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
Golden Rice grain being held by IRRI scientist Parminder Virk
IRRI

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
Wikimedia

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.”

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Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.