GMO Rice: Do enviros have "blood on their hands"?

After twelve years of debate, "Golden Rice" will be planted in the Philippines.

Golden rice is genetically modified to boost Vitamin A.  This isn't needed in countries like the U.S., but in the developing world, especially Africa and South-East Asia, vitamin A deficiency is the number one cause of preventable blindness, and it often leads to death.

Folks in the conservative media, like the National Review, are railing against those who rail against genetically modified foods.  Dennis Prager writes that Philippine policy was changed because 4.4 million children there don't get enough Vitamin A.

"So who would oppose something that could save millions of children’s lives and millions of other children from blindness?

The answer is people who are more devoted to nature than to human life.

And who might such people be?

They are called environmentalists."

Headlines around the country about Golden Rice, say things like, "Stopping the Left's cruelty," and "the Left's science deniers."

Even the left-leaning Slate.com is asking the question:

"Over those 12 years, about 8 million children worldwide died from vitamin A deficiency. Are anti-GM advocates not partly responsible?"

It's hard to argue with those numbers.

But let's look back a bit.  It hasn't only been knee-jerk, anti-science, anti-GMO activists opposed to planting Golden Rice around the world.

 

GMO Critics

For much of the past 12 years, there was serious question as to how much vitamin A Golden Rice actually provided to people.

In India, where Vitamin A deficiency persists in some areas, renown anti-GMO activist Vandana Shiva has been fighting against Golden Rice for years.

When I visited her in Delhi in 2006 to talk about it, here's what she had to say:

"You can add a few micrograms of Vitamin A to a white, polished rice, and be thrilled that you have added nutrition. But again, food is not just rice, and definitely for anyone who has even a kindergarten knowledge of nutrition, polished rice is not where you turn to for meeting your Vitamin A needs. You turn to your greens. You turn to your coriander, your curry leaves, something very, very central to our eating."

Shiva says one person would have to eat an entire family's 4 day ration of rice to get enough vitamin A to remove deficiency.

In a paper published San Francisco State University Shiva says, "The problem is that vitamin A rice will not remove vitamin A deficiency.  It will seriously aggravate it.  It is a technology that fails in its promise."

But all these statements were made before The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition published two papers in recent years.  One that found 50 grams (about 2 ounces) of Golden Rice can provide 60-percent of the daily intake of vitamin A.   The other concludes that Golden Rice is better than spinach at providing vitamin A to children.

This is persuasive stuff, in terms of the value of Golden Rice to people with Vitamin A deficiency.

But it doesn't address all the concerns of Shiva and other anti-GMO activists.  There is also the very real issue of making poor, third world farmers dependent on western agri-giants like Syngenta and Monsanto for seeds.  We need only look at the recent U.S. Supreme Court case, where  Monsanto is suing an Indiana farmer for using seeds from a grain elevator for his second planting, to see that the big guys want control over their GM seeds.

And this is not just a western problem.  The high rate of suicide among Indian farmers has been linked to GMO cotton, which is now just about the only cotton seed available there.  The high seed royalties, the mounting costs of insecticides and pesticides, have left many farmers with little hope.

So, yes, it's easy and fashionable right now to blame anti-GMO activists fighting against Golden Rice.  And of course there are good reasons spread technology that could potentially save millions of lives – I don't mean to diminish the importance of that.   But GMO critics do have had good reason to be skeptical.

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4 Comments

  1. A story like this makes me wonder if there really are people on that side of the argument…I mean other than the folks that work for Monsanto. In our modern world, with our modern communication capabilities, one can sit down and with a little typing, generate a whole, global-sounding conversation, all without ever involving any actual, real people or real opinions. In the old days, we used to say "follow the money" to find out where something like this was coming from, so when I read this discussion, I can understand the anti-GMO argument: it's always been a given that tinkering with nature carried some considerable risk. What I don't understand, is the other side of that argument. What motivates these people?? Are they all paid to support the industry? Are they involved in some way that will profit them? Do these folks really exist at all, or are these "opinions" just the corporate voice? I can not find the motivation that would generate this voice…other than money.

  2. Vitamin A can be supplied very effectively through existing means such as fortified cooking oils, sugar, and through oral supplements. If the problem of fortified products and supplements is distribution, how will that be any different from the distribution of distributing GMO rice?

    Meanwhile cultures across the world have developed strains of rice which grow well in the local climate and introducing a GMO strain to varied climates runs the risk of crop failure and the loss of genetic diversity.

    GMO rice is a Rube Goldberg solution to a simple and relatively inexpensive problem.

  3. I'm sorry but the GMO critics should be ashamed of themselves on this one. This anti science attitude is as bad as the climate deniers. Or the anti – fluoridation nuts.

  4. What could possibly be wrong with adding vitamin A to rice?