Golden distraction

In 2009, the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) predicted that the first approval for a commercial release of GM 'Golden Rice' would be in the Philippines, possibly as early as 2012.

This is the final proof that Golden Rice is, and has always been, nothing more than a PR exercise to brand GM as a saviour of the Third World, and make it a Trojan Horse to get GM into the global food chain. If this conclusion seems far-fetched, have a look at the history.

Back in the days when the biotech industry was first planning to flood the world with GM food and already realised there would be opposition, its PR gurus advised it that, to engineer acceptance, it must “create positive perceptions”. Good advice, because positive perceptions distract attention from the safety issues.

Conveniently, an idea first floated in 1984 seemed to be coming to fruition 15 years later, just in time to assume the necessary positive role. The concept was a crop designed to help more than a million children who suffer blindness or death each year due to vitamin A deficiency (VAD). And so, with much fanfare, Golden Rice, genetically transformed to generate carotenoid precursors of vitamin A, was presented to the public in 2000.

To help things along, the Golden Rice Humanitarian Board was set up to provide “strategic guidance” to the project and “up-to-date and accurate information on the science, product development, and progress in regulatory approval of Golden Rice to all interested audiences”. The Board takes the position that the crop could “substantially complement (existing efforts to tackle the problem) in the future and make them more sustainable, especially in remote rural areas”. The magic rice has been supported by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, the EU Biotechnology Programme, and the wealthy Rockefeller and bill & Melinda Gates Foundations.

However, ten years on, despite the philanthropic incentives plus many years of scientific and PR endeavour, not to mention some $100 million of public money, the Golden Rice 'saviour' hasn't become a reality.

According to Golden Rice's developers and backers, the reasons for this have been the “degenerately immoral” “bunch of cranks” whose “exaggerated criticism” and “fear-mongering” have led to a burdensome and unrealistic regulatory climate. (Dr. Adrian Dubock)

Is this true, or is it crude name-calling to deflect attention away from awkward questions about the safety of the rice?

A review of the science, or more accurately the curious absence of science, in the published literature over the decade during which Golden rice has been under development might offer a clue to the answer.

The initial 'successful' genetic transformation resulted in a rice plant which generated beta-carotene (pro-vitamin A), but not by the metabolic route anticipated. The scientists seem to have shrugged and decided that the rice would do just fine even if they weren't sure why.

The first field trials found beta-carotene production was inexplicably 3-5 times higher than under laboratory conditions (another shrug).

Foodwatch Germany describes how a sample of this first generation Golden Rice was sent to a specialist laboratory for mouse feeding studies. The tests apparently never took place because the researchers discovered the rice contained less than 1% of the expected level of carotenoids.

Greenpeace's early challenge that Golden Rice didn't produce enough pro-vitamin A to benefit its consumers (an average 2-year-old would have to eat 3 kilos of the rice a day to reach the recommended intake) revealed a number of holes in the project. For example, the Humanitarian Board countered by shifting its position from a claim that Golden Rice is needed because “smallholders grow their own rice and little else”, to a claim that it was unrealistic of Greenpeace to assume children had to get all their vitamin A from rice. The rice's creators also illogically suggested that only half the recommended intake needed to prevent malnutrition may prevent malnutrition.

The problem of insufficient generation of carotenoids isn't the only fly in the GM ointment. Beta-carotene is a large molecule with a wide potential for breaking down to derivative substances, especially in the presence of sunlight and enzymes active in the rice grain; in short, it inevitably degenerates during storage. However last April, 2008, US researchers announced some good news for the Golden Rice project. Their “soon-to-be-published” studies of human volunteers indicated that the previously assumed 12 molecules of beta-carotene needed to create a single molecule of vitamin A was wrong. The conversion ratio was only 3 or 4 beta-carotenes per vitamin A. Either our previous knowledge of carotene metabolism was wanting, or possibly the US study was wishful thinking, because 14 months later it still has not been published.

If you've been counting, that's six demonstrations that our knowledge of the real-life biochemical pathways involving in beta-carotene and vitamin A is defective in important areas.

Unwilling to let go of the baby which wasn't as golden as hoped, Syngenta took over development of the rice. The DNA was re-engineered with new versions of the genes, and so Golden Rice Mark II, with 23 times the carotenoid levels of Mark I, was created.

