4 Golden Rice: a case study

4.3 Golden Rice in the public domain

In January 2000, the successful experiments were announced in a paper published in the American journal Science. This, in itself, is significant. Generally, work on genetic manipulation would be published in one of a number of more specialist journals. Publication in a journal like Science indicates that this was important work, likely to be of interest to a wider audience. In its ‘Notes for Authors’, the journal states that ‘Priority is given to papers that reveal novel concepts of broad interest’. This rules out the majority of research work, and publication in Science is seen as a huge achievement in its own right.

Publication of a paper in a journal like Science tends to serve two purposes. First, it announces new results to a community of specialists within a particular area of science, in this case biotechnologists and crop scientists. Secondly, it promotes the work to a wider audience of scientists outside the specialism, including journalists, sociologists of science and interested members of the public.

To emphasise the importance of this work, the paper was accompanied by an extended editorial by Mary Guerinot (a member of the journal's editorial panel) explaining its significance. 1700 copies of the editorial were circulated to journalists across the world. It made clear the expectations of the work, and placed it firmly in the context of the debate over GM crops:

The road to better nutrition is not paved with gold and, hence, agribusiness has not centred its efforts on the nutritional value of food. The work that culminated in the production of golden rice was funded by grants from the Rockefeller Foundation, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and the European Community Biotech Program. Like the plant varieties that made the Green Revolution so successful, the rice engineered to produce provitamin A will be freely available to the farmers who need it most. One can only hope that this application of plant genetic engineering to ameliorate human misery without regard to short-term profit will restore this technology to political acceptability.

The ‘Green Revolution’ refers to the large increases in agricultural productivity resulting from the introduction of new varieties, fertilisers and irrigation techniques during the 1960s in the developing world.

Activity 2

You should allow 0 hour(s), 10 minute(s).

Read the above short extract carefully and try to summarise the key points Guerinot is making. Use no more than 50 words.

Discussion

I think she is making three key points:

  • Previous work on genetic modification has been shaped by the need of Western agrochemical multinationals to make a profit.
  • Public and charitable funding means this work may be made freely available to the most needy.
  • This breakthrough may help to persuade more people that GM crops are acceptable.

You may have also noticed that Guerinot implies that the Green Revolution was an unproblematic ‘good thing’. This is hotly disputed by those who have campaigned against GM, particularly those based in developing countries (see, for example, Extract 1, below).

The promotion of the work by Science and others did not go unnoticed. We have seen that news magazines like Time took up the story. Potrykus counted 30 TV broadcasts and 300 newspaper articles in the first year. The biotechnology industry saw the development of Golden Rice as a chance to capitalise on some good publicity. Monsanto and other biotechnology companies initiated a multimillion pound advertising campaign.

The campaigners against GM were also quick to respond. One of the most prominent amongst these was Vandana Shiva, an Indian ecological activist. Her article was widely reproduced on the Internet, an edited extract is reproduced here as Extract 1, which you should read now.

Extract 1 The ‘Golden Rice’ hoax -When public relations replaces science

by Dr Vandana Shiva

Golden rice has been heralded as the miracle cure for malnutrition and hunger of which 800 million members of the human community suffer.

Herbicide-resistant and toxin-producing genetically engineered plants can be objectionable because of their ecological and social costs. But who could possibly object to rice engineered to produce vitamin A, a deficiency found in nearly 3 million children, largely in the Third World?

Unfortunately, vitamin A rice is a hoax, and will bring further dispute to plant genetic engineering where public relations exercises seem to have replaced science in promotion of untested, unproven and unnecessary technology. The problem is that vitamin A rice will not remove vitamin A deficiency (VAD). It will seriously aggravate it.

It is a technology that fails in its promise. Currently, it is not even known how much vitamin A the genetically engineered rice will produce. The goal is 33.3 μg/100 g of rice.

Even if this goal is reached after a few years, it will be totally ineffective in removing VAD. Since the daily average requirement of vitamin A is 750 μg and one serving contains 30 g of rice, on a dry weight basis, vitamin A rice would only provide 9.9 μg, which is 1.32% of the required allowance.

Even taking the 100 g figure of daily consumption of rice used in the technology transfer paper would only provide 4.4% of the RDA. This is a recipe for creating hunger and malnutrition, not solving it. Besides creating vitamin A deficiency, vitamin A rice will also create deficiency in other micronutrients and nutrients. Raw milled rice has a low content of fat (0.5 g/100 g). Since fat is necessary for vitamin A uptake, this will aggravate vitamin A deficiency. It also has only 6.8 g/100 g of protein, which means less carrier molecules. It has only 0.7 g/100 g of iron, which plays a vital role in the conversion of β-carotene to vitamin A.

A far more efficient route to removing vitamin A deficiency is biodiversity conservation and propagation of naturally vitamin A rich plants in agriculture and diets. In spite of the diversity of plants evolved and bred for their rich vitamin A content, a report of the major science academies of the world has stated:

Vitamin A deficiency causes half a million children to become partially or totally blind each year. Traditional breeding methods have been unsuccessful in producing crops containing a high vitamin A concentration, […] Golden Rice, may be a useful tool to help treat the problem of vitamin A deficiency in young children living in the tropics.

It appears as if the world's top scientists suffer a more severe form of blindness than children in poor countries. The statement that ‘traditional breeding has been unsuccessful in producing crops high in vitamin A’ is not true given the diversity of plants and crops that Third World farmers, especially women, have bred and used which are rich sources of vitamin A.

Women in Bengal use more than 200 varieties of field greens. Over 3 million people have benefited greatly from a food based project for removing VAD by increasing vitamin A availability through home gardens. The higher the diversity crops the better the uptake of provitamin A.

The reason there is vitamin A deficiency in India, in spite of the rich biodiversity and indigenous knowledge base, is because the Green Revolution technologies wiped out biodiversity by converting mixed cropping systems to monocultures of wheat and rice and by spreading the use of herbicides which destroy field greens.

Genetically engineered vitamin A rice will aggravate this destruction since it is part of an industrial agriculture, intensive input package. It will also lead to major water scarcity since it is a water-intensive crop and displaces water-prudent sources of vitamin A.

Activity 3

You should allow 0 hour(s), 30 minute(s).

(a) Dr Shiva states that Potrykus and the other developers of Golden Rice aim to develop rice containing 33.3 μg of vitamin Aper 100 g of rice. In Potrykus's Science paper, the authors in fact say that their ‘goal is providing at least 2 μg/g provitamin A’. Can you see any discrepancy here? If so, can you explain how it has arisen?

(b) Summarise, in your own words, the main points of criticism in the extract. You should not exceed 100 words.

Discussion

(a) Potrykus’ goal is 2 μg of provitamin A per gram of rice, which is equivalent to 200 μg per 100 g. Shiva refers to 33.3 μg of vitamin A per 100 g of rice. The Science paper refers to provitamin A, whilst Shiva refers to vitamin A itself. Shiva has divided by a factor of 6, in order to take into account the idea of retinol equivalents. Given that Shiva's audience is not a scientific one, you might argue that this is perfectly justified.

(b) I think Shiva's main points might be summarised as:

  • She disputes whether the rice can provide enough provitamin A.
  • She argues that other dietary sources would provide an adequate supply, if diets could be changed.
  • She dismisses it as a technological quick fix, arguing that earlier technological solutions (e.g. the Green Revolution) made matters worse, not better.