In 1984, some of the brightest minds in food security gathered together in the Philippines for a meeting at the International Rice Research Institute. ‘Biotechnology’ was becoming increasingly vogue, and the assorted plant breeders were interested in seeing how genetic modification could help farmers in poorer countries increase their yields.
One such breeder, Peter Jennings—a maverick in the field credited with kicking off the “Green Revolution” across Asia in the 1960s—casually suggested an idea for the future. Why not create rice imbued with yellow endosperm, which signals the presence of beta-carotene—the source of vitamin A? Many South Asian countries struggle with a vitamin A deficiency, which can cause everything from blindness to death. As far as Jennings was aware, there was no available rice strand with beta-carotene properties.
The idea stuck, and the Rockefeller Foundation set out, as described by NPR, to “create, through technology, what Jennings had not been able to find in nature.”
So began a 35-year journey, which became all the more real when the first working prototype of “Golden Rice” was created in 1999. At the end of 2019—after weathering a fierce storm from detractors, who claim the crop is an unworkable example of dangerous genetically modified organisms (GMOs); and supporters, who see the crop as an essential tool to tackle endemic illness—the Philippines, the country in which the idea was born, became the first country with a serious vitamin A deficiency to approve Golden Rice as safe for humans and animals to eat.
Rice farmers in the Philippines. Photo: Interaksyon
Golden Rice: the perfect crop?
Vitamin A deficiency is a very real problem around the world. According to the World Health Organisation, it’s the leading cause of preventable blindness in children and increases the risk of disease and severe infections. An estimated 250,000 to 500,000 vitamin A-deficient children become blind every year—half of them dying within 12 months of losing their sight.
The problem is particularly pronounced in some Southern Asia countries, due to poor sanitation and a lack of education. While there are natural products rich in vitamin A, such as carrots, these cold-weather crops are not suited to the climate in the Philippines. Similarly, synthetic alternatives—Vitamin A supplements—are struggling to permeate areas in which they’re most needed: Only around 60 percent of targeted children in the Philippines were reached by supplements in 2017.
Rice is, in many ways, the perfect solution. Around the world, the easy-to-grow crop is a staple for three billion people, of whom 10 percent are thought to have vitamin A deficiencies. It’s also common to fortify regularly consumed food: The US adds iodine to salt, and India has begun fortifying milk with vitamin D to address its own endemic vitamin deficiency.
To this end, Golden Rice has been inserted with two genes to “switch on” the production of beta-carotene. It was created by two scientists with a keen interest in yield stability and food quality: Ingo Potrykus, Professor Emeritus of Plant Sciences at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, and Peter Beyer, Professor of Cell Biology at the University of Freiburg.
Ingo Potrykus and Peter Beyer. Photo on Achetron
A history of opposition
Aside from long development and regulation period inherent in creating GMO crops, there’s a reason why it took more than two decades for Golden Rice to go from creation to approval in a place that, on paper, most needs it. In 2013, activists destroyed a field trial of Golden Rice in the Philippines. Environmental group Greenpeace has spent years opposing the crop, moving from initial concerns about the risks to human health to a more general opposition to GMOs as a whole.
Most recently, Greenpeace asked the Philippines’ agriculture department to overturn its decision approving Golden Rice, which it says was based on “incomplete data” and a “lack of transparency.”
The specific claim about human health has no grounding in scientific research. A Harvard article from 2015, summing up swathes of independent research, concluded that “GMOs as a class are no more likely to be harmful than traditionally bred and grown food sources.”
Golden Rice has been approved for use by Canada, New Zealand, and by the notoriously stringent Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the USA. Although none of these countries have an interest in using Golden Rice domestically, the FDA did conclude in its assessment that in targeted countries consuming rice with levels of pro-vitamin A as a staple of their diet, there could be a “significant public health impact in populations that suffer from vitamin A deficiency.”
In response to Greenpeace, 150 Nobel laureates have signed an open letter urging the campaign group to cease opposition to Golden Rice “based on emotion and dogma contradicted by data,” which it says could be construed as a “crime against humanity.”
Photo of Greenpeace protest against Golden Rice. Photo on Greenpeace Spain
A first step
Supporters stress that Golden Rice is not a substitute for a healthy diet, but a first step towards tackling an endemic health issue. In a country as fertile as the Philippines, it’s clear that vitamin A deficiency is a symptom of wider hunger and malnutrition, which requires concerted structural change.
They also note that while Golden Rice is backed by some of the biggest players in the agrochemical business—one of the former heads of the project spent 20 years at Monsanto—it is, at least on the surface, driven by humanitarian ideals. The technology belongs to multiple companies (Syngenta, Bayer AG, Monsanto, Orynova BV, Zeneca Mogen BV), which have all committed to providing patent-free access to farmers without charge.
There’s a while to go before Golden Rice becomes widespread in the Philippines. There are other concerns to pay attention to in the process, such as the impact on other crops in the local area and pest vulnerability if too much land becomes dedicated to producing just one crop. But the potential for change is astounding—both in the Philippines and in Bangladesh, which is also considering approving the crop.
Bill & Melinda Gates…