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2-Plants: The golden rice controversy: Useless science of unfounded criticism?

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TITLE:  The Golden Rice Controversy: Useless Science or Unfounded
SOURCE: BioScience 55 (9): 726-727, by Jorge E. Mayer
DATE:   Sep 2005

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The Golden Rice Controversy: Useless Science or Unfounded Criticism?

Earlier this year, scientists disclosed in the journal Nature
Biotechnology the development of a new Golden Rice, a genetically
engineered form of the crop capable of producing 23 times more provitamin
A (beta-carotene) than a prototype announced in the year 2000 (Paine et
al. 2005). However, rather than celebrate the potential of this
breakthrough to alleviate suffering and reduce the number of deaths
caused by malnutrition - in the millions, many of them children in
developing countries - Greenpeace greeted the development with claims
that Golden Rice is "not effective" and "superfluous" (Greenpeace 2005;
see Maxeiner 2005 for a critical response). Organizations like Greenpeace
rightly see this advance as threatening their anti-biotechnology
campaign, which lacks a scientific basis and has relied mainly on the
manipulation of people's perceptions.

For several years, a few countries with intensive agriculture have been
adopting transgenic crops at a rapid pace. More recently, the technology
has also gained significant momentum in developing countries. South
Africa's insect-resistant maize and cotton programs have proved very
successful and are growing steadily. In India, despite reports of one
failure - purely agronomic and not involving any biosafety issues - the
adoption and registration of new transgenic varieties are strongly on the
rise. In total, in 2004, developing countries accounted for almost 28
million hectares (ha), or 34 percent, of all land dedicated to transgenic
crops (James 2004). Farmers' eagerness to adopt the technology, together
with their success stories, is bad news for those antitechnology
campaigners who base their arguments purely on scaremongering tactics.

Although opposition to genetically modified (GM) crops has been fierce
since they were first released into the environment in the 1980s, the
United States and a few other countries have managed to develop science-
based biosafety regulatory systems. These have allowed the technology to
flourish - as more than 80 million ha planted with transgenic crops
worldwide in 2004 attest - for the benefit of farmers, consumers, and
companies. Meanwhile, strong opposition in Europe managed to push through
an extended de facto moratorium that has only recently begun to thaw.
This process is progressing only under laws seemingly designed to deter
the use of transgenic crops rather than to encourage adoption of the
technology. For example, under the present Gene Technology Act in
Germany, farmers growing GM crops in a region are jointly and severally
liable for economic damage that neighboring farms incur if their crops
are contaminated by GM material, even if the source of the material
cannot be identified with certainty and the GM crop farmers have adhered
to all regulatory requirements. The legal threshold level of admixture is
arbitrarily set at 0.9 percent, but if a farmer has signed a contract to
deliver produce that is free of GM material, then neighboring farmers of
GM crops are fully liable for the loss in value caused even by admixture
levels below 0.9 percent. In the present situation, German insurers are
not prepared to sign contracts with farmers willing to grow GM crops,
because the level of liability cannot be calculated. This policy creates
an insurmountable hurdle to the spread of GM technology in the country.

One argument brought up by opponents of Golden Rice is that it might
interfere with existing vitamin A supplementation and fortification
programs and campaigns. This argument is used to suggest that we should
opt for the status quo. Such an attitude disregards the potential of
Golden Rice to provide viable, sustainable alternatives. Moreover, in
adopting this position, opponents are ignoring the huge number of
individuals - mainly in remote rural areas - not covered by most outreach
activities. In India, a country with ongoing supplementation and
fortification programs, 57 percent of children under six years of age
show subclinical vitamin A deficiency, according to UNICEF. Another
pertinent fact, which opponents seem to deliberately overlook, is that
existing programs require millions of dollars per country every year to
keep them going. These programs are not sustainable.

Initiatives promoting a more varied diet have met with limited success.
This is because fruits and other food sources of provitamin A are not
available throughout the year. Moreover, many of these food sources do
not grow in the areas where they are most badly needed. Most of all,
people affected by vitamin A deficiency usually cannot afford to buy a
varied diet. One strong argument for rice as a staple is that most
alternative provitamin A-rich crops are perishable. Hence, subsistence
farmers would be poorly advised to use up their scarce resources to grow
perishable crops that will not allow them to feed their families
throughout the year.

I believe Golden Rice will demonstrate that any legitimate concerns about
genetic engineering in any crop will be related to the specific traits
being introduced, and not to the technology itself. Golden Rice and the
underlying technology have been widely discussed ever since Ingo Potrykus
and Peter Beyer came up in 1999 with a rice plant capable of producing
provitamin A. Provitamin A is normally produced in the green tissues of
every plant and converted to vitamin A in the human body. Nobody has been
able to come up with a scenario whereby the provitamin A-enriched grains
of Golden Rice could pose a menace to the environment or to human health.
What's left in the opponents' camp is a perceived risk of the technology
as such, rooted in unfathomable, yet-to-be-articulated dangers.
Meanwhile, real threat does exist: it is the threat of widespread
micronutrient deficiencies killing millions of children and adults all
over the world.

