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Biology 103
2003 Third Paper
On Serendip

'Golden Rice': who would have thought something so dry could raise so much controversy?

Abby Fritz

Heated debate over the bioengineering of a type of rice that has come to be called 'golden rice' has been taking place in the past five years. Exploration of the possibilities that would follow the mapping of the rice genome began in response to the huge populations in developing countries that experience vitamin deficiencies; namely, vitamin A. When biotech company, Syngenta, announced that they had mapped the rice genome, a series of activist groups spoke out against a project that was, many argued, politically and financially motivated. This has been a topic of intense debate that I was surprised to find. Developing a kind of rice containing a vitamin that is lacking among large populations seems to be such a great idea. So why does so much controversy surround the project? There are many more disadvantages to the introduction of the new technology than one might anticipate. The following first explores the effects of vitamin a deficiency and then the arguments of the opposition and supporters' responses to it.

Vitamin A is an organic compound that is needed in small amounts in the human body; however a deficiency in this micronutrient can lead to problems and illnesses (3). The vitamin is found naturally in many plant and animal foods in the forms of retinal in animals and carotene in plants (3). Retinal pigments that are very important for night vision are produced by Vitamin A; the vitamin is also important in maintaining the strength of epithelial tissues (5). Without proper amounts of Vitamin A, the outer lining of the eyeball becomes dry and wrinkled, leading to redness and inflammation and, which brings potential of blindness (3). Sources vary, but on average it is believed that as many as two million children die a year due to vitamin A deficiencies and that another 500,000 go blind (2).

It is because of these kinds of numbers that researchers have been searching for ways to bring more vitamin A into foods that are part of the diets of people in at-risk countries, especially in Southeast Asia. A genetically engineered rice, 'golden rice,' has been named one potential solution. Rice is a staple food in most of the countries that have been experiencing numerous health issues due to malnutrition, the greatest deficiencies being of vitamin A. Traditional rice, however, lacks vitamin A; this is largely due to a process called rice polishing that was introduced by The Green Revolution (4). The process involves removing the aleurone layer, because it causes the rice to turn rancid more quickly while being stored (9). 'Golden rice' is meant to return the vitamin A, in the form of pro-vitamin b-carotene, to rice so that the millions of people who rely on it as a major food source gain some nutritional value from it (2).

The concept sounds noble and logical enough. It sounds like a perfect solution to a widespread problem. Why not add vitamin A to rice? What could really be lost in the process? According to the numerous critics of 'golden rice' research and the recently discovered rice genome map, nothing but problems will arise upon the integration of the rice into the diets of the malnourished that the entire project claims to have wanted to help. One of the most substantial arguments that critics turn to is the fact that the addition of vitamin A into a staple food such as rice would be far from fixing the problem of malnutrition. People who are severely malnourished may not even be able to absorb the vitamin A ingested through rice if they do not have an otherwise overall nutritionally satisfactory health status (11). Pro-vitamin b-carotene is fat soluble, and therefore requires dietary fat for absorption (8). Therefore, the "digestion, absorption, and transport of b-carotene require a functional digestive tract, adequate protein and fat stores, and adequate energy, protein, and fat in the diet" (8). Because vitamin A deficiency is clearly accompanied by deficiencies of many other micronutrients, the proper absorption of vitamin A is easily hindered among the target population of 'golden rice.' Those with diarrhea, which is common in developing countries, are also unable to take in the vitamin A from rice (10).

Let us imagine for a moment that the bodies of those individual who had deficiencies could absorb the vitamin A existing in 'golden rice.' Critics also argue that experimenting with the possibilities of vitamin A in rice is completely trivial because the amount that a person would have to consume to even take in half of the necessary daily value of vitamin A is simply not practical. The average person would have to eat twelve or more pounds of rice to meet their daily vitamin needs (2). Realistically, three servings of a half pound of cooked 'golden rice' per day would provide only 10% of a person's daily vitamin A requirement, and less than 6% for a woman who was breast-feeding (10).

