Digest bites: Golden rice

Genetic modification of crops is a source of much debate, even when it’s seen to be addressing global disease and death.

Golden Rice then. What’s that, a new product on the market? It’s a genetically modified grain to contain greater levels of beta carotene as a source of Vitamin A, not available as yet. It first made an appearance as far back as 1999.

Why? Do we all need a little bit more Vitamin A? Not so much in the developed world. Children’s charity UNICEF estimates that between 250,000 and 500,000 children every year are at risk of becoming blind as a result of Vitamin A Deficiency (VAD), though it suggests in its recent briefing that a supplement costing just a few cents per child can rectify this. From a GMO perspective, it is thought that by targeting the most staple foodstuff for those living in developing countries, a number of the VAD-related diseases could be avoided including blindness, cancer and cardiovascular diseases.

Sounds like a great way to solve this problem, will it? It’s not expected to fully cure VAD but The Golden Rice Project says it can significantly relieve the symptoms. Golden Rice is not intended to provide the whole recommended daily intake of Vitamin A, but target those who are classed as being at the subclinical level of deficiency, where incremental introduction could have a big benefit.

Is this a new technique in genetic modification? Not really. The US Food and Agricultural Organisation cites a number of other uses of agricultural biotechnology including manufacture of antibiotics (penicillin), hard cheese production and insulin for diabetes sufferers. More recently though, modification at the genetic level for crop stabilisation and protection against diseases is becoming much more common in a world where population and hunger is increasing, versus unpredictable climates, limited land supply and diseases’ resistance to pesticides. For example, in Florida, the land of orange juice, GMO experiments are underway to protect oranges from a disease that causes citrus greening.

What do the critics say? The flip side to the argument is that GMOs could have as yet undetected risks and side effects; the “unknown unknowns”. The sense of commercial opportunity presented to agrochemical companies chasing a short-term profit window versus long-term regulatory testing is among the factors that make many environmentalists suspicious. Furthermore there’s an increasing call for mandatory GMO labelling that some producers find disconcerting given the current torn public image of GMOs. Just a couple of months ago, protestors smashed down the fences surrounding a field in the Philippines and uprooted field trials of golden rice just weeks before it was due to undergo safety testing.

What about the government? The government has appeared supportive. Environment Secretary Owen Paterson is a particularly strong advocate of GM crops, going as far to say recently in an interview with The Independent that opposers to GM are “wicked”.

What’s with the suspicion around chemical companies? The reasoning is that if the mass seed market is controlled by only a few chemical companies, this reduces the number of seeds considerably to mostly GM, forcing farmers into using them. The impact would be herbicide-dominant GM crops that would make farmers dependent on the companies’ particular chemicals. There are also issues around patents, demonstrated by a recent high-profile case where organic seed growing groups pre-emptively sought a judgement of non-infringement of seed patenting. Farmers were concerned Monsanto could sue if the farmers’ adjacent fields and crop became contaminated by pollination, effectively ‘stealing’ a license and growing GMO seeds. Monsanto promised it would not sue for inadvertent growing, and the judgement was overturned.

Have any other GM crops for VAD been trialled? Just recently a study with school children in eastern Kenya explored the preference between white and orange cassava, another Vitamin A-rich crop. It found that the school children and their carers preferred the orange variety, with its softer texture, as opposed the white, harder variety. But the respondents still showed some concerns, including a perceive poisonousness, dependence on rainfall, high purchasing cost and lack of market availability.

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