrition, not just in the third world but even in rich countries, is a social problem and begs for social solutions. The varied nutritious diets that people in rice growing areas used to have disappeared with the adoption of chemical farming as the heavy application of chemical fertilizers and pesticides wiped out the diversity of plants and aquatic life that was the source of vitamins, minerals and protein of rice farmers’ families. GMO rice is a step up towards a more capital intensive Iowa-type of farming that will benefit only the prosperous farmers (assuming the claims about golden rice are true) who can afford the purchase each cropping season the package of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, purchased seeds, ample water and deep cultivation that golden rice needs to thrive well). And these farmers and their families are most likely not malnourished. Diet in the third world has worsened because poor farmers and indigenous people were driven from their land to make way for corporate plantations of palm oil, cavendish bananas, pineapple and tapioca. The rich communal fishing grounds and the mangrove breeding sanctuaries of fishes and crustaceans largely disappeared and have beenconverted to corporate fishponds the meet the demands of the West for shrimps and cultured fish…..Syngenta and Monsanto turning into philanthropists that they will not charge royalty for GMO-rice in the third world? It is an obvious Trojan horse as they they protect with patents even the most minute results of their GMO rice development work.. Monsanto, who files suits left and right against small farmers who dare use as planting material part of their Monsanto GMO harvest now with a heart that bleeds for the poor children of Asia? Syngenta who filed a suit against the European Community for banning the use of one of Syngenta’s pesticide found to have caused the mass die=off of bees in Europe now a Good Samaritan?. A single plant of yellow sweet potato which can grow in the most unhospitable soil can provide all the vitamins and minerals that an Asian family needs for a healthy diet.

      • Loren Eaton

        Other than handing over IP rights for free, Monsanto has no skin in the game. Why bring them up? Easy target? And no, I don’t work for them.
        All the things you bring up are things that should happen. Why aren’t they? And where is it written that implementing GR is mutually exclusive? I believe we call that a false choice. GR will not solve the larger problem of malnutrition…NO ONE has ever claimed it would. It will, however, mitigate a very real problem in a reasonable time frame REGARDLESS of anyone’s motivation. The things you describe happen over decades if not generations. To trot out your dislike of multinationals as a rationale for stopping this project is crass and characteristic of someone who eats regularly.
        To those of us who have been doing the science for a while, it is becoming obvious that the success of this project is the worst nightmare for those like Greenpeace, Vandana Shiva, Marion Nestle and Jeffrey Smith, etc. Activists and even some governments in the EU have obstructed the proper testing of the rice for 14 YEARS now. As I’ve stated on a number of blogs, if you’re so sure it will fail, LET IT FAIL.
        If it succeeds, prepare to answer some tough questions.
        Oh and I think it was Bayer’s nicotine based insecticide that harmed the bees, not Syngenta.

        • Melissa in Virginia

          Why is it that it is being tested after the fact? Why wasn’t it tested prior to being put into the market place? And come on, you can’t really believe that involving someone in a “science experiment” that they know nothing about is ethical can you?