The combination of the amount of fat and other nutrients necessary to take in vitamin A and the impracticality of digesting many pounds of rice a day to even have the opportunity to take in nearly the required daily amount has resulted in the suggested that malnutrition merely a nutrition problem, but also as a social problem (12). Dr. Samson Tsou, Director General of the Asian Vegetable Research and Development Center (AVRDC) proposes that, "income generation, healthy diet and proper education need to be improved simultaneously for sustainable development" (12). He, as well as numerous others, thinks that the priority should be to increase vegetable production with high vitamin A content, as many leafy green vegetables and green and yellow fruits are rich in the vitamin (3). Nutrition experts have determined that, "a pre-school child's daily requirement of vitamin A can be met with just two tablespoons of yellow sweet potatoes, half a cup of dark green leafy vegetables, or two-thirds of a medium-sized mango; and unlike golden rice, these vegetables supply other micronutrients as well" (10). It is very possible that even the distribution of massive doses of vitamin A every six months, in addition to educating people to eat green leafy vegetables and yellow fruits like papaya daily, could be more effective than the proposed benefits of 'golden rice' (5). The doses have been given in the past in the amount of 200,000 I.U. every six months based on the property of vitamin A that allows it to be stored in the liver and used as necessary over a long period of time (5). These methods could be more effective used as part of a plan that might reduce vitamin A deficiency long term. In addition, encouraging people to maintain diversity in their diets is important and keeps them well-balanced.

Not only might the introduction of 'golden rice' as a "cure" for vitamin A deficiency reduce diversity among the foods eaten by an enormous population of the world, but this "prescriptive approach in which only a few varieties will contain the trait will further worsen genetic erosion," warns MASIPAG, (The Farmer Scientist Partnership for Development Inc.) in the Philippines (12). Local groups such as this are reluctant to combat a socio-economic problem through an artificially produced solution, as they are still attempting to recover from the Green Revolution, which they have totally abandoned (12). They see maintaining, or in some cases re-introducing, biodiversity in many forms of sustainable agriculture as being key because they have seen it practiced successfully by tens of millions of farmers all over the world (9). These local groups also distrust the instability of artificial gene constructs that have been known to be structurally unstable, because they easily break up and join incorrectly with other parts of genetic material, resulting in new and unpredictable combinations (9). These unpredictable products bring up huge questions of safety, especially as they have never existed in the many years of evolution (9).

As we have seen so far, the 'golden rice' project has been met with bitter controversy. Many critics are convinced that the entire program has been a publicity stunt and that its intentions were politically and economically motivated. Brian Tokar, a member of Biojustice, a group opposed to genetic engineering asserts that, "the purported benefits of golden rice are completely fabricated" (2). Some have even gone so far as to say that the entire project is "absurd" and that "it was a useless application, a drain on public finance and a threat to health and biodiversity" (9). They view it as a desperate effort to "salvage a morally as well as financially bankrupt agricultural biotech industry that obstructs the essential shift to sustainable agriculture that can truly improve the health and nutrition especially of the poor in the Third World" (9). The bioengineered 'golden rice' has come under severe scrutiny because it has been seen by so many critics as the "poster child" of the food biotechnology industry's extensive public relations campaign to convince the public that, "the benefits of genetically engineered agricultural products outweigh any safety, environmental, or social risks they might pose" (8).

Amid all of the skepticism and criticism, there remain adamant supporters of the possible benefits anticipated to become possible as a result of the development of such products as 'golden rice.' They have responded to the accusations of ulterior motives that are politically and financially driven by asking what the goals of organizations like Greenpeace might be saying through their criticism. Greenpeace has been a staunch critic of the introduction of 'golden rice' because it was developed through their "bete noir" of transgenic engineering and because it helps modern agribusiness (1). But supporters of its production feel they can just as easily point fingers at the organization asserting that GMO opposition has waged its own war of propaganda against the work of bioengineers. The argue that, "they [GMO organizations] are only pretending to work for mankind," or "are only satisfying their own egos" or "are merely working for the profits of industry" (13). Ingo Potrykus, Professor Emeritus at the Institute of Plant Sciences Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, has responded to these challenges firmly stating:

