GMO Rice Coming to Your Plate Soon

Analysis by Dr. Joseph Mercola Fact Checked

gmo rice

Story at-a-glance -

  • The Philippines Department of Agriculture, Bureau of Plant Industry approved the use of genetically engineered (GE) “Golden Rice” for direct use as food or feed, as well as for processing
  • The approval is being heralded as a solution to rising rates of vitamin A deficiency in the Philippines, as the rice is engineered to produce beta-carotene
  • Serious questions remain about Golden Rice’s safety, as well as its ability to increase vitamin A levels in those who are deficient
  • Greenpeace Southeast Asia-Philippines blasted the approval, calling on the government to “immediately reverse the faulty decision, which the environment group maintains is based on insufficient data”

The Philippines Department of Agriculture, Bureau of Plant Industry has become the latest regulatory body to approve the use of genetically engineered (GE) “Golden Rice” for direct use as food or feed, as well as for processing.1 The so-called FFP approval is being heralded as a solution to rising rates of vitamin A deficiency in the country, as the rice is engineered to produce beta-carotene.

However, serious questions remain about the GE rice’s safety, as well as its ability to actually increase vitamin A levels in those who are deficient. Despite these key outstanding questions, the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand have also given Golden Rice a green light, which suggests it could appear on your dinner plate soon.

Philippines Says Golden Rice Is Safe

After conducting a biosafety assessment, the Philippines Department of Agriculture announced that Golden Rice was as safe as conventional rice, granting it FFP approval.

In a news release, Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice) executive director John de Leon stated, “With this FFP approval, we bring forward a very accessible solution to our country’s problem on vitamin A deficiency that’s affecting many of our preschool children and pregnant women.”2

Before the rice will be made available to the public, approval for commercial propagation will still be required. However, PhilRice has already partnered with the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), the current makers of Golden Rice, to move forward with taste tests of the GE rice. According to IRRI:3

“The FFP approval is the latest regulatory milestone in the journey to develop and deploy Golden Rice in the Philippines. With this approval, DA-PhilRice and IRRI will now proceed with sensory evaluations and finally answer the question that many Filipinos have been asking: What does Golden Rice taste like?”

It’s a major step forward for the GE rice, as it’s the first approval in a country where rice is a staple food, and vitamin A deficiency is also a significant problem.

In the Philippines, per capita white rice consumption is about 315 grams (0.69 pounds) daily, which is fifteenfold higher than in the U.S.4 Providing a beta-carotene rich source of rice indeed sounds like a lifesaving solution, but the GE rice has repeatedly failed to deliver.

FDA Refuses to Give Golden Rice a Nutrient Content Claim

Golden Rice has been making headlines for two decades as a solution to vitamin A deficiency, a condition that affects 250 million preschool-aged children worldwide.5 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, according to the World Health Organization.6

Golden Rice has already gone through multiple changes before its latest version — GR2E — received 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

The FDA approved Golden Rice, using data supplied by IRRI, but 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% to 8%) increase in beta-carotene intake daily.9

IRRI is already countering the finding, essentially stating that it will work better in the Philippines simply because the average Filipino consumes much more rice than the average American:10

“On average, Americans eat very little rice, and therefore would receive only modest amounts of beta-carotene. However, Golden Rice is intended as a complementary, food based solution for Vitamin A-deficient communities who consume rice as a staple food, eating between 200 to 300 g per day, and at these levels Golden Rice provides significant provitamin A.”

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Will Eating Golden Rice Alleviate Vitamin A Deficiency?

Controversy has surrounded Golden Rice since its creation, in part because it’s uncertain whether widespread planting of this GMO will benefit those who are vitamin A deficient. IIRI’s Russell Reinke, a rice breeder, stated that eating about 1 cup of Golden Rice daily would supply 50% of the recommended daily allowance of vitamin A for an adult.11

This was in an article published by the Genetic Literacy Project, a well-known front group for the GMO industry, which also states:12

“Golden Rice is meant to complement, not replace, other efforts to address VAD, according to the IRRI. Its goal in the Philippines is to supply 30-50 percent of the estimated average requirements for vitamin A for preschool age children and pregnant or lactating mothers, with vitamin A supplements and diet diversification providing the rest.

