The idea behind Golden Rice is simple. It starts with a disease: Vitamin A Deficiency (VAD), a wholly preventable scourge of the developing world. As the name implies, VAD is a dietary problem and is particularly prevalent in the developing regions of Africa and Southeast Asia. VAD causes blindness and often death and particularly afflicts children. According to the World Health Organization, this deficiency makes 250,000 to 500,000 children go blind annually. More than half die within a year. If adults are included in the tally, a million die per year.
More stunning than this statistic, perhaps, is that a remedy exists—in fact has existed for several years. In 1982 the Rockefeller Foundation, a charitable organization dedicated to “promoting the well-being of mankind throughout the world,” encouraged research in biofortified foods, crops genetically engineered to produce important nutrients in large quantities. Golden Rice grew out of this research: beta-carotene fortification was developed in 1992, Golden Rice was planted in labs by 1999 and field trials were conducted in Louisiana in 2004 and are only now being conducted in India and the Philippines. The tale of why Golden Rice has taken so long is not one of nefarious forces, although the effect might amount to as much, but of entrenched and uninformed hostility to genetically modified (GM) foods and NGO-EU politics. Golden Rice could save hundreds of thousands of lives a year, if only the international community, particularly the European Union, will let it.
Ten years after biofortified foods had become theoretically possible, researchers Ingo Potrykus and Peter Beyer came up with a bright idea. First, they noted that rice is a staple food in much of the developing world. If rice could be engineered to overproduce beta-carotene, a substance the body converts into vitamin A, people who ate that rice would no longer have a deficiency problem. VAD-induced blindness could be eradicated across the developing world simply by substituting fortified for wild rice.
Unlike vitamin supplement programs, which cost millions each year and face significant delivery problems, just imagine getting a crate of vitamin tablets up a Nepalese mountain, Golden Rice boasts low cost and sustainability. The Golden Rice Humanitarian Board and Syngenta, a biotech company that sponsored much of the research, proposed to donate Golden Rice seeds to subsistence farmers earning less than US$10,000 a year. As Potrykus wrote, by “breeding micronutrients directly into the staple crops that farmers grow for their own table,” Golden Rice promised to once and for all reach the “most remote and inaccessible communities, which often suffer the greatest need.”
The problem is that 1982 was, well, 24 years ago. Given the enormous humanitarian need, why has a farmer in the developing world yet to see Golden Rice? This is not a new question. The first problem was patents and licensing: there were as many as 16 patent and 72 intellectual property issues involved in making Golden Rice free for subsistence farmers, and clearing them up understandably took time. But the real problem, and the one that continues into the future, is EU and NGO obstructionism. One might ask, why can’t the United States produce Golden Rice and give it to developing countries? The answer is that EU market access is very important to developing countries. Some like Zimbabwe have banned GM foods (including GM food aid and Golden Rice) due to the fear of being shut out of European markets. This fear remains an obstacle to Golden Rice adoption, even though the rice is intended for subsistence farmers rather than commercial exporters.
But what caused this European antagonism? The United States has been largely pro-Golden Rice and has favored GM foods while Europe has strongly opposed them. A 2005 Eurobarometer poll showed that 54 percent of European consumers find GM food dangerous. Part of this fear is rational: Europe has seen several food scares including mad cow disease and salmonella, while the United States has not. There is also evidence that US citizens trust the Food and Drug Administration more than Europeans do its counterpart. However, part of the fear is due to ignorance. The 2005 Eurobarometer poll indicated that almost 25 percent of Europeans believe that a person’s genes can be modified by eating GM fruit, while 59 percent of Europeans do not believe tomatoes contain DNA. Furthermore, according to a 2006 EU poll, some EU experts accuse the European media of fear mongering during food scares. These three factors combined—past food scares, popular scientific ignorance, and media attention—make for a potent anti-GM sentiment in Europe.
This bias has been expressed in concrete policies. From 1998 to 2003 the European Union has imposed an unofficial ban on GM foods. Instead of directly banning GM imports, which other states could overturn in the WTO, the European Union simply did not “authorize” any GM food importation. This amounted to a de facto ban, which ended only in 2003 when the United States successfully sued the European Union in the WTO. The European Union has since pursued labeling of GM foods and advocates the “precautionary principle,” the idea that if the consequences of some action are undeterminable but potentially dangerous, it is better to avoid that action. This has translated into red tape and high costs in plant sciences research and development and a level of biosafety testing many scientists regard as absurd.
NGOs like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth have crystallized Europe’s general anti-GM sentiment into direct criticism of Golden Rice. The list is long. According to Greenpeace, Golden Rice is a ploy to gain wider GM acceptance. It does not solve the underlying problems of malnutrition, economic want, or inequity. It could actually exacerbate malnutrition because it would encourage people to rely on one staple instead of many vegetables. It is not safe to eat because it is genetically engineered; it threatens biodiversity. It might not even be effective in combating VAD because there is not enough vitamin A in it to make a difference or because of the effects of cooking and storage. Moreover, people need other substances like zinc and fats to allow the conversion of beta-carotene into vitamin A. Finally, Golden Rice is not necessary; other leafy vegetables can provide vitamin A, and existing supplemental programs work just fine.
