The Golden Rice blame game

November 2013

Golden Rice grain GN7_9547-9B
Golden Rice. CC photo by IRRI Photos on Flickr
The recent report calling on governments to 'Wake-up Before It Is Too Late' [1] must have been the last thing our pro-GM Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson, wanted to hear.

Paterson has been staging a campaign to steer UK agri-research down a GM route for the past year [2]. This latest, very major and authoritative, UN report didn't single out GM but condemned all such technical quick-fixes, coming down firmly in favour of small-scale, local food and wealth creation as the only real answer to world hunger.

In what has all the hallmarks of a damage-limitation exercise, Paterson seems to have revived the oldest GM trick in the book: golden rice. A well-timed open letter from “eminent international scientists” appeared in a top science magazine blaming fear-mongering for a supposed delay in rolling out golden rice. Orchestrated or not, the letter set the scene for Paterson to be 'interviewed' on the subject by a top national newspaper. The result was disproportionately wide publicity for comments on GM we've all heard before (see[3]).

Golden rice is a GM Vitamin A producing rice which as been under development for some two decades. Its purpose is to combat serious Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) in poor areas where rice is the staple diet.

The novel rice has never yet made it into a commercial field, nor clinical trials or even pre-clinical trials. It is, however, trotted out into the public awareness every time the GM food image is getting so tarnished that its proponents are getting desperate.

Golden rice's image has been made squeaky clean by securing royalty-free access to all the intellectual property rights for a number of key technologies used in its development and held by several biotech companies.

Notably, VAD-curing rice is also the perfect weapon with which to focus attention on “beneficiaries not benefits” and “products not technologies” (early GM Crisis management advice to Monsanto from it's infamous PR company, Burson-Marsteller,).

Paterson also used the second oldest GM trick in the book: blame the environmentalists and their idealism.

What Mr P. said was “It's just disgusting that little children are allowed to go blind and die because of a hang-up by a small number of people about this technology ... I think what they do is absolutely wicked”. He accused NGOs of “casting a dark shadow over attempts to feed the world ... When you think that golden rice has been developed by philanthropists and could have a dramatic impact on children who are going blind from Vitamin A deficiency or dying from Vitamin A deficiency, it is absolutely wicked that these environmental groups oppose it. There is no other word for it”.

COMMENT Note the phrase 'could have an impact' in Paterson's speech: golden rice hasn't yet been proven effective nor safe in any real-life situation. (Also, see [5]).

The 'small number of people' who have a hang up about GM is interesting to define. In a Huffington Post poll asking “Do you back the advancement of GM food?” over 66% of respondents voted NO; in a poll by the Shropshire Star asking “It is 'wicked' to oppose GM crops?” 87% voted NO (results on 15.10.13). If 66-87% of the interested public share the NGOs' views about GM crops, truly there are a lot of wicked people in the world.

Neither is it too clear what the NGOs have done to block golden rice. The rice's development has received massive funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, and it has had the benefit of biotech giant, Syngenta's, vast technical expertise in GM crops, but good solid practicalities seem more to blame for it's non-emergence than any environmentalist idealism (see below).


A few reasons why golden rice isn't on its way to curing VAD (apart from the wicked NGOs)

  • It took many false starts before a transgenic rice producing significant levels of vitamin A was ever achieved.
  • The subspecies of rice eaten by people in areas of high VAD, is proving difficult to get the vitamin-generating gene into.
  • Levels of Vitamin A achievable in the right kind of rice are uncertain.
  • In the case of the severely mal-nourished (who are deficient in the whole range of nutrients) it's not yet been established if golden rice can actually help them significantly.
  • Since Vitamin A is a fat-soluble substance, there has to be a substantial amount of fat or oil in the diet before it can be absorbed. 
  • The most vulnerable people, who are restricted to a rice-only diet, won't get much Vitamin A no matter how much is in their daily, GM, rice.


