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Genetically Engineered Golden Rice Falls Short on Lifesaving Promise

GE Golden Rice

Story at-a-glance -

  • Golden Rice, genetically engineered to produce beta-carotene, has been billed as a panacea for vitamin A deficiency in Third World countries
  • The GE rice has failed to perform well in field trials, with yields lacking compared to conventional rice varieties
  • Evidence has not shown that malnourished children will be able to convert beta-carotene, a fat-soluble nutrient, in Golden Rice into vitamin A, especially given their low-fat diets
  • Research is lacking to show whether the beta-carotene in Golden Rice will stand up to long storage periods and traditional rice cooking methods

By Dr. Mercola

Vitamin A deficiency is a major problem in developing countries, particularly in areas where diets are based primarily on rice. Without adequate dietary beta-carotene, which your body converts into vitamin A, people are at increased risk of infection, blindness and other health problems.

Children and pregnant women are most severely affected, and it's estimated that up to 2.7 million children's lives could be saved by providing adequate vitamin A.1

As a solution, biotech companies created genetically engineered (GE) Golden Rice, which produces beta-carotene that, theoretically, the human body can convert into vitamin A.

For decades, Golden Rice has been touted as a game changer that would save millions of lives, despite numerous signs that the product is destined to fall short of its promises.

Golden Rice Is Still Years Away From Approval

Glaring problem No. 1 is the fact that Golden Rice is still not ready for the market, despite the fact that the idea has been around since the 1980s and research into the product has been ongoing since 1992.2

Critics have long argued that introducing Golden Rice in Third World countries could open the doors for a proliferation of profitable GE crops, and those in favor of Golden Rice have thus blamed environmental groups for slowing the product's introduction — claims researchers from Washington University in St. Louis say are unfounded.3

Lead author lead author Glenn Stone, Ph.D. professor of anthropology and environmental studies in Arts & Sciences, told The Source:4

"Golden Rice is still not ready for the market, but we find little support for the common claim that environmental activists are responsible for stalling its introduction. GMO opponents have not been the problem."

What has been the problem, according to a study by Stone and colleagues, is the rice has not been successful in test plots planted in the Philippines. They added, "It has not even been submitted for approval to the regulatory agency, the Philippine Bureau of Plant Industry (BPI)."

Poor Yields and Lack of Proof of Effectiveness Plague Golden Rice

It was 2000 when a Time magazine cover story touted "This Rice Could Save a Million Kids a Year," referring to the orange-colored, beta-carotene-rich GE Golden Rice. In 2016, the rice has yet to be planted commercially, though it continues to be highlighted in the media with regularity and misplaced fanfare.

In reality, Golden Rice test plots in the Philippines have shown disappointing yields, with researchers noting "researchers continue to have problems developing beta-carotene-enriched strains that yield as well as non-GMO strains already being grown by farmers."5

Worse still, even if the GE rice becomes productive enough to entice farmers in Third World countries to grow it, no one knows whether it will save children's lives as advertised. One of the problems with this "solution" is that your body can only convert beta-carotene to vitamin A under certain conditions.

Specifically, beta-carotene is fat-soluble, which means dietary fat is required for your body to convert it into vitamin A.

Many people in developing countries eat very low-fat diets, as they simply do not have access to animal foods or other fat on a regular basis. Other potential problems highlighted by Stone and colleagues include:6

  • Malnourished people might not be able to convert beta-carotene to vitamin A efficiently, making Golden Rice potentially worthless
  • Little research has been done on whether the beta-carotene in Golden Rice will hold up during storage between harvest seasons
  • It's unknown whether traditional cooking methods used to prepare the rice will destroy the beta-carotene
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Golden Rice Only Worked in 'Children Who Did Not Need It'

In 2012, a study showed that beta-carotene in Golden Rice was as good as beta-carotene in oil at providing vitamin A to children.7 It's the only study to date that's shown such promise for Golden Rice but, according to Stone, it had a major flaw. Mother Jones reported:8

"The subjects were 'well-nourished individuals' who already took in sufficient fat in their diets.

The study 'demonstrated only that Golden Rice worked in children who did not need it' … (The study has since been retracted on claims that the author failed to obtain proper consent from the parents of the participants)."

