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
-------------------- archive: http://www.gene.ch/ --------------------
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
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
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
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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