The real golden rice story

August 2016
Photo Creative Commons
Like a bad penny, Golden Rice just keeps on turning up in the media [1].

GM zealots continue to blame environmentalists for the failure of the vitamin-A enhanced GM rice to reach the fields and for the loss of "hundreds of thousands of lives a year" due to vitamin-A deficiency (VAD).


We have been led to view Golden Rice as a generic GM vitamin-A pill in a generic rice plant bound for generic people in the Global South suffering from VAD.

A much more realistic version of the Golden Rice story is told by anthropologist Glenn Davis Stone and rice researcher Dominic Glover and published in the scientific literature.

Stone and Glover's Golden Rice has uncertain efficacy as a source of Vitamin A, hasn't yet emerged in any form useful to farmers, and is bound for one country only (the Philippines) in which only a limited and dwindling sector of the population still suffers from VAD.

Golden Rice didn't pop out of a vacuum, but was developed within the context of the Green Revolution. Green Revolution rice was born and first introduced in the Philippines.

This first-born strain was 'IR8', a single, perfect rice with ancestry in Taiwan, China, the Philippines and Japan. With high-tech irrigation, fertilizer applications, and weed- and pest-control, the semi-dwarf IR8 rice can be densely planted twice a year and produce high yields.

Green Revolution rice was intended to displace locally adapted heirloom rice varieties as well as peasant farming skills. The sole focus was to prioritise yield at the expense of other cultural and agricultural virtues. IR8 is truly placeless: a one-size-fits-all rice for use with one-size-fits-all agriculture to supply the the modern one-size-fits-all global market; the ultimate de-contextualised crop.

If you believe all you read in the media, Golden Rice is just a re-hash of the Green Revolution rice with added colour: a vitamin-A pill in disguise destined for the Global South (a very big place indeed and a giant market).

The Golden Rice reality is very much smaller: the idea for vitamin-A enhanced rice came from the Philippines, the versions achieved so far are being bred and tested in the Philippines for approval by the Philippine Bureau of Plant Industry, sold to Philippine growers who will sell it in Philippine markets after which some Philippine children (who might or might not have VAD) might eat it.

During the two decades in which the idea of Golden Rice continually failed to become a reality, the childhood levels of VAD in the Philippines have been slashed with conventional nutrition programmes which have addressed the whole spectrum of associated nutritional deficiencies.

Golden Rice is still being developed for the (niche) market of hard-to-reach communities where growing vitamin-A enhanced rice for their own consumption seems the best way to tackle VAD.

This means re-contextualising Golden Rice by breeding the artificial genes into local varieties for small-scale use. However, heirloom rice doesn't, it seems, like making vitamin-A very much, and that's not because of environmentalist dissuasion: Golden Rice as an actual crop in the field is still a long way off.

The PR fanfare used to launch IR8 rice was based on field-station performance only. However, it managed to cover up the "highly unstable" early-generations which were "subject to a declining trend" until locally adapted versions could be produced. Golden Rice hype hasn't let up for two decades, and a viable crop hasn't even been produced in experimental fields.

Part of what made IR8 attractive to technocrats and US aid officials was its heavy dependence on external inputs. Thus, the 'modern' rice could be distributed together with lucrative agri-chemicals supplied by US firms. Herbicide-tolerant GM crops are attractive for the same reason and have been made an agricultural success, but they're not attractive to consumers. Keeping the Golden Rice save-the-starving dream in the public awareness as a generic GM crop is a neat (but dishonest) way to stave off consumer rejection of all GM foods.

Interestingly, the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) which has been behind the development of Golden Rice is now promoting Philippine heirloom rice varieties of the kind the Green Revolution sought to displace, grown using practices the Golden Revolution sought to eliminate. Stone and Glover suggest this about-turn might be the serous decline in funding available for research, which has forced the IRRI to become more entrepreneurial. Lack of funds has meant abandoning the fixation on yield, and focusing on markets for rice which tastes good and which has qualities relevant to local culture. Also 'low-input' and 'local' have become the new agri-fashion and are better attention-grabbers than science-fiction vitamin-A rice pills. The future generation of 'modern' rice crops will be heirloom varieties.

The Golden Rice poster-child seems to be unfurled every time the pro-GM lobby is faced with some really bad news it wants to plaster over.

With this in mind, a letter signed by over 100 Nobel laureates and released in June 2016 with a lot of publicity called upon Greenpeace "to cease and desist in its campaign against Golden Rice specifically, and crops and foods improved through biotechnology in general" and upon the United Nation and governments around the world to "reject Greenpeace's campaign against Golden Rice specifically, and crops and food improved through biotechnology in general; and to do everything in their power to oppose Greenpeace's actions and accelerate the access of farmers to all the tools of modern biology, especially seeds improved through biotechnology. Opposition based on emotion and dogma contradicted by data must be stopped".

OUR COMMENT 


The timing of this heavy-duty pro-GM PR stunt with its absurdly irrelevant demands must be significant, but what's frightening them so much? 

Is it the threat of rising GM awareness in America? Is it the threat that if the cancer-causing glyphosate-dependent GM house of cards collapses, it will take all herbicide-tolerant, and most other, GM crops out with it? Is it counter-propaganda in response to Glover and Stone's paper? Is there something else big and scary and anti-GM out there we don't know about yet? 


The Nobel laureates who have signed the letter are doctors, chemists, physicists and a few economists. Their expertise in agriculture, particularly indigenous agriculture and in the multifaceted dietary deficiencies and disease interactions in developing countries, is clearly limited. Also, they all seem unable to do the most basic internet search on Golden Rice. Although the IRRI was publicly delighted to support the letter (it can't afford not to), its website makes it very clear that Golden Rice is still at the confined field trial stage and is nowhere near submission for regulatory approval. You can check this out for yourself at http://irri.org/golden-rice/faqs


Blaming environmentalists for something that hasn't happened yet and may never happen must be a smokescreen for something bad.


Background:

[1] GOLDEN RICE GOING BANANAS - August 2014

SOURCES:
  • Glenn Davis Stone and Dominic Glover, 2016, Disembedding grain: Golden Rice, the Green Revolution, and heirloom seeds in the Philippines, Agriculture and Human Values, 30.03.16
  • Gerry Everding, Genetically modified Golden Rice falls short on lifesaving promises, Science and Technology Washington University St Louis, 2.06.16
  • Laureates Letter Supporting Precision Agriculture GMOs), http://supportprecisionagriculture.org/nobel-laureate-gmo-letter-rjr.html
  • Pro-GMO campaign exploits Nobel laureates to attack Greenpeace and fool the people, GM Watch 30.06.16

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