Golden rice going bananas

August 2014
Photo of hands holding golden rice in fron ot plant stems.
Golden Rice. CC photo by IRRI photos on Flickr
Academics seem to be going bananas over the crimes against humanity perpetrated by all those green NGOs and individuals who keep voicing their concerns about GM food.

Last year, some eminent international scientists got together to write a letter to a top science magazine. Their aim was to broadcast the role of the green movement in delaying the development of 'golden rice'. They claim this wondrous, philanthropic rice has been genetically transformed to produce vitamin-A to save the poor in countries where many suffer from malnourishment.

This year, a group of academics at the University of California prepared a report for their university's bi-monthly publication. Their aim was to expose the presence of 'powerful forces that hide behind environmentalism' and which are blocking the development of golden rice.

The refrain has, of course, been eagerly picked up by others in the pro-GM lobby [1].

It's claimed that because of this 'absolutely wicked' and 'disgusting' 'concerted activism', there is an international prohibition on producing golden rice because regulators are refusing to approve it. And the result has been harm and human suffering and the death of millions of children, with the poor paying the majority of the price.And all this, despite California, as one of the world's major rice producers, being ready to supply the vitamin-enhanced product, especially for export.

But, before you start feeling too guilty about killing children and harming the poor, even the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), the body rolling out GM golden rice, has felt the need to issue a reality check. (Also, see below on Why golden rice might be useless, or even harmful.)

The Institute has prepared a statement on the status of its golden rice project. As of March 2014, no successful strain of golden rice has yet been grown in field trials. The questions of safety and efficacy in the target, malnourished, community have not been addressed (there's nothing worth testing). No applications to market golden rice have ever been made (there's nothing to market).

All in all, the golden rice project is being pushed ahead as fast as it will go: no one's blocking it, it just isn't working. And, no one's died because of any green activism.

In fact, there's not even a hopeful strain of golden rice in the pipeline, because the only one produced to date has just failed to yield during field trials.

So far, the only harm caused by golden rice has been to the reputation of over-enthusiastic scientists who carried out a rather premature human feeding study. This involved American scientists who shipped golden rice to China and fed it to Chinese children. The study has become so embroiled in an ethics scandal over irregularities in the trans-boundary shipment of the experimental material, and the lack of information given to the human experimental subjects, that the journal which published it is reportedly considering retraction [2].

While academics fail to do their homework, golden rice fails to grow too well, and scientists are not only forgetting to test the novel rice on animals before humans, but forgetting to tell their human guinea-pigs what they're being fed or to get permission, Australian scientists have been going bananas, literally: golden bananas.

GM vitamin-A enhanced cooking bananas are being developed for East Africa where the fruit is a staple diet. Rumour has it that the first batch is on its way to America for human trials with a view to commercial production by 2020.

Why golden rice might be useless, or even harmful.

Golden rice has been genetically transformed to generate a vitamin A precursor which, in its natural form, humans are able to convert into active vitamin A. 

GM vitamin A precursor from a plant which doesn't naturally produce it may not be handled by the plant nor by the consumer in the same way as the natural form in its natural setting.

Vitamins are, of course, highly biologically active substances in very small concentrations.
Vitamin A and its precursor belong to a large family of chemicals known as carotenoids.
Some derivatives of carotenoids are known to be toxic, especially to the embryo and can be cumulative in the blood and fat. 

Not all carotenoids have been clearly identified or measured. 

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 starchy diet, won't get much Vitamin A no matter how much is in their daily intake.

The severely mal-nourished (who are deficient in the whole range of nutrients) may get no more than limited long-term benefit from being given a single nutrient. Introducing, for example, greens into their deficient diet would supply a whole range of micro-nutrients including vitamin A.
For more, see [3]


Six years seems a remarkably tight schedule for safety and efficacy testing of golden bananas plus scaling up GM plant production to commercial levels. Unless, of course, the safety and efficacy questions are going to be by-passed in favour of ignoring scientific ethics and hyping the product, as it seems to be the case with golden rice.

The dangers of golden bananas are, of course, exactly the same as for golden rice as described for golden rise above.

Just keep voicing your concerns about GM foods before the malnourished and poor are caused even more suffering than they already are.

[1] THE GOLDEN RICE BLAME GAME - November 2013

  • Ag at Large: Prohibition on Golden Rice kills millions, , 11.05.14
  • GM 'golden rice' opponents wicked, says minister Owen, 14.10.13
  • What is the status of the Golden Rice project coordinated by IRRI?, and, When will Golden rice be available to farmers and consumers?, June 2014
  • GMO Myths and Truths, 2nd Edition May 2014
  • Jonathan Matthews and Claire Robinson, Golden rice falls at first hurdle, GM Watch 13.05.14
  • Cat Ferguson, Rice researcher in ethics scrape threatens journal with lawsuit over coming retraction, RetractionWatch, 17.07.14
  • Cahal Milmo, GM banana designed to slash African infant mortality enters human trials, Independent 16.06.14

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