A Wealth Deferred: The Politics and Science of Golden Rice

Article excerpt

The idea behind Golden Rice is simple. It starts with a disease: Vitamin A Deficiency (VAD), a wholly preventable scourge of the developing world. As the name implies, VAD is a dietary problem and is particularly prevalent in the developing regions of Africa and Southeast Asia. VAD causes blindness and often death and particularly afflicts children. According to the World Health Organization, this deficiency makes 250,000 to 500,000 children go blind annually. More than half die within a year. If adults are included in the tally, a million die per year.


More stunning than this statistic, perhaps, is that a remedy exists--in fact has existed for several years. In 1982 the Rockefeller Foundation, a charitable organization dedicated to "promoting the well-being of mankind throughout the world," encouraged research in biofortified foods, crops genetically engineered to produce important nutrients in large quantities. Golden Rice grew out of this research: beta-carotene fortification was developed in 1992, Golden Rice was planted in labs by 1999 and field trials were conducted in Louisiana in 2004 and are only now being conducted in India and the Philippines. The tale of why Golden Rice has taken so long is not one of nefarious forces, although the effect might amount to as much, but of entrenched and uninformed hostility to genetically modified (GM) foods and NGO-EU politics. Golden Rice could save hundreds of thousands of lives a year, if only the international community, particularly the European Union, will let it.

The Promise

Ten years after biofortified foods had become theoretically possible, researchers Ingo Potrykus and Peter Beyer came up with a bright idea. First, they noted that rice is a staple food in much of the developing world. If rice could be engineered to overproduce beta-carotene, a substance the body converts into vitamin A, people who ate that rice would no longer have a deficiency problem. VAD-induced blindness could be eradicated across the developing world simply by substituting fortified for wild rice.

Unlike vitamin supplement programs, which cost millions each year and face significant delivery problems, just imagine getting a crate of vitamin tablets up a Nepalese mountain, Golden Rice boasts low cost and sustainability. The Golden Rice Humanitarian Board and Syngenta, a biotech company that sponsored much of the research, proposed to donate Golden Rice seeds to subsistence farmers earning less than US$10,000 a year. As Potrykus wrote, by "breeding micronutrients directly into the staple crops that farmers grow for their own table," Golden Rice promised to once and for all reach the "most remote and inaccessible communities, which often suffer the greatest need."

The Problem

The problem is that 1982 was, well, 24 years ago. Given the enormous humanitarian need, why has a farmer in the developing world yet to see Golden Rice? This is not a new question. The first problem was patents and licensing: there were as many as 16 patent and 72 intellectual property issues involved in making Golden Rice free for subsistence farmers, and clearing them up understandably took time. But the real problem, and the one that continues into the future, is EU and NGO obstructionism. One might ask, why can't the United States produce Golden Rice and give it to developing countries? The answer is that EU market access is very important to developing countries. Some like Zimbabwe have banned GM foods (including GM food aid and Golden Rice) due to the fear of being shut out of European markets. This fear remains an obstacle to Golden Rice adoption, even though the rice is intended for subsistence farmers rather than commercial exporters.

But what caused this European antagonism? The United States has been largely pro-Golden Rice and has favored GM foods while Europe has strongly opposed them. A 2005 Eurobarometer poll showed that 54 percent of European consumers find GM food dangerous. …