- 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
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. Continue reading