by Marion Nestle
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.

  • Nys Cof

    You used a very poor example. Fluoridation has proven to be the biggest public health blunder in US history. Modern science indicates that ingesting fluoride, neither a nutrient nor essential for healthy teeth, is ineffective at reducing tooth decay, harmful to health and a waste of money. Politics, not science, supports fluoridation. Fluoride, like all drugs, has some hasty side effects See http://www.FluorideAction.Net/issues/health

  • I must say Marion that your monotonously negative reporting on GMOs is only a notch or two above the silly antics of those who rail against fluoride and vaccines. As I see it, GMO is still in its infancy. It took many decades and many billions of dollars to get many great things like solar panels and computers to their current level of development. GMO technology is making great advances (Crispr etc.) and will undoubtedly make many more.

    As to Golden Rice, well yes, technical difficulties are the main factor stalling progress but the behaviour of activists who have destroyed field trials etc has hardly helped. I still hold out hope that eventually you’ll see the light, embrace the science team and reject the organic cult’s anti-science voodoo.

  • grinninglibber

    Yes Golden Rice is indeed the perfect poster child for the dangerous GMO SCAM.

  • GM vitamin A fortified bananas appear to be more advanced but even in this case we have crazed activists trying to hinder progress.

  • John Zohn

    here we go again, anyone who doesn’t glorify your beloved GMOs is guilty of silly antics. It doesn’t matter what their credentials are or what they have accomplished and exposed or how much research they have done on the subject, by definition not glorifying anything produced your despicable industry makes them unreliable, right Cappy Moonbeam? maybe it’s just your credibility that’s unreliable!

  • grinninglibber

    You mean thsoe bananas stolen from the Africans, patented, the ones the goons are now attempting to sell back?
    Those bananas?

  • grinninglibber

    Yup. The biggest “technical difficulty” is that is crap rice that nobody wants to eat.

  • Rob Bright
  • Rob Bright

    Well, fluoride HAS been reclassified as a neurotoxin, as reported in the Lancet. And you’re right, genetic engineering as a science is still in its infancy. Too bad the biotech/agrochemical industry had to rush it through development without the proper safety testing…

  • razorjack

    Thank you for the clarification in your wonderful piece.

    It comes to the point when we see that golden rice is a PR scam and a total flop.

    I wonder how many children could have been helped by low cost vitamin supplements with the millions upon millions that have been flushed down the golden rice hole.

  • razorjack

    None of these crops should be released without long term safety testing.

    Nathanael Johnson is a known industry Propagandist who is usually out fast with Ketchum’s latest narrative.

    Another scam to try and destroy local agriculture and the farm families who make their livelihood from it.

  • razorjack

    Nobody believe a thing you say, Steve Munn. You are a known industry PR astroturfer as well as a thuggish criminal hacker and stalker.

    All you have are your agenda and industry PR scripts.

  • The lie that activists haven’t had a major impact on humanitarian projects like Golden Rice is dealt with here:

    Food activists and environmental activists are indeed killing and maiming people. Glenn Stone’s report was clearly biased and ill-informed. Stone started with the desired conclusion then built a case around it. Note that Stone has been writing negative reports about BT Cotton in India ever since its introduction, even though the evidence that farmers want it, with ~ 95% adoption, is overwhelming.

  • JW Ogden

    I was in agreement up to this:

    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.

    It is evidence.

  • kittura

    Vitamin A…
    It must be something so rare and hard to find in food that isn’t supplemented…. right?

    NO… if you look for a list of what foods have vitamin A – it’s listed in CATEGORIES… milk, meat, fruit, vegetables…. so if you think about it fully, if children don’t have this vitamin they don’t need rice. They need FOOD.

    If they had adequate food the vitamin is plentiful in all food categories.

    This too…
    If it was just made available in rice… it won’t be absorbed without the other complementary foods etc that it needs to be absorbed.

    Now in the USA a lot of folks are deficient in Vitamin D which comes primarily from the sun. Folks in the USA are terrified of sunlight.

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