GENET archive


2-Plants: Vandana Shiva: Vit-A rice a blind approach to blindness control

-------------------------- GENET-news ---------------------------

TITLE:  Genetically engineered vitamin A rice: A blind approach
        to blindness controll
SOURCE: Research Foundation for Science, Technology, and Ecology,         India, by Vandana Shiva
DATE:   February 14, 2000

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Genetically engineered vitamin A rice: A blind approach to
blindness controll

Genetically engineered Vitamin A rice has been proclaimed as a
miracle cure for blindness - "a break through in efforts to
improve the health of billions of poor people, most of them in

More than $100 have been spent over 10 years to produce a
transgenic rice at the Institute of Plant Sciences at the Swiss
Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. The Zurich research
team headed by Ingo Potrykens and Xudong Ye introduced three
genes taken from a daffodil and a bacterium into a rice strain to
produce a yellow rice with high levels of beta-carotene, which is
converted to Vitamin A within the body.

The rice is being promoted as a cure for blindness since Vitamin
A deficiency causes vision impairment and can lead to blindness.
According to the UN, more than 2 million children are at risk due
to Vitamin A deficiency.

The work in Zurich was funded by grants from the Rockfeller
Foundation the agency which had launched the chemical agriculture
in Asia through the Green Revolution which led to erosion of
biodiversity and erosion of diverse sources of nutrition for the
poor. In addition, the Swiss Government and the European
Community has also supported the research. It will however take
millions more in dollars and another decade of development work
at the International Rice Research Institute to produce Vitamin A
rice varieties that can be grown in farmers fields.

Is the "golden" rice a miracle that is the only means for
preventing blindness for Asia or will it introduce new ecological
problems like the Green Revolution did and create new health
hazards like other genetically engineered foods?

The genetic engineering of Vitamin A rice deepens the genetic
reductionism of the Green Revolution. Instead of millions of
farmers breeding and growing thousands of crop varieties to adapt
to diverse ecosystems and diverse food systems, the Green
Revolution reduced agriculture to a few varieties of a few crops
(mainly rice, wheat and maize) bred in one centralised research
centre (IRRI for rice and CIMMYT for wheat and maize). The Green
Revolution led to massive genetic erosion in farmers fields and
knowledge, erosion among farming communities, besides leading to
large scale environmental pollution due to use of toxic
agrichemicals and wasteful use of water.

Genetically engineered rice as part of the second Green
Revolution is repeating the mistakes of the Green Revolution
while adding new hazards in terms of ecological and health risks.
The "selling" of Vitamin A rice as a miracle cure for blindness
is based on blindness to alternatives for removing vitamin A
deficiency and blindness to the unknown risks of producing
Vitamin A through genetic engineering.

Eclipsing Alternatives.

The first deficiency of genetic engineering rice to produce
Vitamin A is the eclipsing of alternative sources of vitamin A.
Per Pinstripe Anderson, Head of the International Rice Research
Institute has said that Vitamin A rice is necessary for the poor
in Asia, because "we cannot reach very many of the malnourished
in the world with pills". However, there are many alternatives to
pills for Vitamin A supply. Vitamin A is provided by lever, egg
yolk, chicken, meat, milk, butter. Beta-carotene, the vitamin A
precursor is provided by dark green leafy vegetables, spinach,
carrot, pumpkin, mango and drumstick. Women farmers in Bengal use
more than 100 plants for green leafy vegetables.

The lower cost, accessible and safer alternative to genetically
engineered rice is to increase biodiversity in agriculture.
Further, since those who suffer from vitamin A deficiency suffer
from malnutrition generally, increasing the food security and
nutritional security of the poor through increasing the diversity
of crops and diversity of diets of poor people who suffer the
highest rates of deficiency is the reliable means for overcoming
nutritional deficiencies.

Sources of Vitamin A in the form of green leafy vegetables are
being destroyed by the Green Revolution and Genetic Engineering
which promote the use of herbicides in agriculture. The spread of
herbicide resistant crops will further aggravate this
biodiversity erosion with major consequences for increase in
nutritional deficiency. For example, bathua a very popular leafy
vegetable in North India has been pushed to extinction in Green
Revolution areas where intensive herbicide use is a part of the
chemical package.

Environmental costs of vitamin A rice.

Vitamin A from native greens and fruits is produced without
irrigation and wastage of scarce water resources. Introducing
Vitamin A in rice implies a shift from water conserving
alternatives for Vitamin A to water a intensive system of
production since so called high yielding rice varieties are
highly water demanding. Vitamin A rice will therefore lead to
mining of ground water or intensive irrigation from large dams
with all the associated environmental problems of water-logging
and salinization.