Point by point, scientists have disproved these criticisms and are baffled at the resistance that remains. They bristle at the idea that a project developed largely with public funds and aiming to save 6,000 children per day is a ploy of conglomerate industrialists. (Companies like Syngenta that donate thousands of hours and dollars to humanitarian projects are irked to be called conglomerate industrialists in the first place.) Scientists acknowledge that Golden Rice doesn’t solve problems of economic disparity but contend that it was never intended to. It is true that transgenic plants can interbreed with wild plants, but International Rice Research Institute studies have determined the probability of Golden Rice doing so is extremely low. Golden Rice it is self-fertilizing, rice pollen grains are only viable for three to five minutes, and even if transgenic pollen made it to a wild rice plant, the genes it carried would not crowd out wild rice because its beefed-up beta-carotene genes confer no leg up when it comes to natural selection. The cooking and storage argument has been shown false, and while leafy vegetables do provide a source of vitamin A, they cannot be stored year-round like rice.
Environmentalists were right to argue that the initial Golden Rice did not have enough beta-carotene to satisfy daily vitamin A requirements. But the latest version of Golden Rice, which contains 23 times as much beta-carotene, has resolved this issue. Lastly, the conviction that supplemental programs like those in Ghana and Nepal work fine is simply not true. According to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the US food aid program in Ghana alone costs an average of US$20 million per year. Current food aid is distinctly in the position of giving the man the fish, while Golden Rice would be more like a gift of rod and tackle — more efficient and cost effective. Furthermore, on a broader level than the above specific concerns, opposition to Golden Rice is scientifically unwarranted. In 2000 more than 3,500 scientists, including five Nobel Prize winners, signed “a Declaration in Support of Agricultural Biotechnology,” a petition supporting Golden Rice. According to the BBC, no study has ever found GM food harmful to humans.
Unfortunately, the debate is based less on this evidence than political motives. The real question is why NGOs like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth continue to oppose Golden Rice given the humanitarian need and exhaustive evidence suggesting its harmlessness. There are the usual suspects: knee-jerk opposition to biotech companies and ignorance of the science. But beyond these there is an important consideration. To the NGOs, Golden Rice may be a step down the slippery slope of GM introduction. Greenpeace’s website lambasts Golden Rice as a scheme to introduce GM foods in general — and what would be a better way? Golden Rice is an apparently harmless GM product with enormous humanitarian benefit and therefore a dangerous domino to anti-GM foods groups. If it were introduced, it would be a victory for GM foods and might push for their introduction in general.
This NGO opposition inflames European opposition and thus increases the price, difficulty, and time necessary to bring Golden Rice to farmers. Even though the European Union’s unofficial moratorium was overturned in 2003, the movement to label GM foods remains. Many have suggested that labeling would hurt GM producers because it would implicitly mark produce as inferior or dangerous. Golden Rice’s hurdles have not been swept away by the WTO ruling, and due to the moratorium in the past and the labeling threat going into the future, Golden Rice field trials have been delayed in India, Vietnam, the Philippines and Bangladesh. This delay has been considerable:. According to Potrykus, “If not a GMO, breeders would have developed varieties [of golden rice] by 2002, and farmers could have used them from 2003 on. Because of GMO regulations Golden Rice will not reach the farmer before 2009 — with at least six years of delay.” The human cost of this delay has also been considerable: “Every day 6,000 people die from VAD, probably more than 50 percent from rice-dependant VAD. Even with only 1 percent Golden Rice usage, 65,000 GMO regulation-caused deaths could be preventable in 6 years.”
EU opposition and NGO domino politics are the real reasons we have been waiting since 1982 for the eradication of blindness in the developing world. NGOs like Greenpeace will never reconsider. Publics, however, could be a different story. The most important group to sway is the European public. As the 2005 Eurobarometer poll showed, there is a long way to go in biotechnology public education. Awareness should be premised on three key facts: GM foods have never been shown harmful, Golden Rice is not intended for export to Europe, and the obstructionism of their governments is allowing the blindness and deaths of hundreds of thousands. Public awareness campaigns like those conducted by the Golden Rice Project, as well as the addition of the topic to the local Rotary Club meeting, could do much to promote grassroots knowledge. Additionally, the United States should try to get the European Union and developing countries talking specifically about Golden Rice, not the far more threatening specter of GM foods at large. If the United States made a credible commitment that any deal would be about the humanitarian issue of Golden Rice and not GM foods at large, and that Golden Rice is for subsistence farmers, not for export, the EU might prove much more amenable. The United States should also lean on Europe to assure developing countries that they will not be barred from EU markets because of Golden Rice production, as long as Golden Rice does not make its way into exports to Europe. Lastly, the United States should promote discussion on a scientific basis, because once the discussion is in the scientific court, Golden Rice is clearly an unparalleled opportunity to wipe out a preventable and deadly disease. If EU and US policymakers and citizens take these actions today, we might be able to see Golden Rice in the hands of third-world farmers before the currently projected date of 2009.