Opposition to GM crops is often based on the apparently reasonable
argument that the public has a right to know and to decide. This argument
remains simplistic at best if the decisionmaking process is not knowledge
based but rather consists of a summary rejection with a political
undertone. This position has led to politically motivated moratoria and
the construction of insurmountable regulatory hurdles. These hurdles have
not only hit large corporations but also seriously affected developments
coming from the public sector, leading to the loss of investments and
opportunities. While development of a transgenic plant in the laboratory
might cost a few hundred thousand dollars, fulfillment of regulatory
requirements has amounted to several million dollars in some documented
cases. And this process must be repeated in every country where
regulatory approval is sought. The lost opportunities are being felt
especially in developing countries, where agricultural production could
profit immensely from new resistance and adaptation traits in many crop
plants (Cohen 2005).

In some cases, opposition has led to the development of policies that
exclude agricultural biotechnology in national research and development
funding strategies. These days, more funds seem to go into biosafety
research than into product development, with the result that few product
development projects capture the public interest. For example, further
development and deployment of Golden Rice have suffered severely because
of lack of support from the European Union.

The introduction of Golden Rice into target countries has been seriously
delayed by the lengthy processes necessary to obtain permits to deploy
seed for field testing. The main cause of these drawn-out procedures is
that receiving countries have been influenced by the technology-rejecting
position of several countries, most of them in Europe. The European
position reverberates in distant nations: Zambia, for example, rejected
US donations of genetically modified maize, despite the severe grain
shortage caused by a devastating drought in central and southern Africa;
other nearby countries hit by the grain shortage also rejected the US-
approved transgenic product.

A driving force in establishing bureaucratic barriers is the fear of
losing export markets for agricultural produce because of potential
"contamination" - a misnomer for the adventitious presence of transgenic
crops - of export commodities. Socioeconomic studies are showing not only
that the feared potential losses have been exaggerated but that huge
advantages have been ignored. In a study of Asian countries published by
the World Bank, the authors concluded that - in terms of health and
direct economic improvements - export losses could amount to as little as
one-half percent of potential gains. Total economic gains from Golden
Rice could be in the range of several billions of US dollars for
countries in Southeast Asia (Anderson et al. 2004). This kind of insight
is slowly turning the tide, and is further underpinned by scientific data
that do not foresee any deleterious effects to mankind or to the
environment from the use of nutritionally enhanced rice (Lu and Snow 2005).

Some arguments by opponents of GM technology demonstrate a lack of basic
knowledge of plant breeding. One such argument suggests that transgenes
promote the use of monocultures. Transgenes, as opposed to many
conventionally obtained traits, are mostly monogenic and are easy to
breed into any locally adapted variety. The Golden Rice trait, for
example, can be introduced into any local variety within two years, thus
making it easy to preserve the cultivation of traditional varieties with
added value (i.e., containing beta-carotene and thus having health-
promoting characteristics).

Golden Rice has often been criticized for being a technical fix that does
not address the real needs of farmers and their living conditions.
Critics of Golden Rice go on to give their unqualified support to
existing supplementation and fortification programs and to the growing of
nontraditional vegetables in farmers' fields. While low-tech approaches
are successful to a certain degree, these lifestyle-modifying
interventions are often unsustainable. The genetic engineering step
required to generate Golden Rice, on the other hand, involves a
technological intervention. Its beauty is that it makes it possible to
deliver a traditional crop plant with an added trait. A new variety of
seed that can be grown, harvested, and replanted is the most down-to-
earth and familiar solution known to any farmer. The only difference is
that this new variety could, besides delivering daily calories, help
solve a life-threatening problem. It is a solution that, apart from
initial outreach activities, will require no additional inputs. Golden
Rice is a sustainable solution.

References cited
Anderson, K, LA Jackson, and C Pohl Nielsen. 2004, Genetically Modified
Rice Adoption: Implications for Welfare and Poverty Alleviation:
Washington (DC): World Bank.

Cohen, JI. 2005, Poorer nations turn to publicly developed GM crops:
Nature Biotechnology. 23 27-33.

Greenpeace. 2005, Genmanipulierter Reis: Nicht wirksam und überflüssig:
(3 August 2005;

James, C. 2004, Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops: 2004:
New York: International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech
Applications. ISAAA Briefs no. 32. (2 August 2005;

Lu, B-R, and AA Snow. 2005, Gene flow from genetically modified rice and
its environmental consequences: BioScience. 55 669-678.

Maxeiner, D. 2005, Die Anti-Reis-Kampagne: Genmanipulierter Reis?
Greenpeace warnt. Unser Autor warnt vor Greenpeace - Rezension einer
Pressemitteilung: Die Welt, 5 April. (3 August 2005;

Paine, JA. 2005, Improving the nutritional value of Golden Rice through
increased provitamin A content: Nature Biotechnology. 23 482-487.

Jorge E. Mayer (E-mail: is Golden Rice
project manager at Campus Technologies, Freiburg, Germany


European NGO Network on Genetic Engineering

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