Syngenta also took steps to 'create positive perceptions' and by-pass the influences of the degenerately-immoral cranks (and regulators?) of the developed world by 'donating' its new GM rice to research institutions across China, India, the Philippines, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Vietnam (all places where rice is a staple, and sometimes the only, food, and where GM regulatory control is weak). The Company also worked out a deal so that farmers in developing countries earning less than $10,000 a year could get it free.

So far, so good. But as Golden Rice was being pushed altruistically towards Third World fields, what happened to the the tests for safety?

Field trials asked for by the Chinese regulators were stalled because the Rockefeller Foundation viewed them as “a foolish use of our funds”.

The Golden Rice Humanitarian Board claims that repeatedly breeding a GM plant with a local strain of rice will result in a crop “with the only difference that it is now capable of producing and accumulating beta-carotene (pro-vitamin A).” This is an unproven assumption. It's also scientifically unlikely that an artificial active gene producing a biologically active substance will fail to alter other aspects of whatever plant genome or physiology it is in.

Evidence for safety presented by the Humanitarian Board focuses on beta-carotene only, and moreover on beta-carotene from plant sources other than Golden Rice. This is disingenuous, because beta-carotene belongs to a family of some 600 related substances, at least 60 of which can be precursors to 'retinoids'. Only three retinoids have been closely studied, but all of such substances are likely to cause birth defects. Moreover, some carotenoid derivatives are known to be cumulative in blood and in fat. It's not fanciful to see the danger that unpredictable novel derivatives could emerge from a plant forced to over-produce a novel beta-carotene in grain where the substance isn't naturally present. Such questions are clearly very serious, not only because rice is so often the only food for the poor in developing countries, but because rice out-crosses very readily with weedy relatives. This means that if, or when, a toxic consequences emerges in Golden Rice, it will continue forever within a weedy reservoir in all the developing countries being targeted by the biotech industry.

In March 2009, the Golden Rice Project stated that the rice had gone through “many tests” , specifying nine. There are no animal feeding studies mentioned, but two items are relevant:
  • “8. Tests for beta-carotene bioavailability and bioconversion to retinol ... with deuterium-labelled Golden Rice fed to adults in USA and a small group of children in China have been conducted. The former were highly successful and the latter are being evaluated at present.”
  • “9. Feeding trials with human adults in China were carried out to measure the effect of fate in the diet, on bioconversion and bioavailability.”

Note. The other seven tests listed by the Golden Rice Project relate to:  
  • a biochemical explanation of the golden colour of the rice grains
  • the fact that 10 out of 2000 GM events were selected for further development
  • gene expression profiling
  • allergenic potential
  • artificial digestibility
  • the smallness of the quantity of carbon used by the plant for GM purposes
  • and taste trials.
None of these are tests for safety.

Press reports indicate that the Chinese trials which “have been conducted” on children were, in fact, abandoned when Greenpeace alerted the Chinese authorities of the GM nature of the rice being trialled. The US Clinical Trials website indicates that trials have been run there since 2004, but no data from these “highly successful” studies have been published.

More seriously, these clinical trials seem to be well and truly jumping the safety gun: there have been no data published for levels of GM pro-vitamin A, nor for animal feeding studies, nor for carotenoid-degradation in the rice during storage and cooking, nor for uniformity and stability of the crops, nor for any environmental studies. Add to this that second generation Golden Rice appears not to be one specific GM trait, but a collection of experimental transgenic events without basic molecular characterisation nor data on their biological properties. Regarding the 'tests' described above, there is no indication which of these various GM events (each with its own carotenoid production) was actually given to the human guinea-pigs (including children). If the Golden Rice is to be commercialised in the Philippines by 2012, not even a fraction of the safety-testing needed has been scheduled.

The biotech industry attitude to safety is that as “Golden Rice contains the food colours found everywhere in coloured natural foods and the environment .... There is no possible way the trials (on humans) could do any harm to the participants.” Given the scope for novel retinoids described above, and the danger these could present to future generations, such claims might appear more “degenerately immoral” than those of the “cranks” who keep sounding warnings.

Information for the public from the Humanitarian Board, which pledges to apply the highest safety standards, is that “Golden Rice will be cooked just like any other rice, from using plain water to highly refined sauces and spices, and it will always taste good.” To back this up it gives yummy (and completely irrelevant) recipes for Paella a la Valencia, Jambalaya, Thai Fried Rice and Pilaf Rice with Whole Spices, all of which we can make with yummy Golden Rice. The safety, or even the presence of artificial pro-vitamin A, just doesn't figure. Another distraction or what?

