This spring, we're offering three stories on biotech's biggest and greenwashiest claims in our series, "Are GMOs really going to save the world?" Part One looks at Golden Rice, one of the most controversial GMOs ever created. Don't forget to check out Part Two, How Useful are GMOs on a Warming Planet? and Part 3, Can a Lab-based Food System Save the World?
The biotech industry loves to talk about precision.
For example, advocates for genetic engineering and genetic modification have adopted the term "precision agriculture" to rebrand unpopular technologies that produce GMOs. Divorced from its meaning, precision agriculture sounds very attractive indeed, as if the untidiness of life — and farming — can be tamed if only we apply a sharp enough blade.
Our regular readers know precision agriculture by its other names, "genetic modification" and "genetic engineering." One genetically engineered crop, in particular, Golden Rice, exemplifies the hype and hyperbole of modern biotechnology.
Golden Rice is genetically engineered to contain beta-carotene, a precursor to Vitamin A. It was developed in the late 1990s to treat Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) — a form of malnutrition that can lead to blindness and death. VAD mainly impacts children and expectant mothers in developing economies across Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa (where plain white rice provides daily calories but little actual nutrition).
From a distance, the theory of Golden Rice offers elegant, even algebraic simplicity: If we add the thing that's missing (Vitamin A) to the thing that people suffering from malnutrition eat every day (rice), then — presto! — deficiency solved!
In practice, it doesn't work that way.
Vitamin A deficiency is not an isolated problem. It is a product of extreme poverty intertwined with inequality's social and economic drivers. Effective solutions are systemic rather than targeted, and the realities of extreme poverty quickly undo a "precise" tool like Golden Rice.
How does Golden Rice fail as a "silver bullet" solution? And what can we do instead?
"Golden Rice" wears rose-colored glasses.
The biggest problem with Golden Rice is tied directly to the reason it was created in the first place: People afflicted with VAD rely on very limited diets, and those limitations make Golden Rice ineffective.
People must consume Vitamin A with fat for the body to use it. In regions where people rely on rice to survive, the fruits and vegetables containing copious amounts of the stuff are unavailable — neither are fat-bearing foods like oils or meat. Even if Golden Rice replaced white rice, the lack of diversity in the local diet prevents it from doing any good.
Time is another enemy of Golden Rice. Beta carotene — the precursor to Vitamin A that gives Golden Rice its color — deteriorates over time. How the grain is stored and transported impacts how much of the supplement gets to the people who need it. Vacuum-sealing and refrigeration seem to slow nutrient loss, but people in rural and impoverished areas rarely have these kinds of resources. Again, the conditions that cause VAD also undermine the efficacy of Golden Rice.
Research into Golden Rice's effectiveness has produced skewed results because studies operate under ideal conditions that don't reflect the realities of the regions most affected by VAD. For example, a 2008 study provided a daily butter ration to each participant, optimizing the absorption of Vitamin A — a benefit that is not available to most families facing VAD.
In the end, Golden Rice is most effective for people who don't need it — people with diverse diets and access to refrigeration — meaning that it's not really effective at all. Providing the basic human needs that would increase Golden Rice's effectiveness — improved nutrition, healthcare and basic infrastructure — would go a long way to solving VAD itself, not to mention many of the other ills of extreme poverty.
With more dietary options, the foods that naturally deliver Vitamin A could do their work, providing essential nutrients and the healthy fats needed to metabolize them. Consistent health care is a perfect delivery system for the Vitamin A supplementation programs that have already been highly successful — as well as other life-saving treatments.
Where would we be today if we had applied the resources used to develop Golden Rice over the past 20+ years directly to the VAD crisis and its underlying causes?
Farmers choose the best seeds — and they don't choose Golden Rice.
Another obstacle to Golden Rice's success is adoption: Will farmers in affected regions choose to grow it, and how will those crops perform?
Golden Rice cross-bred with locally grown rice produces offspring suitable to a given area, but these crosses often have low productivity. In 2017 in India, local rice varieties crossed with Golden Rice produced pale and stunted plants. Unsurprisingly, low performance is an unappealing trait for farmers. A study in the Philippines (the first country to approve Golden Rice for commercial cultivation) concluded farmers are unlikely to plant the low-yielding crop. "Some [farmers] might adopt Golden Rice if it could fetch a premium in the market, but extremely poor customers are unlikely to pay it."
Again, the roadblocks of poverty and necessity undermine Golden Rice's effectiveness.
Failing diversity = future catastrophe
Reliance on a single crop such as Golden Rice is very dangerous even with the best intentions.
The people impacted by VAD rely on diets with little diversity. Even if Golden Rice effectively controlled VAD (a claim we've challenged above) and even if the adoption overcame practical barriers (ditto), distributing a handful of rice seed varieties to support millions of people across a massive land area increases the fragility of the food system. Genetic uniformity is a welcome mat to plant pests and diseases — threats that are only increasing in the changing climate whose effects are forecast to disproportionately impact the Global South, including all the regions affected by VAD.
The Non-GMO Project was founded on the belief that every person has the right to adequate, nutritious and natural food. Real solutions are based on a holistic understanding of the problem and must work with the messy realities of our troubled world.
We support the fastest, most effective and longest-lasting solutions to suffering worldwide and we have yet to see an offering from the biotech industry that stands up to scrutiny.