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2-Plants: Critical Canadian opinion column on Golden Rice

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TITLE:  There's nothing like a feel-good bowl of golden rice. Or not?
SOURCE: The Globe and Mail, Canada, by Naomi Klein
        edited and sent by Agnet, Canada
DATE:   August 2, 2000

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There's nothing like a feel-good bowl of golden rice. Or not?

"This rice could save a million kids a year."

Columnist Klein says that was the arresting headline on the cover of 
last week's Time magazine. It referred to golden rice, a newly market-
ready variety of genetically engineered grain that contains extra 
beta-carotene, a property that helps the body produce vitamin A. All 
over Asia, millions of malnourished children suffer from vitamin A 
deficiency, which can lead to blindness and death.

To get their supposed miracle cure off the ground, AstraZeneca, the 
company that owns marketing rights for golden rice, has offered to 
donate the grains to poor farmers in countries such as India, where, 
perhaps not coincidentally, genetically engineered crops have met 
fierce resistance.

Klein says that it's possible that golden rice could improve the 
health of millions of poor children. The problem is that there is no 
way to separate that powerful emotional claim (and the limited 
science attached to it) from the overheated political context in 
which the promise is being made.

Genetically engineered foods, originally greeted with rubber stamps 
from governments and indifference from the public, have rapidly 
become an international repository for anxiety about everything from 
food safety to corporate-financed science to privatized culture. 
Opponents argue that the current testing standards fail to take into 
account the complex web of interrelations that exists among living 
things. Altered soy beans may appear safe in a controlled test 
environment, but how, once grown in nature, will they affect the 
weeds around them, the insects that feed on them, and the crops that 
cross-pollinate with them?

Klein says that what has blind-sided the agribusiness companies is 
that the fight has been a battle of the brands, as much as one of 
warring scientific studies. Early on, activists decided to aim their 
criticism not at agribusiness itself, but at the brand-name 
supermarkets and packaged-foods companies that sold products 
containing "Frankenfoods."

Their brand images tarnished, British supermarkets began pulling 
products off their shelves, and companies such as Gerber and Frito-
Lay went GE-free. In the United States and Canada, environmentalists 
have set their sights on Kellogg and Campbell Soup, parodying their 
carefully nurtured logos and costly ad campaigns.

Until now, the agribusiness companies have had great difficulty 
responding. Even if they could claim that their altered foods had no 
harmful effects, they couldn't point to direct nutritional benefits, 
either. Which is where golden rice comes in. Agribusiness companies 
finally have a benefit to which they can point - not to mention a 
powerful brand of their own with which to fight the brand wars.

Golden rice has all the feel-good ingredients of a strong brand. 
First, it's golden, as in golden retrievers and gold cards and golden 
sunsets. Second, unlike other genetically engineered foods, it isn't 
spliced with ghastly fish genes, but rather melded with sunny 

But before we embrace genetic engineering as the saviour of the 
world's poor, it seems wise to sort out what problem is being solved 
here. Is it the crisis of malnutrition, or is it the crisis of 
credibility plaguing biotech?

The boring truth is that we already have the tools to save many more 
than a million kids a year-all without irrevocably changing the 
genetic makeup of food staples. What we lack is the political will to 
mobilize those resources. That was the clear message that emerged 
last month from the Group of Eight summit in Okinawa. One after 
another, the largest industrial nations shot down concrete proposals 
aimed at reducing poverty in the developing world.

As this paper reported, they nixed "a Canadian proposal to boost 
development aid by up to 10 per cent, turned down Japan's idea to set 
up a G8 fund to fight infectious diseases, and backed away from 
opening their markets to farm goods from developing countries within 
four years." They also "said no to a new plan to accelerate $100-
billion (U.S.) in debt relief for the poorest countries."

There are also plenty of low-tech solutions to vitamin A deficiency 
that have been similarly passed over. Programs already exist to 
encourage the growth of diverse, vitamin-rich vegetables on small 
plots, yet the irony of these programs (which receive little 
international support) is that their task is not to invent a sexy new 
sci-fi food source. It's to undo some of the damage created the last 
time Western companies and governments sold an agricultural panacea 
to the developing world.

During the so-called Green Revolution, small-scale peasant farmers, 
growing a wide variety of crops to feed their families and local 
communities, were pushed to shift to industrial, export-oriented 
agriculture. That meant single, high-yield crops, produced on a large 

Many peasants, now at the mercy of volatile commodity prices and deep 
in debt to the seed companies, lost their farms and headed for the 
cities. In the countryside, meanwhile, severe malnutrition exists 
alongside flourishing "cash crops" such as bananas, coffee, and rice. 
Why? Because in children's diets, as in the farm fields, diverse 
foods have been replaced with monotony. A bowl of white rice is lunch 
and dinner.

Klein concludes that the solution being proposed by the agribusiness 
giants? Not to rethink mono-crop farming and fill that bowl with 
protein and vitamins. Like omnipotent illusionists, they propose to 
paint that bowl golden. 


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