… While many foods contain beta-carotene, they can be expensive to buy and difficult to grow in regions where VAD [vitamin A deficiency] is an issue. Rice is a staple crop in many countries in South and Southeast Asia, and is widely grown by smallholder farmers. Thus Golden Rice could be a cheap, wide-reaching, sustainable approach to fighting VAD.”

There is concern, however, that the beta-carotene in Golden Rice may degrade with storage. One study revealed that after three weeks of storage Golden Rice retained only 60% of its beta-carotene and this dropped to 13% after 10 weeks.13,14

Further, there are concerns that even the GR2E rice may contain only negligible quantities of beta-carotene. The FDA reported that the rice 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.15 In cases where higher levels were reported, this was often the result of misleading or skewed statistics, such as:16

  • Measuring total carotenoids instead of beta-carotene alone
  • Milling the rice
  • Using non-AOAC (Association of Official Analytical Chemists) extraction methods
  • Growth under greenhouse rather than field conditions

“In other words,” Independent Science News reported, “the low levels communicated to FDA seem to be the most accurate and realistic.”17

Golden Rice Approval ‘Irresponsible and Completely Misguided’

The conversion of beta-carotene to vitamin A is also questionable. A 2009 study found Golden Rice is an effective source of vitamin A because it “is effectively converted to vitamin A” in healthy adult volunteers18 — 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.

Even the study that concluded Golden Rice is an effective source of vitamin A fed the rice to healthy adults along with 10 grams of butter,19 something that may not occur in a real-life setting. There are fundamental questions that need to be asked, too, such as whether the answer to malnutrition lies in replacing one micronutrient at a time, instead of helping people to grow nutritionally balanced, healthy foods.

Greenpeace Southeast Asia-Philippines is among the NGOs that blasted the Bureau of Plant industry’s (BPI) approval, calling on the government to “immediately reverse the faulty decision, which the environment group maintains is based on insufficient data.”

They said the approval processed did not take into account socio-economic impacts to farmers and indigenous peoples, or the rice’s effects on local culture, adding:20

“The BPI’s approval of so-called ‘golden rice’ is extremely irresponsible and completely misguided. We condemn the BPI’s systematic disregard of the precautionary principle and of robust data that clearly show that the safety assessments submitted by GR [Golden Rice] proponents are flawed.

Rice is the Philippines’ primary staple; this is a foolish decision that will have far-reaching negative impacts on food and agriculture in the country … Genetically modified ‘golden rice’ neither addresses hunger nor malnutrition … the solution is resilient food and farm systems—diverse grains, fruits and vegetables for diverse diets and for food and nutrition security.

Governments and philanthropists should be promoting programs that empower people to have access to and grow diverse fruit and vegetables, instead of listening to a few giant biotech corporations pushing unproven expensive techno-fixes and experimenting on the lives and livelihood of farmers, mothers and children.”

WHO Promotes Gardens, Breastfeeding for Vitamin A Deficiency

Fighting back against vitamin A deficiency isn’t a matter of introducing GE rice into the environment but, rather, targeting the lack of healthy food spurring the deficiency in the first place. Toward this end, WHO has already implemented a campaign featuring a variety of non-GMO methods for combating vitamin A deficiency, such as:21

  • 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.”

High-dose vitamin A supplementation has also yielded improvements, reducing mortality by 23% overall and by up to 50% for those with measles.22 Biotech giants like Syngenta are going to continue pushing for Golden Rice to gain approval worldwide, while GE rice varieties that contain additional iron and zinc, or have a low glycemic index, have also been developed.

Some have said that a “Green Gene” revolution — one that looks at GMOs as the solution to feeding the world — is inevitable, but GMOs often create more problems than they solve. “The last Green Revolution produced more food,” a Bulletin of the World Health Organization, stated, “but much of it didn’t reach the people who most needed it.”23

What’s more, in a survey of childhood nutrition in 63 developing countries, improving the level of women’s education was the most important factor related to better child nutrition.

“According to these figures, if improving rice productivity affected food availability it would contribute to 26% of the causes of improvement in child nutrition, whereas improving the status and education of women would more than double that effect,” the Bulletin noted.24