Golden Rice as a panacea becomes even more questionable when you consider the unrealistic amounts of rice you'd have to consume each day to obtain the recommended amount of vitamin A. As stated in a golden rice case study from Iowa State University:9

"Even if golden rice is successfully introduced … a woman would need to eat 16 lbs. of cooked rice every day in order to get sufficient Vitamin A, if golden rice were her only source of the nutrient. A child would need 12 lbs."

Vitamin A Deficiency Declines Without the Use of Golden Rice

While vitamin A deficiency continues to be a major problem in India and Africa, rates have declined significantly in Southeast Asia in recent years. According to research published in The Lancet, only 6 percent of children in that area suffered from vitamin A deficiency in 2013, down from 39 percent in 1991.10

In the Philippines, vitamin A deficiency has also been on the decline in children. Among those aged 6 months to 5 years, 40 percent were deficient in 2003 compared to just over 15 percent in 2008.

According to the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines, which is working to develop Golden Rice and other varieties, these improvements occurred not due to Golden Rice but because of "proven approaches to prevent vitamin A deficiency:"11

"The exact reasons for these improvements have not been determined, but they may be the results of proven approaches to prevent vitamin A deficiency, such as vitamin A supplementation, dietary diversification, food fortification and promotion of optimal breastfeeding."

There is, in essence, no reason to create a GE food that contains beta-carotene in order to relieve vitamin A deficiency. Such foods exist already in nature.

The real solution would be to help the developing world improve access to real sources of beta-carotene and other nutrients, including animal products like eggs, cheese and meat, and vegetables such as dark leafy greens and sweet potatoes.

Genetic Engineering Is an Imprecise Process at Best

One of the inherent problems with genetic engineering is the assumption that you can modify one aspect of a plant or animal without affecting others — an assumption that doesn't always pan out in practice. As reported by Mother Jones:12

"After seed developers first create a genetically modified strain with the desired trait — in this case, rice with beta-carotene — they start crossing it into varieties that have been shown to perform well in the field.

The task is tricky: when you tweak one thing in a genome, such as giving rice the ability to generate beta-carotene, you risk changing other things, like its speed of growth."

This may explain why Golden Rice has failed to thrive in field trials. According to Dr. Mae-Wan Ho of the Institute of Science in Society, genetic engineering interferes fundamentally with the natural genetic modification that organisms engage in to survive.

Under natural circumstances, this is done in real time as "an exquisitely precise molecular dance of life."

An Inherently Hazardous Process

Genetic engineering, which assumes that one protein determines one particular trait, such as herbicide tolerance or insect resistance, and can easily be swapped out with another, with no other effects, is dangerously simplistic or, as Ho says, "an illusion."13

An organism's genome is not linear, but fluid, and its biological functions are interconnected with its environment and vice versa, such that trying to control genetic changes via artificial modification is a dangerous game.

Compared with natural genetic modification, artificial genetic modification is inherently hazardous because it lacks the precision of the natural process, while enabling genes to be transferred between species that would never have been exchanged otherwise. Contrasting natural and artificial genetic modification:14

Natural Genetic Modification Artificial Genetic Engineering
Precisely negotiated by the organism as a wholeCrude, imprecise, unpredictable and uncontrollable
Takes place at the right place and time without damaging the genomeForced into cells with no control over where and in what forms the artificial constructs land with much collateral damage to the genome
Appropriate to the organism as a whole in relation to its environmentAggressive promoters force foreign genes to be expressed out of context

GE Crops Do Not Represent the Future of Food

Proponents of genetic engineering claim it is the most effective way to feed the world, by producing plants unnaturally equipped with internally produced insecticides, or with genes making them resistant to chemical herbicides or, in the case of Golden Rice, containing enhanced nutrition. Some are advertised as drought resistant and/or higher yield producing, but the truth turns out to be quite different.

GE plants may produce foreign proteins making them potentially allergenic and often they require more pesticides and herbicides than conventional crops, while producing lower yields.

Meanwhile, what people in the developing world need in order to receive ample dietary nutrients like vitamin A is access to a diverse range of nutritious food. This is the type of diet that is attained from biodiverse farming — the opposite of what will occur if GE crops like Golden Rice are planted on a large scale.