"By their [Greenpeace and associated GMO opponents] singular logic, the success of 'golden rice' has to be prevented under all circumstances, irrespective of the damage to those for whose interest Greenpeace pretends to act...The GMO opposition has been doing everything in their power to prevent 'golden rice' from reaching subsistence farmers. This is because the GMO opposition has a hidden, political agenda. It is not so much the concern about the environment, or the health of the consumer, or the help for the poor and disadvantaged. It is a radical fight against a technology and for political success. This could be tolerated in rich countries where people have a luxurious life even without the new technology. However, it cannot be tolerated in poor countries, where the technology can make the difference between life and death or between health and severe illness" (13).

Potrykus also clearly points out that the GMO opposition insists on demanding that scientists take full responsibility for their actions, while seemingly blind to the fact that they are not taking responsibility for their own actions by hindering the advancement of a product such as 'golden rice' that could help those that they claim to support (13).

These and similar remarks by those who support 'golden rice' technology are very logical and I have often thought the same way about radical environmentalist and humanitarian groups that thrive by bringing other organizations down to benefit of their own agendas. I find that there are possible benefits to this development in biotechnology. One is that rice is the smallest of major cereals: six times smaller than that of corn and 37 times smaller than that of wheat (1). The production of bioengineered rice could make way for possible and perhaps more beneficial production of more complex bioengineered products that contain more important vitamins and nutrients that the body needs. In this respect, no matter what the motives of the biotech industry might really be, there is no denying that the technology has potential of being helpful knowledge to have obtained.

At the same time, I am still uneasy about the integration of artificially engineered products with native or local species. After all, we have spoken all semester about the importance of maintaining diversity as a fundamental element in biological systems. Further, I am in agreement with the arguments that nutrition experts have made about the need for more than a vitamin A enhanced rice. There are so many more elements that contribute to malnutrition; and if people who do suffer from it will not even be able to ingest the vitamin A from 'golden rice,' due to a lack of fat intake or other necessary vitamins, then I see no need to push for its immediate introduction in developing countries. There are too many alternate solutions to the problem of malnutrition that would also quite possibly be more beneficial, especially in the long term. Promising options seem to be increasing awareness among at-risk populations about the foods available to them that consist of the greatest number and most beneficial vitamins and nutrients that are imperative as part of a balanced diet. The complexity of factors that lead to malnutrition support the notion that the addition of a single nutrient to a food will not play a large enough role in developing a remedy for the problem. To conclude, I would suggest that to assert, as many opponents have, that the entire 'golden rice' project has been a useless application and a waste of money is extreme. I think that the knowledge gained by mapping the rice genome will have a use in the future and may well play a role in solving hunger issues. As far as solving the present problem of vitamin A deficiencies, however, I feel that there are better, more economical options that will have much greater long-lasting effects for those affected by it.


1)"Rice Genome Brings Hope, Controversy.", The controversy over genetically engineered rice.

2) "'Golden rice' touted as one of biotech's benefits" , Various criticisms of 'golden rice' production

3)"The Basics of Vitamin A.", Everything you need to know about Vitamin A.

4)"Natural versus engineered Vitamin A.", More specifics on vitamin A and how much the body needs.

5)"The Indian Scene.", Specifics on malnutrition in India.

6)"The Doctor's Debate.", Malnutrition's effects on children.

7)"Natural Foods and Beta-Carotene.", Specifics on beta-carotene and its absorption.

8)"Unproven and unwanted science: the debate.", The use of 'golden rice' as biotech industry's "poster child."

9)"An exercise on how not to do science.", Author of this article is adamant critic of 'golden rice.'

10)"Golden Rice and Vitamin A Deficiency.", This article addresses problems with Golden Rice

11) "Golden Rice: blind ambition?" Friends of the Earth International. Link Magazine: Issue 93, April/June 2003. More arguments against Golden Rice

12)"Grains of delusion: Golden rice seen from the ground.", Assessment of pros and cons of Golden rice.

13)"Golden Rice and Beyond.", This article contains arguments supporting Golden Rice research and the importance of technology transfer.

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