Published May 12, 2015
In many impoverished countries, blindness due to vitamin A deficiency (VAD) is a very real problem, and the most vulnerable...
— William Wilberforce
In many impoverished countries, blindness due to vitamin A deficiency (VAD) is a very real problem, and the most vulnerable victims are children and pregnant women. Given a well-balanced diet that includes dark leafy greens (kale, spinach, broccoli and the like) and orange or yellow fruits and vegetables (carrots, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, red peppers and melons), it is not difficult to take in an adequate supply of vitamin A, or more specifically its precursor, beta carotene, the antioxidant compound that provides the orange color and is converted by the human body into vitamin A.1 For many of the world’s poor, however, fresh produce is at a premium and often unavailable for much of the year and the populace subsists largely on a diet of rice.
More than two decades ago, Ingo Potrykus of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and Peter Beyer from the University of Freiburg, began their quest to find a way to produce a rice that would make its own vitamin A. After years of trial and error, the researchers ultimately manipulated the genetic code of the rice by inserting into it a gene from the maize plant, which exhibits that crucial beta-carotene. The result was the genetically engineered (GE) product known as Golden Rice. After years of tweaking their process and modifying the rice to meet current safety standards for GMOs, they decided the rice was ready for a human trial in August of 2013. Instead of being welcomed with open arms, however, the trial was met with hostility from farmers and anti-GMO activists, and the trial crop was destroyed by the demonstrators.2
In her blog post about Golden Rice, Elizabeth Finkel, editor-in-chief of COSMOS magazine, asks, “How could anyone in good conscience seek to thwart technology that has even a remote chance of tackling the problem of vitamin A blindness?”3 She goes on to address what she calls the “anti-GMO clichés,” including the idea that “GM crops are unsafe to eat; they are bad for the environment; they are a tool of agribusiness corporations; and they exploit poor farmers who must buy seed as opposed to their traditional practice of saving seed.” She dismisses the first concerns, claiming that such issues as safety and environmental impact have been satisfied by food and environmental safety agencies that assure us that the GMOs are as safe as conventionally grown crops.
As to the impact on the business of farming, Finkel says the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), the not-for-profit organization developing the Golden Rice, has no plans to limit saving and re-planting of the seeds. She also skirts the idea that Golden Rice might act as a “Trojan horse” that, if allowed, could “open the floodgates to GMO technology and from then on to a slippery slope and the takeover of the world’s seed supply,” saying, “Even if that is a legitimate concern, it is an issue for regulators, not a reason to demonize a technology.”3
According to Greenpeace,4 the whole approach to using the genetically modified crop to address the problem of VAD is counterproductive and misses the point that measures designed to promote a diet diverse in fruits and vegetables actually address the root cause of the VAD, rather than encouraging a diet of rice only. The organization’s stance is that the tens of thousands of dollars spent on developing the rice could have been put to better use further developing currently available programs “such as food supplements, food fortification and home gardening.” Says Greenpeace, “This GE rice is a technological fix that may generate new problems.” In addition to the nutritional issues, Greenpeace addresses the added potential for contamination of non-GE rice. Once such contamination occurs, they contend, it would be difficult if not impossible to eradicate the modified rice.4
While some of the controversial methods used by Greenpeace, which has allegedly been involved in vandalizing and ruining other GM crops in Norfolk, England, and Australia, have brought the group a flood of negative publicity, the points raised have widespread support. First, the incidence of VAD has fallen drastically in the Philippines since 2003, even without the use of Golden Rice, with the improvements attributed to better nutrition and supplements.6 Similarly, the International World Health Organization (WHO), acknowledging the serious nature of VAD blindness, especially in children and pregnant women, stresses the importance of long-term, nutrition-based solutions.
WHO’s goal is global elimination of VAD via a program they refer to as the “arsenal of nutritional ‘well-being weapons’ [which] includes a combination of breastfeeding and vitamin A supplementation, coupled with enduring solutions, such as promotion of vitamin A-rich diets and food fortification.”7 Details of the proposed arsenal include promoting the importance of breastfeeding, which provides vitamin A to the infant and, since breastfeeding is a limited solution, vitamin A supplementation to older children. Because supplements only last for about six months, the true cornerstone of the WHO approach is a more diverse diet, “cultivating the garden, both literally and figuratively,” (their pun, not mine).
When education and promotion of dietary diversification is such a simple and holistic approach to avoiding the risk of VAD blindness, the idea behind Golden Rice, which in practice would support the often-necessary but ultimately unhealthy rice-based diet, may be of questionable value. “For vulnerable rural families, for instance in Africa and South-East Asia, growing fruits and vegetables in home gardens complements dietary diversification and fortification and contributes to better lifelong health.”7