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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Golden Rice

Air Date: Week of

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CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Genetically-modified food crops are controversial. The European Union only recently lifted a ban on genetically-modified foods. The ban had come in response to concerns about health and environmental consequences, even though makers of these products say they are safe and needed in a world where one out of five people goes to bed hungry each night. The latest genetically-modified food is called golden rice. It's a form of the grain that contains genetic material taken from plants, including daffodils and peas. The process adds a form of vitamin A to the rice and gives it its golden color. Bob Carty covers science and the environment for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and he joins me now. Hi, Bob.

CARTY: Hi, Steve.

CURWOOD: So, why do this to rice? What need could this satisfy?

CARTY: Well, the fundamental goal is to deal with the problem, a global problem, of Vitamin A deficiency. All of us, or most of us, get our Vitamin A, of course, in things like carrots or milk or cod liver oil. Did you ever have cod liver oil when you were a kid?

CURWOOD: Oh, yes.

CARTY: (Laughs) You okay -- distasteful. But it's very effective in delivering beta carotene. And beta carotene is what the body then converts into Vitamin A. And you need Vitamin A to survive. If not, it can cause blindness, it can cause death. And around the world there are millions of kids who don't have enough Vitamin A. Between one and two million children die a year from lack of sufficient vitamin A. Another 500,000 go blind. So the inventors of this thing called golden rice wanted to put beta carotene into a rice that didn't have it before, to solve this problem of Vitamin A deficiency.

CURWOOD: Now, who's pushing this genetic modification?

CARTY: Well, this is interesting. It's not the private sector in this case. The biotech revolution we've had over the last half dozen years or so has been led by companies like Monsanto. But they've been concerned with things like putting pesticides into potatoes and cotton, so they resist the pests themselves. Things like making soy and corn resistant to herbicides so herbicides can be used more efficiently. Now, this is very fine for the pesticide makers, I suppose, and perhaps for farmers; there's a debate about that. But it certainly doesn't deliver anything to the consumer. Golden rice, though, was on a totally different research path. It started about ten years ago, cost about $100 million, and much of the funding came from the Rockefeller Foundation in the United States. Much of the research was done in public research institutions in Germany and Switzerland. And they did it, of course, not to increase the profits for pesticide companies, but to fight Vitamin A deficiency. Because, though, there are patents on a lot of this process, at the end of the day this publicly-financed research is actually owned by a private company, AstraZeneca, who has agreed to provide the eventual golden rice product free of royalties.

CURWOOD: Now, the critics of golden rice say that this technology is a Trojan horse. Why do they say that, Bob?

CARTY: I suppose because it looks so good on the outside and may have a few dangers within. And the suspicion of it being a Trojan horse is because of the way it was presented. In the last couple of months across North America, there have been a number of television advertisements using golden rice as an illustration that genetically-modified foods can be good for you. Not just good for you but good for humankind. Good for the poor and the starving of the world. Now, remember that this is being presented, these ads are being presented in a certain context, in the context of quite a serious market meltdown for genetically-modified foods. You know, the images of protestors outside of supermarkets and people tearing up test plots in Britain and the United States and Canada. So in that context, these ads appear. They are promoted by the Council for Biotechnology Information; it's a representative of the biotech industry. The pictures are quite lovely, Steve. They have mothers with rice bowls feeding their children. They have doctors in lab coats and children happily skipping and running. And what you hear in the golden rice commercial by the Council for Biotechnology Information is this message:

(Commercial music)

WOMAN: Around the world, mothers want to protect and nourish their children. So biotechnology researchers have developed golden rice. It will contain beta carotene, a source of Vitamin A. Golden rice could help prevent blindness and infection in millions of children. From medicine to agriculture, biotechnology is providing solutions that are improving lives today. And could improve our world tomorrow.

CURWOOD: Oh, my. Well, if that was a feel-good ad. Boy, Bob, I feel great. It sounds like everything is wonderful with golden rice.

CARTY: Absolutely. And I think there's a very convincing argument here. That is, it takes the moral high ground. This is feeding the poor and the hungry, and if you had some qualms, as many people do, or some doubts about genetically-modified foods, surely feeding the poor is a greater good and people could put those qualms and objections aside.

CURWOOD: But not everybody seems to like this ad, I take it.

