Bringing a Superfood Down to Earth

August 26, 2015

post by Glenn Stone, PhD, Professor of Sociocultural Anthropology and Environmental Studies in Arts & Sciences

Genetically modified (GM) crops are mostly planted on large industrialized farms (mainly in the US, Brazil, and Argentina), but there continues to be keen interest in—and debate on—their utility for small farmers and poor consumers in the Global South. In this regard, “Golden Rice” has received the most attention.

Golden Rice is a medical food, engineered to produce beta carotene in the endosperm, rather than only in the bran as in most rice. Beta carotene is a vitamin A precursor, and the hope was that this invention would mitigate Vitamin A Deficiency (VAD), which in extreme cases can cause blindness or death in malnourished children. After appearing on the cover as Time in 2000 as a rice that “could save a million kids a year,” Golden Rice has been a nearly ubiquitous talking point in GMO arguments. As a high-flying GM superfood, it is without peer.

But the battles over Golden Rice have been particularly heated even by the usual standards of GMO bombast. Critics claim the technology is an unproven, expensive, and misguided bandaid—a Trojan Horse to open the floodgates of GM crops into the global south (Brooks 2010:76-83; RAFI 2000). Meanwhile industry spokesmen, impassioned molecular biologists, and partisan journalists charge that children are being left blind by GMO critics having slowed the rice; hired activist Patrick Moore tirelessly gives speeches blaming Greenpeace (which he claims to have founded) for “murdering” children ( 2015). Confusingly, biotechnologists like Roger Beachy claim that Golden Rice is already in use and that it has “helped save many, many lives and improved the quality of life of those who eat it” (Krock 2009; also see Thomson 2002:1). These false claims cause considerable discomfort to the scientists who are actually doing the Golden Rice breeding (Dubock 2014:73).

In the screaming match over Golden Rice, both sides tend to turn a blind eye to some key specifics of the crop. Proponents usually discuss it as a vitamin tablet headed for generic underfed children. These children are usually only said to be located in “poor countries” (Beachy 2003), or “developing countries” (Enserink 2008), or occasionally “Asia” (Dawe and Unnevehr 2007). This portrayal is generally backed up by aggregated statistics on the prevalence of VAD-related blindness and deaths on a global scale. Opponents usually tar it with the same brush they use for other GMOs, particularly those headed for the global south.

But Golden Rice is not a vitamin tablet and it is not headed for the whole Global South. It is rice—the most widely consumed and arguably the most culturally freighted crop in the world (e.g., Ohnuki-Tierney 1993; Shiva 2000-01). And it is headed specifically for the Philippines: in fact, the idea was born in the Philippines (Enserink 2008), it is being bred and tested in a research institution in the Philippines, to be approved by the Philippine Bureau of Plant Industry, to be sold in Philippine markets to Philippine growers and potentially fed to Filipino children. Most discussions of Golden Rice mention this Philippine context only in passing or not at all, focusing instead on generic problems such as VAD and biotechnology acceptance on global scales. Even economic analyses purporting to calculate “The Cost of Delaying Approval of Golden Rice” (Wesseler, et al. 2014) make no mention of the Philippines. (Breeders and researchers in Vietnam, India, and Bangladesh are also working with Golden Rice, but release is not on the horizon in any of these countries.)

The whisking from view of this Philippine context is remarkable because the Philippines is hardly just a country with vitamin A-deficient children (in fact, such children are relatively scarce there). The country is in many ways unique with respect to rice, with a storied history, complicated present, and contested future for the crop. This is the country that brought us the rice half of the Green Revolution (the wheat half was developed in Mexico); the country with famous rice terraces; the country with a resurgent trade in “heirloom” landrace rice; the country with the famous International Rice Research Institute (IRRI).

As a laboratory project in molecular biology, Golden Rice was generally placeless; the DNA inserted into it came from bacteria, viruses, and plants, and the type of rice was javanica subspecies commonly commercialized in the US (Dubock 2014:76). The actual rice grains on the cover of Time were not adapted to grow anywhere; they were the plant equivalent of lab rats. For this high-flying rice to actually be used, it had to be brought down to the ground—literally. It had to be re-bred to grow in a country where it might have an impact, and the Philippines—with the world’s premier rice research station, with a full-fledged biosafety regulatory apparatus, and a high incidence of childhood VAD—was the obvious choice.

