GMO Rice Approved

golden rice gmo

Story at-a-glance -

  • Genetically engineered (GE) Golden Rice has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), making the U.S. the fourth country to give the GE food the green light, after Canada, Australia and New Zealand
  • The FDA based their decision to approve Golden Rice on data supplied by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), the current makers of Golden Rice
  • While IRRI does not intend to grow or market Golden Rice in the U.S. at this time, it sought approval because it’s expected that the product may be imported into the U.S.
  • While accepting IRRI’s conclusion that Golden Rice is safe, the FDA noted that its beta-carotene content is “too low to warrant a nutrient content claim”
  • Golden Rice is genetically engineered to contain extra genes that produce a precursor to vitamin A, beta-carotene, and is touted as a potential solution to global vitamin A deficiency, but serious questions remain regarding its safety and effectiveness

By Dr. Mercola

Genetically engineered (GE) Golden Rice has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), making the U.S. the fourth country to give the GE food the green light, after Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Golden Rice is genetically engineered to contain extra genes that produce a precursor to vitamin A, beta-carotene.

The rice, which has been making headlines for nearly two decades, was widely touted as a solution to vitamin A deficiency, which affects 250 million preschool-aged children worldwide.1 As the leading cause of preventable blindness in children, it's estimated that up to 500,000 children become blind each year due to vitamin A deficiency, and half of them die within a year of losing their sight.2

A form of rice that could potentially alleviate this devastating micronutrient deficiency, especially in low-income countries in Africa and South-East Asia does, indeed, sound like a panacea. However, despite its recent FDA approval, there remain many doubts surrounding Golden Rice, including its usefulness, practicality and effectiveness for its intended purpose: relieving vitamin A deficiency.

FDA Says Golden Rice Is Safe, but Can't Make a Nutrient Claim

The FDA based their decision to approve Golden Rice on data supplied by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), the current makers of Golden Rice, who they have also tasked with ensuring the product’s safety in the future: “It is IRRI’s continuing responsibility to ensure that foods marketed by the firm are safe, wholesome, and in compliance with all applicable legal and regulatory requirements."3

While IRRI does not intend to grow or market Golden Rice in the U.S. at this time, it sought approval because it's expected that the product may be imported into the U.S., perhaps in other food products intended for animals or people.

While accepting IRRI's conclusion that Golden Rice is safe, they noted that its beta-carotene content is "too low to warrant a nutrient content claim." Health Canada similarly wrote that even if all rice and rice products in the country were replaced with Golden Rice, it would result in only a very small (0.8 percent to 8 percent) increase in beta-carotene intake daily.4

The FDA’s approval could influence other countries considering the GE rice, as Futurism reported, “The U.S. is part of an international body that forms recommendations about food safety that other countries can adopt if they lack their own version of the FDA."5

Notably, IRRI is awaiting approval in the Philippines and Bangladesh, where the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (BRRI) and Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice) are currently working on developing high-yielding local rice varieties with the beta-carotene producing Golden Rice trait.6

The GR2E Golden Rice is the first to receive regulatory approval for use in food. The first Golden Rice (GR1) failed, as it contained too little beta-carotene to even make a dent in vitamin A deficiency.7 The next version (GR2) was developed by biotech giant Syngenta, and the latest version, GR2E, contains three added genes.

"Two specify enzymes in the β-carotene biosynthesis pathway, and are taken from bacteria and maize," Independent Science News reported. "The third specifies a (nonantibiotic) selectable marker protein used in the modification process."8

However, there are concerns that even the GR2E rice may contain only negligible quantities of beta-carotene. The FDA reported that the beta-carotene contained only 0.50 to 2.35 ug/g of beta-carotene, compared to say, the 111 ug/g found in spinach, although sometimes higher levels have been reported. As noted by Independent Science News:9

"FDA notes the mean value of beta-carotene for GR2E is 1.26ug/g. This is, paradoxically, less beta-carotene than the 1.6ug/g measured for the original iteration of Golden Rice … Greenpeace once calculated that such low levels would necessitate a person to eat 3.75 kg of Golden Rice per day to receive an adequate amount of beta-carotene."

