By Dr. Mercola
In 2000, genetically engineered (GE) Golden Rice made the cover of Time magazine, which used the compelling headline, “This rice could save a million kids a year.”1 In theory, it sounded like a promising idea: Create rice that contains beta-carotene, which would then be converted into vitamin A when eaten. Vitamin A deficiency is a public health problem in more than half of countries across the globe, particularly in Africa and Southeast Asia, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).2
Not only is vitamin A deficiency, which affects an estimated 250 million preschool children, the leading cause of preventable blindness in children, but it also increases the risk of severe infections and related deaths, WHO notes. Solving the problem of vitamin A deficiency could indeed prove to be lifesaving on a monumental level — on this, everyone agrees. But major controversy has arisen over tackling vitamin A deficiency with Golden Rice, as time has shown this GE product has failed miserably at living up to its promises.
Golden Rice Fails to Deliver
It’s been more than 20 years since Golden Rice has become a focus of research,3 but there’s still nothing to show for it. And there were problems from the beginning. The first Golden Rice (GR1) failed, as it contained too little beta-carotene to even make a dent in vitamin A deficiency.4 The next version (GR2), developed by biotech giant Syngenta, is still in field trials.
“The vast majority of scientists in the world will never see such comprehensively generous support for their research — yet they still deliver, and must deliver if they ever want to renew funding for their research. This is more than can be said for the golden rice project,” Independent Science News reported.5
Indeed, both common sense and science suggest the project was doomed to fail from the start. For starters, proponents often cite a 2009 study that found Golden Rice is an effective source of vitamin A, because it “is effectively converted to vitamin A” in healthy adult volunteers.6
The latter part is important, because the people who would be depending on Golden Rice are, for the most part, not healthy adults, nor would they have regular access to key nutrients needed to absorb vitamin A, like fat. So there are major questions of whether consuming Golden Rice, even if it contains high enough levels of beta-carotene, would alleviate vitamin A deficiency in people without adequate levels of dietary fat. Other key questions also remain to be answered, like:7
- Does beta-carotene in Golden Rice degrade during storage?
- Do the beta-carotene levels remain the same when seeds are saved year after year?
- How much beta-carotene remains after cooking?
- What are the environmental risks?
In addition, it’s overly simplistic to assume that engineering one part of a plant would occur in a bubble, without influencing other parts. As GM Watch explained, it’s even possible that the high levels of beta-carotene in the rice could end up backfiring in a way:8
“A study published in 20129 showed that beta-carotene (a precursor to Vitamin A that's been engineered into Golden Rice) is processed into a number of compounds, not just Vitamin A. Some of these compounds actually block the action of Vitamin A. The authors of the study said this may have implications for Golden Rice: ‘A concern is that if you engineer these crops to have unusually high levels of beta-carotene, they might also have high levels of these [Vitamin A-blocking] compounds.’”
Golden Rice Leads to ‘Metabolic Meltdown,’ Poor Yields
On an agronomic level, Golden Rice is also extremely problematic. Indian researchers looking to create a form of Golden Rice that could be grown in India introduced the engineered DNA to a high-yielding variety called Swarna. The resulting “GR2-R1” crop was “dwarf with pale green leaves and drastically reduced panicle [flower cluster] size, grain number and yield as compared to the recurrent parent, Swarna.”10
Yields of the GE “Golden Rice Swarna” were just one-third that of the non-GE variety, and root and shoot defects were apparent. “The plants also flowered later, were half the height, and half as fertile,” The Cornucopia Institute reported, adding:11
“DNA analysis revealed a partial explanation for these defects. The GR2-R1 DNA had inserted into and disrupted a native rice gene called OsAux1. OsAux1 specifies a transporter for the important plant hormone auxin. The researchers suggested this disruption explains some of the root and shoot defects.”
In addition, some of the engineered genes were found to have enzyme products functioning in the leaves of the plants, even though they had been engineered to only function in the grains. Cornucopia continued:12
“Chemical analysis of leaves, stems and flowering parts showed GR2-R1 plants had altered levels of three other key plant hormones: abscisic acid (ABA), gibberellin (GA3), and cytokinin.