Golden Rice seeds arrived at IRRI in 2001 and began the long journey of being crossed into varieties that grow well in the Philippines. By 2008, IRRI (along with the Philippine Rice Inst.) was running confined field trials of two different versions of Golden Rice bred into four rice varieties. During 2011-2013, they focused on field trials of Golden Rice bred into the Green Revolution workhorse rice called IR64 and also a popular variety called “Peñaranda” (A. Alfonso, pers comm). But as of this writing, over 14 years after IRRI began trying to bring Golden Rice down to earth in the Philippines, the best varieties still exhibit a “yield drag”—i.e., lower productivity than seeds that are identical except for the Golden Rice trait (Dubock 2014; Eisenstein 2014; IRRI 2014). Contrary to claims that millions of children are dying worldwide because of Greenpeace’s opposition to Golden Rice, the new strains simply are not ready and they have not even been submitted to regulatory authorities for approval. IRRI is quite clear about this, as a visit to their website will show. I visit IRRI regularly, and as of last month the word was that 3-5 more years of breeding would probably be needed.

Looking ahead, even if Golden Rice is brought up to speed agronomically, and it is approved, released, and adopted by farmers, the stated goal of saving millions of lives—or even having any significant public health impact—is probably unlikely. Nutrition programs have brought the incidence of childhood VAD from a peak of 40.1% in 2003 to 15.2% in 2008 (Food & Nutrition Research Inst. nd). VAD figures from the 2013 national nutrition survey have not been released, but other types of malnutrition have fallen, and the VAD rate probably has too. Again, IRRI itself has been transparent, acknowledging that VAD is being effectively reduced without Golden Rice (IRRI nd).

IRRI also notes that it will release Golden Rice only IF it is shown to be effective in raising Vitamin A levels in children; it has not been yet. Children still suffering from VAD are virtually certain to have poor diets lacking in fats, which the body needs to absorb Vitamin A (Dawe, et al. 2002; Haskell 2012; Nestle 2001). To date, the human feeding trials have only been conducted with well-nourished individuals. In the heavily cited (and since retracted) study by Tang, et al. (2012), children were fed balanced meals with 20% energy from fat, demonstrating only that Golden Rice worked in children who did not need it.

Golden Rice has soared as a high-flying superfood on magazine covers, the New York Times, industry front group websites and speeches by paid activists; the problem comes from bringing it down to earth.

foodThis post is part of the August 2015 “Food” series of the Institute for Public Health’s blog. Subscribe to email updates or follow us on Twitter and Facebook to receive notifications about our latest blog posts.


Sources Cited 2015 About.

Beachy, Roger N. 2003 Editorial: IP Policies and Serving the Public. Science 299(5606):473.

Brooks, Sally 2010 Rice Biofortification: Lessons for Global Science and Development. London: Earthscan.

Dawe, D., R. Robertson, and L. Unnevehr 2002 Golden rice: what role could it play in alleviation of vitamin A deficiency? Food Policy 27(5–6):541-560.

Dawe, David, and Laurian Unnevehr 2007 Crop case study: GMO Golden Rice in Asia with enhanced Vitamin A benefits for consumers. AgBioForum 10(3):154-160.

Dubock, Adrian 2014 The present status of Golden Rice. Journal of Huazhong Agricultural University 33(6):69-84.

Eisenstein, Michael 2014 Biotechnology: Against the grain. Nature 514(7524):S55-S57.

Enserink, Martin 2008 Tough lessons from golden rice. Science 320(5875):468-471.

Food & Nutrition Research Inst. nd Seventh National Nutrition Survey 2008-2009: Department of Science and Technology (Philippines).

Haskell, Marjorie J 2012 The challenge to reach nutritional adequacy for vitamin A: β-carotene bioavailability and conversion—evidence in humans. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 96(5):1193S-1203S.

IRRI 2014 What is the status of the Golden Rice project coordinated by IRRI March.

IRRI nd Why is Golden Rice needed in the Philippines since vitamin A deficiency is already decreasing? In IRRI website,

Krock, Becca 2009 Researchers look to enriched crops to solve childhood malnutrition. Student Life, 28 Sept.

Nestle, Marion 2001 Genetically Engineered “Golden” Rice Unlikely to Overcome Vitamin A Deficiency. Journal of the American Dietetic Association 101(3):289-290.

Ohnuki-Tierney, Emiko 1993 Rice as self: Japanese identities through time. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ Press.

RAFI 2000 Golden Rice and Trojan Trade Reps: A Case Study in the Public Sector’s Mismanagement of Intellectual Property. RAFI Communique 66.

Shiva, Vandana 2000-01 World in a Grain of Rice. The Ecologist Dec 00 – Jan 01.

Tang, Guangwen, et al. 2012 b-Carotene in Golden Rice is as good as b-carotene in oil at providing vitamin A to children. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 96:658–64 [Retracted, August 2015].

Thomson, Jennifer A. 2002 Genes for Africa: genetically modified crops in the developing world. Landsdowne: UCT Press.

Wesseler, Justus, Scott Kaplan, and David Zilberman 2014 The Cost of Delaying Approval of Golden Rice. Agricultural and Resource Economics Update, Vol. 17, No. 3, Jan/Feb, 2014 17(3):1-3.



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