CARTY: Not even some of the supporters of this technology. The Rockefeller Foundation itself has tried to distance itself from these ads. They say they're too much hype. Those are the supporters. The critics say there's a number of problems here. One is that this golden rice is not going to be available for five or six years. The ad makes it sound like it's available right now and it's out there doing its job helping the poor. But it takes five or six years in field tests and very rigorous science to look and see if this rice will have possibly new allergies in it that people will react to, possible toxins that could be dangerous to health. They have to find out whether it's safe for the environment. And above all, people have questions about whether or not this really solves Vitamin A deficiencies. And one of the people with that question is Pat Mooney. He's the executive director of the Rural Advancement Foundation International. Here's his take on golden rice.

MOONEY: The argument that golden rice itself will cure, as the industry has said, half a million people a year, children a year, of blindness, I think is nonsense, absolute nonsense. And even the inventors themselves I think now say that's the case. For kids to actually consume enough rice to meet their Vitamin A deficiency requirements in Southeast Asia, for example, or in Africa, they'd have to be eating about eight or ten pounds of rice a day.

CARTY: And that's Pat Mooney of the Rural Advancement Foundation International.

CURWOOD: How do the inventors of golden rice respond to his math, that this is not enough to fix the problem?

CARTY: Basically they say give it a chance. They point out that yes, the first invented golden rice is very low in levels of beta carotene, but it'll improve over the years. And this rice does not have to meet, they would argue, all of the Vitamin A needs of children, 100 percent. It would only have to meet maybe 25 percent or 50 percent that is deficient. So give the technology a chance, they would argue. And one of the inventors is particularly quite forceful in arguing back. He's Ingo Potroykus. He lives in Switzerland. And apparently he experienced some hunger and malnutrition right after the Second World War, Steve. And so has a very personal motivation for working on this vitamin and food problem with genetic engineering. Last fall he was in Des Moines, Iowa, won an international world food prize. And on that occasion he took on his critics, and so here's a bit of Ingo Potroykus.

POTROYKUS: We are really acting criminal, because we have here a technology which has the potential to help many, many poor people to prevent deaths and blindness. Every delay of the exploitation of this technology leads to unnecessary blindness of millions of children and to unnecessary deaths of mothers.

CARTY: And that's Ingo Potroykus, one of the inventors of golden rice.

CURWOOD: Boy, he sounds quite sincere.

CARTY: Yeah, and people who have met him say he really is. He's quite committed to this technology and to what it can do for poor people. On the other hand, development experts also say he's quite naive. They point to a number of things. One is that the world currently produces enough food for everybody on it. It just is terribly mal-distributed, and there is a lot of economic injustice. They also point out another fundamental problem, and that is that people who lack enough Vitamin A in their diet are also likely to lack the fats and the proteins in their bodies that actually are necessary to extract from the beta carotene the Vitamin A.

CURWOOD: What are the less controversial ways to provide Vitamin A to poor people that these critics suggest?

CARTY: Well, they're as simple as a half a teaspoon of red palm oil a day, much like the cod liver oil that you and I had when we were young. In the tropics this could be a very, very easy and simple and accessible solution. Pat Mooney of the Rural Advancement Foundation International also argues that there are simple and traditional alternatives available in many countries. Here's Pat Mooney.

MOONEY: In India, for example, there are literally hundreds of food plants throughout India that have an abundance of Vitamin A in them. They historically have been used by people to meet their Vitamin A requirements. They've been pushed out of the marketplace by sort of the Western approach to food and the heavy emphasis on cereal consumption in these regions. Frankly, it's probably much cheaper, definitely safer, and much better for the environment to reintroduce those plants that are already there, that are natural in the environment, and have them back in the marketplace.

CURWOOD: So where do things stand now?

CARTY: Well, golden rice samples have been handed over to a Third World research institute, the International Institute for Rice Research in the Philippines. And they're going to do some of the major testing on this. They say it will take five or six years. In the end of the day, I think the questions are about who has the burden of proof here? I think consumers in the north are thinking the burden of proof still lies with the inventors to show that this is safe. And the perspective from the south that's increasing is that the best solution, as the Philippines Institute says, to Vitamin A deficiency, is really a simple diverse diet.

CURWOOD: Bob Carty reports on environmental issues for the CBC. Hey, Bob, thanks for joining us today.

CARTY: Okay, Steve.

(Music up and under: Turtle Island String Quartet, "Crossroads")



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