Seventeen years ago, the promise of what is called Golden Rice seemed simple enough: insert a trait that adds beta-carotene to the genetic code of rice and watch the perils of blindness and death from vitamin A deficiency in children and pregnant women start to disappear. Impoverished Asian — and perhaps some Central American — countries where rice is eaten as much as three meals a day would obtain a low-cost, convenient way to end one of the worst scourges of malnutrition.
But the reality has proved far more complex. Golden Rice, so named because beta-carotene turns the rice kernels bright yellow, still remains short of commercialization after many years of testing and tweaking the genetics required to produce the seeds. It continues to be recommended as a way to eradicate devastating effects on the eyesight and immune systems of a large portion of children under five in the developing world, despite many bumps in the road along the way to production.
Organizations opposing all forms of bioengineered crops have kept up their special focus on blocking Golden Rice, said Robert S. Zeigler, Ph.D., plant pathologist and director general of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) from 2005 to 2015, who led the organization during much of the research and development of the beta-carotene enriched rice.
“You can see why there was excitement … here was a way we could use modern technology to transform the lives of the poor,” he told World Grain. “There were people, including myself, who did not understand how complex and difficult the process was going to be and how many potholes” were going to be encountered in the journey from invention to the marketplace, he said. A recurring problem was resistance from environmental groups such as Greenpeace International, which, Zeigler said, “have drawn a line in the sand to, quite explicitly, block Golden Rice.”
He said Greenpeace has argued that Golden Rice is a Trojan horse, taking the view that “if Golden Rice is allowed to succeed, that will be a justification for all GMOs to be introduced,” he said.
For a variety of reasons, many of which don’t have much to do with Greenpeace, Golden Rice remains unavailable to rice growers anywhere in the world, and experts estimate it will be at least a couple of years before it will be available, probably starting in the Philippines. Zeigler said large-scale trials in farmers’ fields would likely be in place in about 2019, with commercialization coming somewhat later.
“One of the questions is how a crop like Golden Rice would establish itself in the market,” he said. “It would be fairly straightforward for farmers to grow it and either buy the seed from seed growers, or, because of the nature of rice, they could even save their seed for one or two generations to produce it.”
The Philippines and Bangladesh are two countries with both a large impoverished population and a relatively advanced regulatory process for developing and disseminating bioengineered crops (Bangladesh has released an insect-resistant genetically modified eggplant) and Golden Rice would likely get its start growing there, Zeigler said. Other countries that may follow suit include Indonesia, Malaysia, Colombia in Central America and Haiti, a Western Hemisphere country known for its poverty.
Experts said China, the behemoth of Asia in terms of population, has made enough strides in feeding its people that the need for a product like Golden Rice is less pressing, although malnutrition has certainly not been eradicated. But dealing with genetically modified crops — and specifically Golden Rice — in China has been fraught. In 2013, Tufts University in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., admitted its researchers violated ethical rules in a study feeding Golden Rice to children in China. Greenpeace in China contended scientists fed children a potentially dangerous product without informing parents, and China responded by closing down the research. The controversy “became a huge social media story and, if you look at attitudes toward GM by the Chinese public and Chinese consumers after that event, it went quite negative,” said Eric J. Wailes, Ph.D., distinguished professor of agricultural economics at the University of Arkansas, U.S.
India, where childhood malnutrition is significant, has a strongly anti-GMO policy that has been influenced by attitudes prevalent in the European Union, said Zeigler. And Thailand, one of the biggest exporters of rice, has said it will never grow Golden Rice.
Golden Rice made the news again this summer, when 107 Nobel laureates signed a letter urging Greenpeace to end its efforts to stop Golden Rice from coming onto the market. According to The Washington Post, one of the motivations for Greenpeace’s campaign against Golden Rice, in the opinion of signers of the letter, was that spreading fear about bioengineered crops helps raise money for their cause.