To explain this the researchers proposed that the presence of the genetically engineered … enzymes in leaves depletes a compound (GGDP) needed to make other plant biochemicals, in particular hormones and chlorophylls. Lack of chlorophyll would explain the pale leaves, while altered hormone levels would explain the other growth defects and the yield loss seen … ”
Problems Intrinsic to GMOS to Blame for Golden Rice Failings — Not Activists
Speaking to The Cornucopia Institute, Jonathan Latham, executive director of the Bioscience Resource Project, said Syngenta’s Golden Rice transgenes caused “metabolic meltdown” in the native rice plants and exemplifies to perfection the classic criticisms of genetic engineering that “introduced DNA will disrupt native gene sequences and, second, that unpredictable disruption of normal metabolism may result from introducing new functions.”13
On the contrary, proponents of Golden Rice have long blamed environmental groups, including Greenpeace, which has spoken out against the GE rice, for slowing its progress. Another scapegoat is a group of environmental activists who destroyed a test plot of Golden Rice in 2013 in a protest against the project.
But Glenn Stone, professor of anthropology and environmental studies in arts and sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, co-wrote an article that suggests activists are not to blame for Golden Rice’s failings.14 Stone said in a Washington University news release:15
“Destroying test plots is a dubious way to express opposition, but this was only one small plot out of many plots in multiple locations over many years.
Moreover, they have been calling Golden Rice critics ‘murderers’ for over a decade … if we are actually interested in the welfare of poor children — instead of just fighting over GMOs — then we have to make unbiased assessments of possible solutions. The simple fact is that after 24 years of research and breeding, Golden Rice is still years away from being ready for release.”
Replacing Just One Nutrient Is Shortsighted
The entire concept of Golden Rice is also overly simplistic and based on the flawed premise that you can bring good health to starving people by replacing one nutrient. So even if Golden Rice succeeded in delivering enough beta-carotene, in a crop form that was appealing to farmers (i.e., not producing poor yields), and the people were nourished enough to absorb it (all big ifs), the approach would still fall short of solving malnutrition. Independent Science News summed up the flaws in this approach well:16
“Combating hunger and malnutrition one vitamin and mineral at a time is a failed ideology, no matter which vitamin or mineral one starts with and which kind of delivery system one chooses. Malnourished people do not suffer from single-vitamin-deficiencies added up. They suffer from hunger, as in ‘lack of food’.
This is compounded by poverty and a myriad of contributing factors working simultaneously together. That means they lack regular access to real foods containing the necessary variety of ALL essential nutrients, which, in conjunction, make up a healthy diet.”
Further, if you did want to replace one nutrient at a time, including vitamin A, inexpensive vitamin A supplements are widely available and can be dispensed to the people who need them far more easily than Golden Rice.
In fact, they’re already being used, with promising results, according to WHO, which notes, “For deficient children, the periodic supply of high-dose vitamin A in swift, simple, low-cost, high-benefit interventions has … produced remarkable results, reducing mortality by 23 percent overall and by up to 50 percent for acute measles sufferers.”17
WHO Promotes Vegetable Gardens, Breastfeeding, to Alleviate Vitamin A Deficiency
While Syngenta continues to milk its hope of a future cash cow in Golden Rice, WHO has already implemented a campaign featuring a variety of non-GMO methods for combating vitamin A deficiency. This includes:18
- Promoting breastfeeding as the best way to protect babies from vitamin A deficiency, since breastmilk is a natural source of vitamin A
- Fortifying foods with vitamin A in certain areas, such as Guatemala, has helped to maintain vitamin A status for high-risk groups and needy families
- Promoting home gardens for rural families, including in Africa and Southeast Asia. According to WHO, “[G]rowing fruits and vegetables in home gardens complements dietary diversification and fortification and contributes to better lifelong health.”
In the Philippines, vitamin A deficiency has been on the decline in children, without the need for Golden Rice. Among those aged 6 months to 5 years, 40 percent were deficient in 2003 compared to just over 15 percent in 2008,19 and the fact is, there are already vitamin A supplements and vitamin A-rich foods that could help save lives in areas suffering from malnourishment.
“Frequently, vitamin A-rich food exists in abundance and rots in storage or under trees not that far away from the places where people suffer from malnutrition. An alternative already in the field is, for example, a non-GMO orange sweet potato, a root crop compatible with improved crop rotations whose developers have been awarded the 2016 World Food Prize,” Independent Science News pointed out.20
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.