To go back to the Philippine GM effort described above as the 'proof' that Golden Rice is pure PR.

The Philippine project is based on the first generation of Golden Rice, the version discarded because it has too little pro-vitamin A to be any help to those with deficiencies. This begs the question why are the Philippine crop developers using it at all? In fact, the Humanitarian Board has dismissed criticism of its first Golden Rice by writing it off as nothing more than an initial 'proof of concept', suggesting the Philippine project is at a very early stage indeed, and should be many more than three years away from being a golden reality. On the other hand, perhaps the scientists know more about Golden Rice than they're telling: if there's very little of the novel substance present, there's less likelihood of toxic consequences and using the 'proof of concept' instead of the real thing might be a safer option. It's worth noting that the other (truly) useful qualities the Philippine Golden Rice will have, such as disease resistance and yield, are being incorporated by conventional breeding. We are left with a GM crop which will have qualities very acceptable to the farmers growing it and will have the added PR value of pretending to supply vitamin A.

COMMENT

Two other fundamental questions have not been broached above. 

One is the efficacy of adding a single nutrient to a staple food. The problem arises because all nutrients interact during digestion, absorption, transport around the body, and utilisation and storage within the cells. When nutrient levels are low, these interactions can become more important, with one nutrient enhancing the use of another. In other words, for health, people need a fresh and varied diet containing a wide range of trace nutrients. What are the chances that efforts to provide more important resources for sustainable cultivation of nutrient-rich vegetables will be side-lined by Golden Rice?

Second, the Humanitarian Board tactfully describe their rice as a “complement” to existing initiatives to combat VAD. However, what are the chances the existing distribution of supplements will be side-lined by Golden Rice?

Ask your immorally-degenerate conscience very seriously: should you be promoting the highly successful status quo which distributes vitamin A supplements to specific needy children and works to provide the resources for self-sufficiency in nutrient-rich plants? Or, should you promote the abandonment of current endeavours in favour of mass-medication using a thoroughly untested, secrecy-enshrouded GM crop which might not contain enough carotenoids once it reaches them to save their children, and might at the same time produce an entire generation crippled with birth-defects?

SOURCES

Melody M. Aguiba, Fortified with vitamin A: RP may be first to okay 'golden' rice, Manila Bulletin, 15.02.09, http://www.bic.searca.org/
Leaked document on Communications Programmes for Europabio, January 1997, Reclaim The Streets
Ye et al, Engineering the Provitamin A (β-carotene) Biosynthetic Pathway into (Caroneoid-Free) Rice Endosperm, Science 287:5451 14.01.00
The Golden Rice Humanitarian Board, http://www.goldenrice.org/ April 2009
Christopher Then, The campaign for genetically modified rice is at the crossroads: A critical look at Golden Rice after nearly 10 years of development, www.scouting-biotechnology.net, http://www.foodwatch.de/ January 2009
Dr. Mae-Wan Ho and Prof. Joe Cummins, The Golden Rice Scandal Unfolds, Science in Society, Issue 42, Summer 2009 and Press Release 18.03.09
Dr Mae-Wan Ho, Golden Rice and Hazards of GMOs, Lecture, 5th European Conference on 0GMO-Free Regions, Lucerne, 27.04.09
Adrian Dubock, Eco Soundings: Golden Rice bord dubs Gm-0free campaigners 'cranks', Humanitarian Board reply to GM-free Cymru, http://www.guardian.co.uk/ Guardian Environment Blog, April 2009
A critical look at Golden Rice, Food Watch Germany, 07.01.09
Naomie Bisserbe, A new genetically modified rice strain is breeding controversy, http://www.businessworld.in/ 22.08.08
Sean Poulter, British scientists condemn using children in GM food trials as unacceptable, Daily Mail 17.02.09
Vitamin A Equivalence of Plant Carotenoids in Children, trial proposal by Tufts University, http://clinicaltrials.gov/ February 2009
Martin Enserink, Tough Lessons From Golden Rice, Science 320:5875 25.04.08
Graham and Welch, Micronutrient interactions in Humans: Setting goals for plant breeders and agronomists, in Plant nutrition 2001
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