Golden Rice

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The UK Environment Secretary,  a certain Owen Paterson (of Badger Cull fame) opened his mouth again this week, however this time not to attack badgers for “moving the goalposts”, but instead to criticize all those opposed to genetically modified (GM) crops, labelling them as “wicked”.

His outburst came in an interview with The Independent newspaper, in reference to various environmental NGO’s continuing opposition to the development and use of “golden rice”, which has been genetically modified and fortified with beta-carotene, giving the rice its distinctive golden colour. It also makes it a potential source of vitamin A, when prepared correctly and in the presence of the correct fats (which requires a balanced diet, something generally lacking in developing countries).

Now there are two camps with regards to GM crops. The first consists of a small group of global companies that between them control about three-quarters of the worlds seed markets, and their patrons and supporters; government ministers who are connected with those businesses, and a gaggle of billionaires who have funded the research under the name of philanthropy, but who would, of course, never expect or hope for anything in return in the future. This group, to which the environment secretary belongs, claim that GM golden rice will solve many of the developing world’s food problems, improving health and saving millions of lives. A fairly substantial claim.

And on the other side of the argument are the environmental groups and other non-governmental organisations. They support many of the third world farmers on a local level. This group says that there are a number of issues with GM crops; The seed will be owned and controlled by a few multinationals, restricting farmers rights to breed and exchange seeds. Malnutrition, which the bio-companies claim to work against, is primarily down to problem of access, given the massive amount of overproduction and food waste in the developed world. They also highlight that even though the dose of beta carotene (the precursor chemical for vitamin A) has been boosted in the latest version of the rice, it still has a huge question mark over how effective it will be, as it degrades over time and when cooked. It also requires longer cooking time, and therefore more fuel.

Seems like a lot of work for so little return. Surely it would be simpler to give out carrot seeds (they are a far better, and natural source of vitamin A) and teach people how to grow it?

So, given the two contrasting positions on this contentious issue, one ponders the truth of the situation.

Who would you trust? The conglomerates and their government backers? Or volunteers groups, and African and Asian farmers who fear that they will lose control of their food sources?

Is there a better, more balanced way to deal with the world’s food problems, that directly address the real issues of incomes and food distribution?

And what next? Is golden rice just a “Trojan Horse”, to ease a sceptical public into acceptance of GM crops in the future, with free seed handouts, and other demonstrations of generosity, patent waivers and too-good-to resist deals, only to then be replaced by tight controls on future GM seed ownership, distribution, and rights to buy once enough people have become completly dependent on them?

I think that I will let my poem do the talking on this one.

How to set up a trap and then snare?
Mix a potion of rice with hot air,
Say it cures all and claim that it’s free!
Just don’t mention seeds later won’t be.

Billionaire’s row funds the show,
Then sits on the panel that decides it’s good to go,
False prophets proclaim it saves all that partake,
While counting the future profits they’ll make.

What started as a miracle no longer meets needs,
Awaiting handouts or more debts for new seeds,
Sold our souls for GM golden rice,
Should have bought carrots for a better long-term price.

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12 thoughts on “Golden Rice

  1. Brilliant as usual. The exposee and the poem. Why pick on vitamin A? How will that help matters? Are they saying that there is a vitamin A deficiency in the first place? That would be the only rationale that I would accept this proposal for so-called golden rice. What if there is an overdose? Is that possible?

    Of course, we are all sceptical of big business or at least we should be. But I don’t want that to stand in the way of something that’s necessary if that can be demonstrated. Tell us of the need for this modified seed. And then we’ll decide on its sufficiency to meet a supposed vitamin A deficiency. Cheers. Sandra.

    • Thank you so much for your kind and lucid comment. You have a very analytical mind.
      Why vitamin A? Yes, there is a problem with vitamin A deficiency in some areas, particularly those whose diet consists only or mainly of rice. However, this can be resolved by simpler means. Carrots, spinach and other vegetables are a better sources of Vitamin A, and avoid all the problems associated with GM crops – monoculture, seed ownership and dependency, contamination, dosage, patents etc.

      The crux of the issue? Better incomes and food distribution among the most vunerable. But this clearly does not suit a certain group with vested interested in GM crops.

