In 2000 Science published the details of a long-awaited project: the successful creation of ‘golden rice.’ Promising to remedy large-scale vitamin A deficiency (VAD) in the developing world, thus curing blindness and even death among many children, biotech companies heralded this beta-carotene enriched rice as a silver-bullet in the battle against malnutrition and exemplar of the benefits of GM crops.
Over the past decade, however, doubts over the effectiveness and equity of golden rice and similar fortified GM crops have grown. The first set of concerns center around nutritional benefits. The original logic behind golden rice was simple: Plants do not produce vitamin A but do produce its precursor, beta-carotene, which is then converted into vitamin A by the body. Since rice is a staple food in much of the developing world, engineering it to contain high levels of beta-carotene would make this nutrient accessible to the most vulnerable. Or this is what biotech proponents argued. However, studies on the bioavailability of beta-carotene found that young children would have to eat a colossal six pounds of rice per day in order to receive adequate levels. Yet rice research has continued and Syngenta, the biotech company responsible for second generation golden rice (GR2), claims that it contains 20 times the amount of beta-carotene as its predecessor. Perhaps critics simply need to give researchers time to get the dosage right.
However, nutritional theory is different from applied nutrition and even though GR2 is positively overflowing with beta-carotene, this doesn’t confront a deeper oversight. There are still questions about how much of the nutrient is lost during storage and cooking. Furthermore, beta-carotene is fat soluble, so in order for the body to transport and absorb it there must be an adequate amount of lipids in a person’s diet. Rice is primarily composed of carbohydrates, and since many of those most vulnerable to VAD have a highly limited diet low in lipids, simply stuffing their rice full of beta-carotene is ineffective in delivering this vital nutrient.
Thus an effective long-term solution to VAD must come from a diverse diet rich in a variety of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats,and the best way to provide a diverse diet for impoverished farming communities is to foster local production of a diverse array of crops. As Michael Hansen Ph.D, a senior scientist with the Consumer’s Union, concludes, “vitamin A deficiency is a symptom of poverty and you need to treat the problem, not the symptom.”
The thinking behind golden rice is one example of a simplistic approach to agriculture and poverty reduction evidenced by biotech companies seeking positive PR and by philanthropic organizations such as the Gates Foundation, which has spent over $20 million on R&D for Golden Rice, seeking technocratic fixes for malnutrition and promoting corporate control of farming. Similar biofortification efforts also funded by the Foundation have recently turned towards cassava, a staple for many African farmers. In the case of rice, however, part of the solution to VAD could come from landraces—varieties of a species locally adapted to a specific environment and culture. These varieties often provide valuable nutrients not found in their industrially manufactured brethren. For example, certain landraces in the Philippines contain twice as much protein as high yielding varieties (HYVs).
Furthermore, black and purple landraces contain high beta-carotene levels and high lipids levels to aid absorption. Unfortunately, many landraces are no longer cultivated, swept away by monocultures of HYVs. And while these indigenous varieties often remain in seed banks, they are not available to farmers and, without continual cultivation, cannot adapt to changing local conditions. Another part of the solution to nutritional deficiencies may lie in fostering the return of these old crops. Like the myriad rice landraces—black, purple, and red, long and skinny, short and squat—the solution to nutritional deficiencies requires diversity, dynamism, local adaptation, and farmer control over seed. It is not to be found in a single, patented, beta-carotene injected, silver-coated bullet.