Yellow rice - not nice

October 2016
Golden rice. Photo Creative Commons
Here's an interesting bit of information from Ted Greiner, a former Professor of Nutrition, who worked in several countries to introduce "Ultra Rice", a conventional fortified rice-based product (see below).

In Greiner's experience,
"rice-consuming populations were extremely picky about their rice and unwilling to accept even the tiniest changes in its appearance, taste or smell".
There's a good reason for this.
Populations in which local rice is practically the only food are typically dependent on small-scale, local crop production and lack the benefit of humidity- and temperature-controlled storage facilities for their harvest. The risk of fungal contamination is high.

Several of the common fungi produce toxins, and some of these can produce a wide range of symptoms similar to 'beriberi', a serious and sometimes fatal condition caused by vitamin B1 deficiency. These toxins turn the rice yellow. Rice-eating populations know not to eat yellow rice. Failure to be picky about their rice could kill them.

How easy will it be to sell these people the idea that the high-tech yellow GM rice called 'golden rice' is good for them?

In a typically low-income, low-schooled population, how easy will it be to educate them to distinguish safely between stored GM rice which is yellow because it generates carotene (vitamin A precursor) and stored non-GM or GM rice which is yellow because it's toxic?

Two decades ago, as a communication NGO for the Worldview International Foundation, Prof. Greiner worked with 10 million people in Bangladesh, convincing them to grow and eat high-carotene foods.

Operating, for example, through a network of women recruited from the villages, through schools, and through the provision of seeds and gardening advice, the project promoted the growing of 15 vitamin A-rich and oil-containing plants for smallholders and the landless. This was along with nutrition education aimed at children and the women who feed them.

A subsequent large-scale evaluation of their success concluded the project had worked. It cost $0.15 per person and had the added benefit of supplying other important nutrients in the fresh vegetables.

About the same time as the evaluation was published, the development of GM golden rice got underway, ostensibly to solve the problem of vitamin A deficiency in developing countries. The GM industry had soon spent over $50 million promoting golden rice. They did this "well before the technology was completely worked out, let alone tested. Let alone consumer acceptability tested. Let alone subjecting it to standard phase 2 and 3 trials to see if it could ever solve problems in the real world". 

Convincing people that yellow-hued rice is safe to eat may never happen, but if it does it will require a huge investment to overcome consumer resistance. As Prof. Greiner points out, at 15 cents a head, all this PR cash injection could achieve a great deal more in terms of human health if it were devoted to convincing people to add low-cost plant foods to their diets.

Interestingly, several organisations including the Worldview International Foundation have been working on another simple, low-tech, remedy for child-hood vitamin A deficiency. Breast milk and, in particular, the colostrum produced during the first few days after birth, provides all the vitamin A a baby requires, generating long-term benefits for eye health. The problem has been to overcome cultural barriers to early breast-feeding, and to promote the continuance of breast-feeding up to age two years.


Targeting the most vulnerable people with a sustainable supply of natural, fresh, varied, high vitamin A foods plus the oil-rich foods needed to absorb the vitamin A has been proven possible, effective and cheap.

Ultra Rice has been improving health in multiple countries since 2005, but although the first golden rice trials were underway in 2004, the high-tech crop has yet to leave the starting gate.

It's obvious that the multiple micronutrients in Ultra Rice or in home-grown veg are what's needed to improve health in impoverished rice-eating areas. Why then has so much money, time and scientific expertise been thrown year-after-year at a single-nutrient fortified GM crop?

Proof, if you ever needed it, that GM golden rice has no altruistic agenda whatsoever, and was never anything more than a PR stunt for GM foods whose creators knew from the word go wouldn't be popular, even without the added hurdle of a funny colour indicative of toxic mould.

Just remember this next time golden rice is trotted out of the PR cupboard for its annual blame-the-greens stunt [1].


Utra Rice

First made generally available in 2005, the fortified grains produced using Ultra Rice technology are made with rice flour and micronutrients - including iron, thiamin, zinc, vitamin A, folic acid and other B vitamins - that can be varied to match local dietary needs. This mixture is extruded through pasta-making equipment and formed into the shape of rice grains. Nutritional integrity is preserved throughout transport, storage, washing, rinsing and cooking.

Ultra Rice grains can usually be manufactured locally, and are blended with traditional rice (typically at a ratio of 1:100), so that the meal is nearly identical to the conventional diet in preparation, appearance, aroma, taste and texture.

The market for Ultra Rice has been expanded to India, Brazil, Burundi, Cambodia, Mali, Myanmar, and Vietnam.

Funding for the Ultra Rice Project came from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the US Department of Agriculture, and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

  • Ted Greiner, Don't eat the yellow rice: The danger of deploying vitamin A golden rice, Independent Science News, 11.07.16
  • Addressing hidden hunger - rice fortification adds needed nutrients to a staple food,
  • Ultra Rice, Wikipedia
  • C. A. R. Rosa, et al., 2009, Production of citreoviridin by Penicilium citreonigrum strains associated with rice consumption and beriberi cases in the Maranhรขo State, Brazil, Food Additives & Contaminants: Part A
  • Ted Greiner and S. NM. Mitra, 1995, Evaluation of the impact of a food-based approach to solving vitamin A deficiency in Bangladesh, Food and Nutrition Bulletin 16:3 The United Nations University

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