by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Rice

Jun 8 2016

Where are we on Golden Rice?

Golden Rice, genetically engineered to contain beta carotene, has long been the poster child for the benefits of GMOs—as witnessed by this Time Magazine cover of July 31, 2000.Golden Rice on Time cover

Beta-carotene is a precursor of vitamin A and the idea behind this rice was that it could—a conditional word expressing uncertainty—help prevent blindness due to vitamin A deficiency in areas of the world where this deficiency is rampant.

But vitamin A deficiency is a social problem.  Fruits and vegetables containing beta-carotene are widely available in such areas, but are not grown or consumed as a result of cultural or economic issues.  If they are consumed, people cannot absorb the beta-carotene cannot be absorbed because of poor diets, diarrheal diseases, or worms.

Here we are, 16 years after the Time cover, and Golden Rice is still not on the market.

I predicted its current problems in my book, Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety, first published in 2003.  In Table 12 (page 158) I outlined the many basic research studies and research on production, consumer acceptance and use, and clinical effectiveness that would have to be done before Golden Rice could be shown to achieve its intended purpose.  Much of this research has now been done but plenty more still needs doing on getting it produced and into the mouths of people who most need its beta-carotene.

Proponents of the benefits of Golden Rice, however, complain that anti-GMO activists are responsible for keeping the rice off the market.

Not so, says an article in the Source, a publication of Washington University in St. Louis.  Based on what some of its researchers have just published in an article in Agriculture and Human Values, the Source quotes one of its authors:

The rice simply has not been successful in test plots of the rice breeding institutes in the Philippines, where the leading research is being done,” Stone said. “It has not even been submitted for approval to the regulatory agency, the Philippine Bureau of Plant Industry (BPI)…The simple fact is that after 24 years of research and breeding, Golden Rice is still years away from being ready for release.”

As I learned long ago, even the slightest skepticism about Golden Rice is perceived by uncritical proponents of GMOs as an attack on science and the entire food biotechnology enterprise.  If you publicly express doubt that Golden Rice can solve the vitamin A problem, you will be accused, as I have been, of responsibility for the illnesses and deaths of millions of children.

As the table in Safe Food makes clear, Golden Rice is a highly technical approach to solving a nutritional problem resulting from cultural and socioeconomic factors.

Such solutions do occasionally succeed.  The best examples I can think of are iodized salt to prevent goiter and water fluoridation to prevent tooth decay.  But both of these interventions address geographical mineral deficiencies, not deficiencies resulting from cultural prohibitions or poverty.

Is Golden Rice worth a try?  Sure it is.  But not when it is used to demonstrate that GMO foods are good for the public as well as the owners of seed and pesticide companies.

Dec 9 2015

Arsenic in rice: another food safety worry?

I am often asked about the potential dangers of arsenic in rice.  As with all such questions, I start with the FDA.

The FDA says the amounts of arsenic it finds in foods do not pose a risk at current levels of consumption.  Brown rice, it finds, has levels of arsenic much higher than those in white rice.

Consumer Reports also tested rice samples.  It recommends against feeding rice cereals to children.  It calls on the FDA to set standards for arsenic levels in rice products.  These, according to the tests, vary widely.  Basmati rice from California, India and Pakistan and U.S.-grown sushi rice are “better choices.”  Just one serving of rice cereal or rice pasta could put a child over CR’s recommended weekly limit

On this basis, Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) introduced legislation— The R.I.C.E (Reducing food-based Inorganic Compounds Exposure) Act— to limit the amount of inorganic arsenic, the most toxic form of arsenic in rice foods.  The act would require the FDA to set limits on arsenic in rice.

Politico reported that the US Rice Federation questioned the science behind the Consumer Reports story:

Arsenic in our food supply is a challenging, yet unavoidable, situation which is why we support the FDA studying the issue carefully,” said Betsy Ward, president and CEO of the USA Rice Federation.  “But CR’s new consumption recommendations aren’t supported by any science that we’ve seen.”

How does arsenic get into rice?  Lots of ways, apparently: naturally occurring, but also from arsenic pesticides that persist in soil.  The flooding makes rice especially susceptible.

What to do while waiting for a resolution to safety questions?  Prepare rice in a coffee percolator says a recent study.  This flushes out a lot of the arsenic.

And everything in moderation, of course.

Jan 8 2015

Food politics, Indonesian style

Food Politics is back from vacation in Indonesia where its president, Joko Widodo (“Jokowi”) made this announcement:


His program particularly aims to support rice production, but also corn, soybeans, and sugar, all of which are currently imported.

Much Indonesian rice is still produced on small terraced farms, like this one on Bali.


The government plans to distribute hand tractors and seeds to thousands of farmers across the various islands.

The Jakarta Post also ran a long story about a program promoting organic farming and seed-saving methods, particularly for rice.  Rice productivity has been falling as a result of over-fertilization and exhausted soils.

The food movement seems alive and well in Indonesia.  It has Slow Food chapters and Bali Buda restaurants (“real food by real people”) are multiplying.  Interest is starting early.


This will  be fun to watch.

Sep 16 2013

Arsenic in rice: another food issue to worry about?

Is arsenic in rice something you should be worried about?

I never know what to say about food contaminants consumed in tiny amounts, in this case, micrograms (millionths of grams) per serving.

The FDA devotes a web page to arsenic in rice.  Here, the agency releases the results of its testing, which found amounts of arsenic mostly below 6 micrograms per serving.

Higher levels—11 micrograms per serving—were found in three samples from Texas, Louisiana and California.  The highest was 30 micrograms per serving of hot ready-to-eat rice bran cereal.

Is this good, bad, or indifferent?  And how would we know?

The FDA says such levels are too low to cause concern about short-term health problems.

But Consumers Union thinks the real issue is the long-term effects.

Today’s widely-reported message on arsenic levels in rice misses the point.  The issue is not the short-term risks of rice consumption. The concern is the long-term effects from exposure to arsenic in rice. As Consumer Reports has said in the past, consumers should not ignore the potential risks from consuming rice and rice products over a long period of time…Consumers are not well-served if they do not have the full story. The concerns about long-term effects are significant and warrant the FDA’s decision to investigate further.

The FDA says it plans further investigations.  In the meantime, it says you should:

  • Eat a well-balanced diet.
  • Vary your grains.
  • Consider diversifying infant foods

This is always good advice.

But Consumers Union  is more specific.  It suggests you worry a little and observe these limits:

New Picture (4)

At the moment, this is the best information available.  FDA: get to work!

FDA references: