A strange tale of Golden Rice

January 2013
Golden Rice grain (1)-8
Golden rice. Photo by IRRI Images on Flickr
In 2012, a paper was published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition which concluded that GM Golden Rice is as effective as supplements in providing vitamin A to children, and more effective than spinach.

The study was a collaboration between the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Zhejiang Academy of Medical Sciences. It involved a feeding trial carried out on Chinese children aged 6 to 8 years old.

Approval for the study was given by the US National Institute of Health (NIH) in 2002, but only came to the attention of Greenpeace six years later. In response to complaints by Greenpeace at the time, the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture asserted that the GM rice had not been imported, and that the trial had been stopped.

It turns out, however, that the golden rice did indeed enter the country, and that the trial was carried out. The paper describes how the GM rice was cooked in the US, divided into portions, and frozen to -70o C before being brought to China (presumably packed in 'dry ice', frozen carbon dioxide) , where it was thawed, briefly steamed and served to the children mixed with conventional rice.

Since Golden Rice has never been tested on animals, nor undergone any clinical trials, a proposal to feed it to children is clearly unethical, unacceptable and scientifically unjustifiable. One of several scientist who wrote a letter of caution to Tufts, the American university collaborating in the trial, said that there was a clear “potential for harm in the children” and that this kind of experiment “should not have been done unless there was extensive safety testing of the rice”. He pointed out that “since there has been no animal or human safety testing of the golden rice ... it is exceptionally foolish to feed this Golden Rice to children. Their brains are still developing and it is well known that molecules related to those made by Golden Rice can be harmful” (Schubert).

The unexpected publication of paper sparked a wave of denial and back-peddling:
  • A spokesman in Hengyang City where the study took place said initial investigations indicated that there had been no such research project: there had been a study on vitamin A from vegetables, but it did not involve GM rice or other GM food.
  • The Chinese CDC said that the food for the experiment had all been locally purchased, and that the children had only been given spinach and supplement capsules.
  • A Chinese government official said the study had not involved any American institute
  • The Chinese co-authors denied involvement in the work, with one from the Zhejiang Academy of Medical Sciences quoted as saying “I am unaware of that paper”.
The collaborating US university (Tufts, Boston) refused to make any statement on the matter until its on-going investigations by a five-member team are complete.

By mid-September, the Chinese CDC had suspended one of its co-authors for “inconsistencies” in what he had told the agency about the study.

By early December, three Chinese scientists had been sacked for “violating relevant regulations, scientific ethics and academic integrity”. It seems the experiment was 'approved' by using the official stamp of the Academy without authorisation, while oversight of the experiment was so poor that it enabled the GM rice to be be “secretly” added to the children's food.

The Chinese scientists have admitted that they side-stepped the correct procedure to save time and push the project through. They did not realise how serious the matter was.

Chinese investigations have revealed that the research team had informed the parents about the experiment, but withheld the fact that GM rice would be included in the test lunch. The children used in the experiment were from low-income, rural families. Parents, it seems, were only given the final page of the informed-consent form to sign: this said the rice contained β-carotene (vitamin-A precursor), but not that it was genetically modified nor that it was Golden Rice. None of the uncertainties or risks of ingesting the rice were highlighted in the form. It has emerged that one of the authors had previously described how the wording of the form had been changed to avoid mentioning 'Golden Rice', because it was “too sensitive”.

The end of the story as far as the Chinese experimental subjects are concerned is that the families have received 80,000 yuan ($12,800) in compensation, and assured that medical checks will be carried out on the children. The county authorities have stated they will take full responsibility if health problems arise.

Despite the paper's claim that “Across all our subjects, no side effects or abnormalities were observed during this study in any individual who consumed the labeled spinach, (Golden Rice) or β-carotene in oil capsules with their meal”, one parent describes how her daughter developed dizziness and fever shortly after the test.


Here we have pushy GM-food scientists who haven't done their homework, aren't clear about the unpredictability of GM-derived materials, don't know the risks of artificial vitamin-A supplements, and are oblivious to the possibility of hypersensitivity-reactions to a food substance (causing, for example, dizziness and fever).

The study has made one outstanding contribution to science: it's demonstrated very clearly the true nature of pro-GM scientists: they're not big on knowledge, ethics nor honesty. 

Golden Rice has been in the pipeline for decades. No one wants it or trusts it and having read the above you'll know why. If you want to do your own homework on the dangers of Golden Rice, start with THE DARK SIDE OF GOLDEN RICE - July 2012. Also check out LIVING LEGO , January 2013.

  • Guangwen Tang, 2012, β-Carotene in Golden Rice is as good as β-carotene in oil at providing vitamin A to children, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 96
  • Zhang Yuwei, Yu Wei and Shan Juan, Scientists decry rice experiment on children, (Schubert quote), China Daily, 6.09.12
  • Mara Hvistendahl and Martin Enserink, Firestorm Erupts Over Transgenic Rice Study in Chinese Children, Science Magazine, 11.09.12
  • China denies Greenpeace GM rice test claims, China Daily USA, 1.09.12
  • Jane Qiu, China sacks officials over Golden Rice controversy, Nature News, 10.12.12
  • Qiu Quanlin, Parents of students in GM rice test win payout, China Daily, 8.12.12
  • China sacks three officials for GMO rice test Xinhua, Reuters, 6.12.12
  • China sacks officials involved in GM rice test, Comptex News Network, 6.2.12
  • Stephen Chen, Parents of children in Hunan GM rice trial were lied to, China Daily, 8.12.12

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