What's more, research has shown that whatever beta-carotene content there is in Golden Rice at harvest will rapidly degrade in storage. Research published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry revealed that after three weeks of storage Golden Rice retained only 60 percent of its beta-carotene and this dropped to 13 percent after 10 weeks.10,11

Problems With Golden Rice Have Been Apparent From the Start

There are fundamental flaws that make Golden Rice highly questionable, starting with its intended population's ability to convert the beta-carotene to vitamin A. A 2009 study found Golden Rice is an effective source of vitamin A, because it "is effectively converted to vitamin A" in healthy adult volunteers,12 but those who could theoretically be helped by the additional beta-carotene in 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.

Some experts also argue that seeking to replace one micronutrient at a time is not the best strategy to bring health to malnourished people, who need access to all essential nutrients found in whole foods. 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."13

IRRI is currently working on developing GE rice varieties that contain additional iron and zinc, along with beta-carotene, but so far Golden Rice has also been plagued by growing problems, making the crop highly unattractive to farmers. For instance, 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."14 Yields of the GE "Golden Rice Swarma" 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."15

Is Golden Rice Safe?

Speaking to The Cornucopia Institute, Jonathan Latham, executive director of the Bioscience Resource Project, said Golden Rice transgenes caused "metabolic meltdown" in native rice plants and exemplify 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."16

Indeed, it's possible that GE Golden Rice could contaminate non-GE rice and non-GE rice imports. And although the FDA went along with IRRI's safety assessments of Golden Rice, Independent Science News points out that the "biosafety of Golden Rice GR2E is contested":17

"Testbiotech and other researchers have pointed out that key human safety and efficacy studies are lacking, especially for target populations … Specific health concerns include unintended nutritional effects of carotenoid biosynthesis or its degradation products and because certain components of the carotenoid pathway can be toxic."

Meanwhile, in New Zealand, consumer group GE-Free New Zealand said there was a "total absence of data" regarding the safety of GE rice and considered taking legal action against Food Standards Australia New Zealand and the Minister for Food Safety over the approval of Golden Rice.18 Greenpeace further noted "next to nothing is known about how this GE rice interacts with the environment."19

WHO's Plan to Fight Vitamin A Deficiency Doesn't Include GE Rice

While IRRI continues to seek approval worldwide for Golden Rice, WHO has already implemented a campaign featuring a variety of non-GMO methods for combating vitamin A deficiency. This includes:20

  • 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."

Even IRRI states that Golden Rice is only intended to be a "complementary, food-based solution to existing nutritional interventions, such as diet diversification and oral supplementation." It only provides, even according to IRRI data, 30 to 50 percent of the average requirement of vitamin A for women and children.21 In short, it can't solve vitamin A deficiency on its own, even under the best circumstances, so why create a GE food for this purpose?

It's ironic, too, because beta-carotene-rich foods already exist in nature, and they naturally contain other essential nutrients as well. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is among those that have dumped millions of dollars toward the development of Golden Rice, which stands to make the biotech industry even richer, especially if it paves the way for the approval of even more GE crops globally.

Instead of devoting millions to Golden Rice, which is questionable in its safety and may not even work to alleviate vitamin A deficiency, why not work to 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?

Perhaps it's revealing that the Philippines has yet to approve Golden Rice, with some residents preferring to solve vitamin A deficiency without GMOs. Cris Panerio, a member of a Philippines farmers' network that oppose the approval, said in a media release:22

"We … question why the International Rice Research Institute is seeking safety approval from Canada, Australia, and the U.S. while farmers and consumers in Asia who plant and eat rice as a staple are left in the dark … Promoting readily available, diverse, and safe Vitamin A food sources from sustainable and ecological farming is the long term solution to combat malnutrition, ensure food security and health, not genetically modified crops like Golden Rice."

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