The Golden Rice Conundrum
Is changing 9,000 years of eating habits the solution to vitamin A deficiency in poor communities in Asia?
Vitamin A deficiency is a major public health problem in the developing world. Many people, particularly children, are not able to get enough vitamin A or beta carotene from the food they eat. This can lead to an impaired immune system, blindness, and even death.
One solution, according to food scientists who have been working on the issue for decades, is to infuse the vitamin into rice through genetic modification. Rice is the staple crop of Asia and the primary food for the poor in many countries. The idea of using rice in this way has triggered a fierce, global debate.
But when you set the political and genetically modified food debate aside and take a hard look at golden rice as a development practice, some serious questions arise.
First and foremost is the sensitive cultural nature of rice in Asia. Rice is not simply a food or a staple crop. It is considered by most Asian countries as an issue of national security. It is a core aspect of many Asian cultures and is the first solid food that hundreds of millions of people in Asia eat as an infant.
Putting aside the debate over whether genetically modified food is safe or not, the idea of tinkering with the color of rice is extraordinarily controversial . There is a debate among the scientific community about the origins of domesticated rice as a crop, but many scientists believe people in Asia have been growing and eating it for 9,000 years.
Simply put, rice is a sacred food. Changing its color to combat this single easily-treatable medical condition can appear on the surface to be like using a shotgun to kill mosquitoes.
Imagine asking poor people in England, Australia or the United States to eat yellow or orange, or some other color of bread, to treat vitamin A deficiency?
Proponents of golden rice point out that there are already yellow varieties of rice in Asia, such as biryani, and that if poor families see their children getting healthier from eating golden rice then they will not only adapt to it, they will demand it. And when they demand it, farmers will grow it and this vitamin deficiency problem will have a sustainable long-term solution.
This assertion leads to the most important question about golden rice: will it work as a development practice?
Is genetically altering rice to fortify it with vitamin A and introducing it into poor communities where the problem is acute, the most effective way to address this health and development challenge?
The answer is not known, and may never be known. The issue is so deeply embedded in the political bickering over genetically modified food that it has undergone almost no field testing. Golden rice is not approved for sale in any country worldwide right now.
Sadly, the parties on either side of the issue are now so entrenched that they see deeper dimensions to the debate than simply altering rice to treat vitamin A deficiency. Both sides see it as a line in the sand.
If golden rice can be approved and applied, it will be a victory for the scientists who developed it and continue to work on its research today. This is the life’s work of some scientists. They do not necessarily seek to profit from golden rice, but their careers and reputations are at stake, and decades of their careers have been spent on this. Simply abandoning the idea is not an option.
For the other side, this is the Trojan horse that will allow other genetically modified crops to be used to treat other development problems. Could we one day have blue potatoes for iron deficiencies and purple bananas for polio immunization?
If golden rice was scrutinized in a non-political way as a development practice—such as has been done exhaustively with conditional cash transfers and microfinance—the results might settle the debate.
An attempt by Tufts University in the United States to partner with the Government of the People’s Republic of China in a study on the impact of golden rice met with disastrous results. The study used primary school children to determine the effectiveness of delivering vitamin A using the rice. The researchers, and the university, stressed that no children were harmed during the study, but three Chinese scientists were removed from their positions in Hunan province for ethical breaches.
Limited studies, such as the one by Tufts University and a few others around the world, do not come close to answering the important questions about golden rice.
Is it more cost-effective and sustainable over the long term to introduce this rice than to simply use vitamin supplements and diversification of the diet to introduce more vitamin A? Both sides have used commissioned studies as cannon fodder in the battle over this question and no neutral scientific answer appears to exist.
What would be the results of randomized controlled trials of golden rice, where one village receives it and another uses supplements or other methods? How would these villages compare with similar areas where no intervention was done?
What are the long-term outcomes associated with the use of golden rice? Are more children in the village healthier and enrolled in school after several years? Or are children in a similar situation as those villages without the golden rice?
This is the hard science of understanding whether or not a development practice works. Until golden rice undergoes this kind of neutral scrutiny, it will continue to be a political football that absorbs the time, emotions, and money of the debate combatants without consideration for the people who need help.