A Cook's Diary

Golden Rice as a solution to Vitamin A deficiency: facts, controversies and perspectives

The facts about Golden Rice

The year 2013 has been declared as The National Year of the Rice. One of the highlights is the launch of the Golden Rice, a genetically-modified strain (GMO, for brevity) that has been infused with three beta-carotene biosynthesis genes. Beta-carotene is a source of Vitamin A. Golden Rice is set to be distributed to farmers for planting.

The intention: plant and sell the rice in countries where huge segments of the population suffer from a Vitamin A-deficient diet. It is basically a humanitarian project, according to a project team member who said, “No one is going to make money out of it. The companies involved in developing some of the technologies have waived their licences just to get this off the ground.”

The Golden Rice project was conducted in several countries; in the Philippines, it was spearheaded by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI). The donors are the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

The controversy surrounding Golden Rice

Environmentalists are opposing the Golden Rice for basically the same reasons that they have rejected GMOs in the past — no one knows the long-term effects of GMOs on the environment and the human body.

There is also opposition based on ethical grounds — creation of GMOs is tampering with nature.

Some members of the scientific community claim that the promise of Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) in poor countries is a hoax.

Currently, it is not even known how much vitamin JA the genetically engineered rice will produce. The goal is 33.3% micrograms/100g of rice. Even if this goal is reached after a few years, it will be totally ineffective in removing VAD.

Since the daily average requirement of vitamin A is 750 micrograms of vitamin A and 1 serving contains 30g of rice according to dry weight basis, vitamin A rice would only provide 9.9 micrograms which is 1.32% of the required allowance. Even taking the 100g figure of daily consumption of rice used in the technology transfer paper would only provide 4.4% of the RDA.

In order to meet the full needs of 750 micrograms of vitamin A from rice, an adult would have to consume 2 kg 272g of rice per day. This implies that one family member would consume the entire family ration of 10 kg. from the PDS in 4 days to meet vitaminA needs through “Golden rice”.

From Scientists Protest Unethical Clinical Trials of GM Golden Rice:

There is now a large body of evidence that shows that GM crop/food production is highly prone to inadvertent and unpredictable pleiotropic effects, which can result in health damaging effects when GM food products are fed to animals (for reviews see Pusztai and Bardocz, 2006; Schubert, 2008; Dona and Arvanitoyannis, 2009). More specifically, our greatest concern is that this rice, which is engineered to overproduce beta carotene, has never been tested in animals, and there is an extensive medical literature showing that retinoids that can be derived from beta carotene are both toxic and cause birth defects.

Perspectives about Golden Rice as a GMO and the Vitamin A deficiency in poor countries

My objection against GMOs is based on the fact that, in the past, GMOs were injected with pesticides to make plant crops resistant to pests. I did not relish the idea of ingesting food laden with pesticide.

After days of reading, I was unable to find any reference to Golden Rice having been injected with pesticides.

Does that mean I am for it?

Here’s my issue.

I will not dispute the Vitamin A deficiency among the poor in Third World countries. It is a documented fact.

Granting, for argument’s sake, that Golden Rice can provide a substantial supply of Vitamin A to the daily diet of rice-eating populations, I see the move as an artificial way to address malnutrition (oh, yes, Vitamin A deficiency is just one aspect of malnutrition). I can’t speak for other Third World countries because I don’t know exactly what basic agricultural products they have and how affordable these are to the masses. But in the Philippines, natural sources of beta-carotene — kamote (sweet potato, the yellow variety), kalabasa (squash), carrot, and melon (cantaloupe) — are available all year round in abundance. Sweet potatoes and squash are inexpensive.

While Golden Rice may be a convenient source of beta-carotene, it sends the wrong message. Instead of educating people about how to have beta-carotene (and, ergo, Vitamin A) rich diets by consuming ALREADY AVAILABLE fruits and vegetables, Golden Rice says, “Take a short cut.” This is the mentality behind the multi-vitamins peddled by pharmaceutical companies — a pill a day and you don’t need to eat balanced meals.

The problem with the short cut consists of at least two parts:

For the consumer, it is a dumbing down process. Instead of learning about a balanced diet with a variety of fruits and vegetables, he is lulled into a false sense of security in thinking that Golden Rice is a miracle food. Look at it this way, eat a cup of Golden Rice and you get Vitamin A. But eat a cup of carrots and, in addition to Vitamin A, one also get significant amounts of calcium, magnesium, phosphorus and potassium. Do I even need to ask which is more beneficial?

For the agricultural community, there is the huge possibility that if Golden Rice proves profitable with all it promises to deliver, farmers will switch to planting Golden Rice and abandon other crops. And we have a scenario where we will have an over-production of Golden Rice and a shortage in the production of other agricultural products like fruits and vegetables. Need I ask who the real loser will be?

Rice photo from SEARICE

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