Further, as in the case of other genetically engineered crops,
rice with Vitamin A will have impact on the food web. The
ecological impact on soil organisms and other organisms dependent
on rice in the food chain should be part of the biosafety
analysis of genetically engineered rice before it is released for
production. Research has already shown that indigenous rice
varieties support far more species than Green Revolution
varieties. How will genetically engineered rice impact
biodiversity and the potential for disease and pest

Health risks of vitamin A Rice.

Since rice is a staple eaten in large quantities in Asian
societies, vitamin A rice could lead to excessive intake of
vitamin A especially among those who do not suffer from vitamin A
deficiency. Excess vitamin A can lead to hypervitaminosis A or
vitamin A toxicity. Such toxicity is known to occur due to over
ingestion of vitamin A rich food eg. Polar bear liver or by food
faddism by over solicitous parents, or as side effects of
inappropriate therapy. Vitamin A toxicity can lead to abdominal
pain, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, popillidena, bulging

Chronic toxicity of vitamin A can occur after ingestion of large
quantities of vitamin A for protracted periods. Chronic at
toxicity is characterized by bone and joint pain, hyperotosis,
hair loss, dryness and fissures of lips, a nausea intraeranial
hypertension, low grade fever, pruritis, weight loss,

Natural sources of vitamin A are consumed seasonally and in small
quantities as greens, relishes, fruits and hence do not carry the
risks of vitamin A toxicity. Rice eating regions have been found
to be associated with higher malnutrition than wheat eating
regions, especially after the Green Revolution which destroyed
fish and plant biodiversity necessary for a balanced diet. These
regions also have higher prevalence of water borne diseases like
diarrhea, amoebiasis hepatitis A and E, dysentery, and vector
borne diseases like malaria, which unlike in earlier years when
it was a less hazardous form of malaria caused by plasmodium
vivax is increasingly becoming falciparum malaria. These health
problems are known to involve damage to the lever. The additional
risks of vitamin A toxicity under these conditions of vulnerable
health situation of the poor in Asia needs to be assessed with
care before a large scale push is given to genetically engineered

Further, the globalisation of agriculture is leading to an
increase in malnutrition in the Third World, as the most fertile
ecosystems are diverted to luxury export crops, and as domestic
markets are destroyed due to dumping of subsidised agricultural
commodities. In India, per capita consumption of cereals has
declined by 12 per cent in rural areas over the past two decades.
The shift from policies based on the "right to food" to free
trade policies will push millions into hunger and poverty.

Genetically engineered rice is part of a package of globalised
agriculture which is creating malnutrition. It cannot solve the
problems of nutritional deficiency but it can introduce new risks
of food safety. Since the vitamin A in rice is not naturally
occurring and is genetically engineered, novel health risks posed
by vitamin A rice will need to be investigated before the rice is
promoted by IRRI and aid agencies or commercialised.

The risk assessment for living modified organisms intended for
direct use as feed is given in Annexe II of the recently
finalized Biosafety Protocol under the Convention on Biological

The risk assessment of vitamin A rice should therefore involve
the following steps.

a) An identification of any novel genotypic and phenotypic
characteristics associated with the vitamin A rice that may have
adverse effects on biological diversity in the likely potential
receiving environment, taking also into account risks to human
b) An evaluation of the likelihood of these adverse effects being
realised taking into account the level and kind of exposure of
the likely potential receiving environment.
c) An evaluation of the consequences should these adverse effects
be realised.

The risk assessment also needs to take into account the vectors
used, the insects, the ecological differences between transgenic
vitamin A rice, and conventional rice varieties. The diverse
contexts in which the rice is to be potentially introduced also
needs to be taken into account. This includes information on the
location, geographical, climatic and ecological characteristics,
including relevant information on biological diversity and
centres of origin of the likely potential receiving environment.

It is these potential risks which have put a question mark on
genetic engineering in agriculture. The genetically engineered
vitamin A rice is now being used as a Trojan horse to push
genetically engineered crops and foods.

Mr. Pinstrup Anderson, the IRRI Director has suggested that the
"vitamin A rice could provide a public relations boost for plant
biotechnology, which has been criticised by some
environmentalists and consumer activists for promoting "Franken
foods"". It has yet to be established that genetically engineered
rice is not a Franken food.

But one thing is clear. Promoting it as a tool against blindness
while ignoring safer, cheaper, available alternatives provided by
our rich agrobiodiversity is nothing short of a blind approach to
blindness control. 


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