Will Products Like Golden Rice End World Hunger?



Many biotech boosters point to yellow rice as an example that opponents of genetic engineering are obstructing well-meaning efforts to feed the world’s hungry.     Genetic engineering is no solution to hunger and poverty but, rather, the latest technological threat imposed by giant agribusiness corporations seeking to thoroughly dominate the world’s food supply at the expense of farmers and hungry people alike.


In the golden rice series, the Newark Star-Ledger included distressing photos of starving, blind children and declares that the so-called “golden rice” will cure blindness throughout the world by supplementing diets with additional vitamin A.  Those quoted argue that biotechnologists are concerned about feeding the world’s hungry, but that the opponents are not.  If this is so, why is so much of the criticism of this new invention coming from experts in those countries that will supposedly reap the benefits?  The international campaign to establish a United Nations protocol to address the environmental effects of genetically manipulated organisms was led by an Ethiopian minister, Dr. Tewolde Egziabher.  India’s Dr. Vandana Shiva points out that her people are hungry, not because they do not have products like yellow rice, but because they have been systematically denied the ability to continue growing their own food.  The biotechnology industry, by once again buying up major seed companies—even in India—and replacing traditional, locally well-suited varieties with proprietary, biotech seeds that require costly chemical inputs, is making things worse, not better.


“Golden rice” is not a solution to blindness. First, children cannot metabolize beta carotene into vitamin A without an otherwise adequate diet.  Moreover, even assuming their bodies could efficiently turn the beta-carotene precursor into usable vitamin A, adults would have to eat twenty pounds a day of cooked rice to meet their daily requirement of vitamin A, The real solution is a traditionally balanced diet, with vitamin A coming from such proven sources as eggs, butter and meat, and beta-carotene readily available from leafy green vegetables, carrots, squashes, melons and mangos.  If supplying vitamin A were susceptible to a magic bullet approach, vitamin A supplements are already available for just a few pennies/day.  In viewing photos of starving children, one should try to understand why those children are starving to begin with.  In considering this, one might begin with the observation that there are many overweight people around us; 1.2 million, in fact, the same number as the number of chronically hungry. 


So why did the biotechnology industry spend more than $10 million to develop “golden rice” and why is it spending $250 million more on a slick public relations campaign?  The answer is public relations:  with people throughout the industrialized world rejecting the use of genetic engineering in agriculture, companies are desperate to claim that their products offer benefits that would otherwise be seriously lacking.  By touting golden rice as a technological fix to injustice, our own news media are inadvertently helping the biotech and agribusiness industries spin their products in this highly misleading way.


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