      • Why do they put fluoride in water, foliate in breakfast cereal, vitamin D in milk? I realise it’s not the same in terms of the business model and the effects on biodiversity, but the issue seems to me to be problem-solving. If adding vitamin A to rice helps with malnourishment then could you be judging too harshly? There must be a reason that growing and eating vegetables is not a ready solution. The realities of capitalist economics means that the ideal is not possible right now. Sandra.

      • Thank you for raising those points!
        However, GM products cannot be compared to simple food additives for a number of reasons.
        The chemical and biological structures of GM foods are completely different to say breakfast cereal with vitamin B added afterwards, because it is simply added in its pure and natural form to a natural produced, without altering is genetic structure or disrupting is biochemistry. Such biochemical disruption in GM foods can give rise to toxins and allergens from new enzyme activities in places where they would not naturally occur. The same enzyme working in different plat hosts and cellular environments, as in the case of golden rice, can participate in different biochemical reactions – and produce by-products that affect health.
        It is also important to remember that golden rice does not itself contain vitamin A, but only its pre-cursor, which then needs to react with certain fats, only present in balanced diets, in order for it to become vitamin A. This pre-cursor, beta carotene, is a worrying substance in golden rice, because it has been over-engineered to produce this, and studies show that some retinoids derived from beta carotene are toxic and cause birth defects. One of the breakdown products of beta carotene, RA, is biologically active at much lower concentractions than retinol, and for this reason RA and its derivitives are extremely dangerous, particularly to infants or during pregnancy.
        And so the list of issues goes on…

  2. yes & yes – GMOs have potential, but it’s the business model I’m against. & the reduction of biodiversity. Both are extremely serious when considering the outlook for food on a global & local scale.
    & thanks for the follow 🙂

  3. I really appreciate the opportunity to have a discussion on this topic as well as a lecture that presents a limited perspective on the issue. I have now done a little reading of the issue, including the article in the UK Guardian referred to here in the original post. Vitamin A deficiency is a real problem for many of our poorest neighbours. It leads to blindness and death, especially in children. The fact is that there are a number of traditional methods being used to tackle the issue that have reduced the incidence of disease, especially in children. The crux of the matter is that the use of golden rice is not an either/or proposition, but that it can be seen as an adjunct to strategies already in place. The risks associated with the crop are being tested and the science is not in as yet. There was a trial in China that backfired because of breaching protocols. So I am in favour of the crop provided that they can make it safe and accessible and so it does not disadvantage farmers or related industry. Sandra

    • Thank you for the discussion. I am glad that you have had the opportunity to explore this issue further.

      There are a couple of important points that you have raised.

      Treatment – The UN and WHO have reported great success from their programmes to combat Vit A deficiency in those places where they have been implemented. These tried-and-tested programmes involve cheap, traditional, natural and readily available solutions such as Vit A supplements and encouraging home growing of Vit A rich leafy green vegetables. A solution that works, with No side effects and No health issues, No cross contamination, No dosage issues, No seed dependency, No handing over food sources. No environmental problems. No unknown toxins or allergies.
      GM rice has never been part of these programmes. Yet through sleight of hand, the golden rice humanitarian board (referred to in my poem) are using the data from these programmes to promote its risky, heavily patented, and expensive “solution”.

      Trials – Despite 10 years of development, and all the risks involved, real-world data is lacking. There is no published data that independent scientists can analyse. The trial in China that you refer to was aborted when the Chinese authorities discovered that 24 primary schoolchildren were to be used as guinea pigs, and refused to sanction the experiments. This caused disgust amongst the medical community, as this behaviour is in controvention of the Nurenburg Code which protects children against experimentation. This clearly shows their true intentions.
      Not surprisingly, the source of funds for this project was never disclosed.

      • Thank you. I stand by my last comment. I am not in favour of the evil that you have suggested applies to golden rice and I sincerely hope that the UK finds smarter politicians than those who are so gung ho in favour of risky business. I acknowledge that more open and transparent science needs to be made public. Thank you again for all your work on these posts. Sandra.

  4. Excellent and you can never trust the government or the rich…EVER! Those with power and extreme wealth have get more of both each day and “the people” get less. We need to fight back.

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