The hook for Paterson's latest GM-propaganda drive is an incident in which a crop of golden rice was destroyed by 400 protesters two weeks before being submitted for a 'safety evaluation'. Although some shadowy anti-GM NGOs got the blame, the local press presented the protesters as Philippine farmers who's own crops were under threat of genetic pollution from the GM field and who, only six months previously, had secured a promise that no golden rice field trials would be conducted.

To put the farmers' action in context, the Philippines have been earmarked for golden rice trials because there is a history of high levels of VAD there. However, after a government campaign focusing on dietary change, supplementation and food fortification, the situation has been turned around. Data collected during 1993-2003 and then again in 2008 compared three key vulnerable sectors of the population:
  • in children under six years old, VAD dropped from around 35.0-40.1% to 15.2%
  • in pregnant women, VAD dropped from around 16.4-22.2% to 9.5%
  • in lactating women VAD dropped from around 16.4-20.1% to 6.4%
(Hansen)

Now, what the people of the Philippines need is a UN-style sustainable supply of local, diversified food to provide all the nutrients they need, not just a dash more Vitamin A in a continued restricted diet.

OUR COMMENT

Strange that the Philippine farmers' wicked field-trashing in early August didn't seem to be worth mentioning until the 'Wake-up Before It Is Too Late' report provided evidence biotech proponents didn't want to hear.

Note that the stated purpose of the golden rice in the trashed field trial was for safety evaluation. Elsewhere in his interview, Paterson insisted that advances in GM technology had to be “based upon science and proved to be safe”, and claimed GMOs undergo “intense scrutiny”, while the chair of the European Food Safety Authority stressed the importance of “proper scientific assessment of the risks” of golden rice.

Are these reassurances convincing?

Vitamin A can be harmful and has dangerous derivatives, see [4]. The pro-GM lobby's idea of 'proved to be safe' seems to be to feed it to the entire population with no control so it can be claimed, as Paterson did, that “no one has ever brought me a single case of a health problem (from GM)” [5]. Safety 'evaluation', 'scrutiny' and 'assessment' don't mean safety testing.

For a novel crop whose metabolic processes have been distorted to make it produce a substance with well-known (very harmful) by-products, and intended to be fed on a large scale to the most vulnerable people in the world, the neglect of safety testing is not only wicked, it's criminal and probably insane.

If you're still not convinced, the Soil Association has produced an excellent 'Golden Rice Briefing' [6](15th October 2013), and Greenpeace has produced 'Golden Illusion' [7] summarising the scientific arguments.


Background:
[3] WHEN NON-NEWS IS BAD NEWS - April 2013
[6] Soil Association Golden Rice Briefing (PDF) 15.10.13,


SOURCES:
  • Opponents of third world GM crops are 'wicked' says environment Secretary Owen Paterson, Independent on Sunday, 13.10.13
  • Dr Michael Hansen, Golden rice myths, GM Watch communication 2013
  • Bicolano farmers uproot golden rice, www.remate.ph, 8.08.13
  • Owen Paterson Says Genetically Modified Food Saving Lives, Slams Wicked Campaigners, The Huffington Post, 14.10.13
  • GM crops: is opposition to golden rice wickedwww.theguardian.com 14.10.13
  • Poll: It is 'wicked' to oppose GM crops? Shropshire Star, 15.10.13
  • Standing Up for GMOs, Editorial, Science, 20.09.13
  • Anna LappĂ©, Wake Up and Smell the Soil! Groundbreaking UN Report on the Paradigm Shift Needed to Feed the Future, Civil Eats, 18.09.13
  • Claire Provost, Food crisis fears prompt UN wake-up call to world leaders, Guardian, 18.09.13
  • GM 'golden rice' opponents wicked, says minister Owen Paterson, BBC News, 14.10.13
  • ww.greenpeace.org/international/en/publications/Campaign-reports/Genetic-0entineering/Golden-Illusion/
  • Bruce Alberts et al., Standing up for GMOs, Editorial, Science 341, No.6152, 20.09.13
  • Smooth Facade: Greenwash Guru Burson-Marsteller and the Biotech Industry, Resurgence and Ecologist 28:3, May/June 1998

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