World Grain requested a response from Greenpeace to the Nobel Laureates’ letter, and received this email:
“Some organizations have asserted that GMOs such as Golden Rice could help impoverished populations combat vitamin A deficiency,” said Davon Hutchins, senior campaigner for Greenpeace International’s Food for Life campaign. “Golden Rice is still in the research phase after 20 years. It is not a viable solution available on the market, according to the IRRI There are also other ways to combat VAD (vitamin-A deficiency) without resorting to “silver bullet” GMOs, like a more balanced diet rich in all vitamins, including vitamin A. Many of our partners in developing countries like Southeast Asia and Africa simply don’t want to be forced to choose or become reliant on GMO crops and we respect their concerns and reservations.”
Wailes offered a rebuttal.
“Obviously, a more diversified diet with foods high in beta-carotene, such as leafy greens, vegetables and fruits is for some countries a better way, but if a family is living on less than $2 per day, access to a diversified diet is not generally possible.”
While high-profile skirmishes in the GMO wars attract the public’s attention, other, less dramatic issues have also been a focus of the Golden Rice debate.
The amount of willingness farmers have to grow Golden Rice, its financial cost relative to other types of rice, its yields and its other agronomic attributes are useful questions in evaluating the efficacy of Golden Rice. Experts have spent time considering how best to convince impoverished and often poorly educated consumers to try the new product — despite its being a color they might associate with urine or discoloration and spoilage, noted Wailes.
He said rice exporting and importing nations remained concerned about the potential for bioengineered rice to co-mingle with other types of rice. Major rice growing and exporting countries in the Far East, such as Thailand, have said they will not grow and export Golden Rice abroad because of these perceived risks.
“I think we should salute the anti-GMO community for getting the word contamination in common use,” Zeigler said sardonically. “It has a very negative connotation.”
He noted that many countries have “very onerous rules against the sale or distribution of GMOs that have not passed regulatory approval.”
Proponents of Golden Rice note that one potential problem for Golden Rice — patent restrictions and, with them, potentially higher seed costs, has been “put to bed,” said Zeigler. Syngenta, the biotechnology company that developed Golden Rice, has given up its intellectual property rights on Golden Rice as a humanitarian initiative. Farmers wouldn’t have to pay more for Golden Rice seed, and the IRRI has been given a free hand by Syngenta to work with the technology.
“Part of the original challenges in getting Golden Rice ready were, in fact, the result of a requirement of the inventors,” Zeigler said. “They imposed a requirement that Golden Rice couldn’t be sold at a premium, with the intention of making sure nobody profited from what they perceived as an international public good.”
He said Golden Rice would have to have the same yield and quality of ordinary rice, which represented a significant breeding challenge.
“The materials where the Golden Rice advantage was originally put were completely unsuitable for Asian rice projection conditions,” he said. “So there was a major breeding undertaking to get those genes together in a material farmers would grow.”
He continued, “The kind of setbacks and false starts that happened in developing this trait was something that kept me up at night.”
As things currently stand, yields of Golden Rice grown, at least in the Philippines, aren’t as consistent as yields of conventional rice.
With the question of pricing Golden Rice seed resolved, farmers would likely focus on other variables as to whether to plant the bioengineered seed. One of their decisions would be whether the nutritional attributes of Golden Rice would make a difference. Wailes at the University of Arkansas said studies have shown that 40% to 50% of farmers would be willing to grow bioengineered rice that offers a 10% improvement in nutrition over other varieties.
Zeigler said rice markets in the Philippines and Bangladesh are partly controlled by a government food authority that sets the price of rice. In addition, “there is quite a lively market in the rice trade,” he said, with farmers making their own planting decisions.
“Farmers are businesspeople and will grow a crop to make a profit,” he said. “If there is not demand for Golden Rice beyond just regular rice, they will only grow Golden Rice if they get a good yield and a good price for it.”
Zeigler firmly believes demand for Golden Rice will ratchet higher when governments make an effort to spread the news about its significant health benefits.
“It will require a marketing effort to educate consumers,” he said. “It’s a legitimate role for the public sector. NGO’s would be involved. I hope religious entities become involved, as for anything that improves the health of children.”