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Golden Rice

Golden Rice has potential to help millions of people in developing countries, but government regulators, the UN, and anti-GMO activists have gotten in the way.

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Rice is a daily dietary staple for roughly half of humanity, including a disproportionate number of the poorest people on Earth. Unfortunately, while rice is rich in carbohydrates, it's a poor source of essential micronutrients.

In 1984, researchers gathered at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) for a five-day conference where they debated this question: "What gene would you put into rice, if you could put in any gene at all?" Most of the answers, as Ed Regis details in Golden Rice: The Imperiled Birth of a GMO Superfood, were practical if unimaginative: The idea was to make rice more resistant to drought, disease, or infestation.

But Peter Jennings, who'd developed a strain of rice that matured in 130 days instead of 170 and could produce 10 times the yield of common varieties, had a more novel idea. He wanted to genetically engineer a kind of rice containing beta carotene, which the human body converts into retinol, an essential nutrient for fetal development and night vision.

As Regis documents in his compelling historical narrative, Jennings' idea would slowly become a reality over the course of two decades, thanks to advances in genetic engineering and collaboration across continents. Yet "Golden Rice"—named for the hue lent by beta carotene—is almost as rare today in the places that need it as it was when IRRI researchers were spitballing nearly 35 years ago.

The ostensibly well-meaning culprits—government regulators, the United Nations, and anti-GMO activists—are motivated by the possibility that if Golden Rice were to be cultivated at a scale sufficient to alleviate Vitamin A deficiency in the poorest parts of Africa and Asia, it might harm biological diversity in those places. So despite Golden Rice's potential to reduce suffering and save millions of lives each year, it remains largely out of favor and out of circulation.

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  1. It is undeniably, factually true that “…if Golden Rice were to be cultivated at a scale sufficient to alleviate Vitamin A deficiency in the poorest parts of Africa and Asia, it might harm biological diversity in those places.”

    There would be less blind and crippled, sick humans, so our biological diversity would go DOWN!

    That is why I also object to more and more, ever more, safer technologies for highways and cars… Less cripples = less diversity!

    1. You are so tiresome.

      1. Billions and untold billions of Reason.com commentary-readers everywhere THANK YOU profusely for your profoundly insightful comments! We are ALL anxiously gripping the edges of our seats, breathlessly waiting for MORE of your comments!

        1. Never change, SQRLSY.

  2. It might help if Riggs actually mentioned the arguments of golden rice’s detractors and tried to debunk them rather then merely complain they are being successful in their campaign.

    1. So you missed this part?

      “The ostensibly well-meaning culprits…are motivated by the possibility that if Golden Rice were to be cultivated at a scale sufficient to alleviate Vitamin A deficiency in the poorest parts of Africa and Asia, it might harm biological diversity in those places.”

      1. Vaguely mentions it in a way that provides no understanding of what the reasoning is and makes no attempt to present a counterargument.

        1. Mickey Rat
          November.22.2019 at 9:56 am
          “Vaguely mentions it in a way that provides no understanding of what the reasoning is and makes no attempt to present a counterargument.”

          OK, how about:
          “Woo luddites continue to embarrass themselves inventing new lies to demonize the effort”
          That about sums it up

          1. I am not sure how that refutes my earlier point that the pro golden rice arguments put forth in this article are insubstantial and I think it would be better if they had more meat to them.

    2. I’ve heard of Golden Rice but never really looked at what is really being marketed as a panacea. But here are a few at-a-quick-glance probs with it:

      1. The main reason it hasn’t ‘made it to market’ is because the patent owners are squabbling over 70 or so patents. Which means they ain’t really doing anything ‘humanitarian’ here. This is just camel’s nose stuff.

      2. A map of rice production and VitA deficiency doesn’t overlay at all. So outside of South Asia, there is no such direct thing as ‘plant this rice and end vitA deficiency’. It is merely a way of forcing farmers into the cash economy and forcing dependence on imported food (or forcing them off the land they squat on). Two (Bangladesh, Phillipines) of the four countries (India, Cambodia) where there is overlay are also the two who are introducing Golden Rice.

      3. Overall this really smells of Western/foreign aid hegemony that has done massive harm over the decades. The biggest problem in every one of the countries where vitA deficiency is also a problem is rural landlessness and the vitamin deficiency is concentrated among those landless. In Bangladesh, 55% of rural households (up from 20% at independence) ‘own’ less than 1/2 acre. It ain’t the rice that’s the problem. It’s the concentration of land ownership and no surprise the govt elites also happen to be the landowner elites who will also benefit from monoculture planting of ‘Golden Rice’ and obliterating the internal market for a variety of other foodstuffs with far more vitA (like green veg and yams and such) than Golden Rice. It’s a way of avoiding actual difficult decisions re land reform.

      4. The main direct reason for vitA deficiency in India at least is that their caste system directly harms the poorest of the poor. Those children are the ones that aren’t allowed to touch (literally) school meals. They also aren’t allowed to ask questions in school – so they tend to drop out by age 10 or so. And ‘rural health stuff’ doesn’t even bother with the ‘Dalit’ villages/settlements. Anyone who thinks ‘Golden Rice’ is gonna remotely address any of this is delusional. In fact, if I were to guess, the main function of ‘Golden Rice’ is to provide some ego boost to Westerners buying imported rice from those third world areas. Oh look honey gluten-free rice that’s colorful. Won’t that color be perfect for the kids plate.

      1. The summary leaves out another big detail. The communities where the rice was to be planted did not want the rice. The equivalent of focus groups were done in villages. There are cultural reasons to this. People want white rice. Sometimes they want an ornamental rice like black or purple or even red. They did not want yellow rice.

        Full disclosure, I worked in a rice research lab and contributed to IRRI publications.

      2. The golden rice cultivar(s) aren’t different in nutritional content from regular rice, except for the added micronutrients, and other than having somewhat better yields on average they’re nearly the same in terms of cultivation. So the folks currently farming rice only stand to gain from using it, assuming they’re okay with eating funny colored rice, which is more of a barrier than you’d expect.

        The best argument against it that I’ve seen is simply that it’s so obviously superior to all other cultivated rice strains that it’s likely, absent government interference, that economic pressure would eventually induce everyone to farm it. This isn’t initially a bad thing, but when the entire world’s rice supply is the same monoculture it introduces a lot of systemic risk. I think that’s a reasonable argument, but the simple counterargument is more genetic engineering, not less. You can induce variety through competition in strains without flatly objecting to improvements that would better people’s lives.

      3. “Anyone who thinks ‘Golden Rice’ is gonna remotely address any of this is delusional,” is irrelevant since nowhere does anyone suggest or expect that Golden Rice was designed to address all of India’s problems as you are expecting of it. It was merely designed to feed people, regardless of the reason behind their malnutrition. Boggles the mind why anyone would wish to stop this humanitarian endeavor in the face of zero evidence that GMOs harm either the environment or people.

  3. Just like DDT bans have a price in malaria deaths, improving food must yield to political correctness and science denial.

  4. The ostensibly well-meaning culprits

    I challenge this assertion.

  5. but government regulators, the UN, and anti-GMO activists

    Politics is downstream from culture… so I’d prioritize the anti-GMO activists here.

  6. I am always happy the more likely it is that overpopulated humans might suffer a few more losses. Seriously – we could lose 5 BILLION people and be just fine. I would also prefer that those 5 billion be from “poor” and “undeveloped” countries.

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