Golden Rice: Bringing a Superfood Down to Earth

 May 2016: The article “Disembedding grain: Golden Rice, the Green Revolution, and heirloom seeds in the Philippines,” by Dominic Glover and me, has been published in the journal Agriculture & Human Values and is available here. This blog post is based on that article.
February 2016: Also check out the interview on Golden Rice done with Tom Philpott and Raj Patel on their “Secret Ingredient” podcast series.

Few GM crops are discussed as much — and misunderstood as much — as “Golden Rice.”

time-goldenriceGolden Rice is modified to produce beta carotene in the endosperm, rather than only in the bran as in most rice. Beta carotene is a vitamin A precursor, and the hope was that this invention would mitigate Vitamin A Deficiency (VAD), which in extreme cases can cause blindness or death in malnourished children. After appearing on the cover as Time in 2000 as a rice that “could save a million kids a year,” Golden Rice has been a nearly ubiquitous talking point in GMO arguments. As a high-flying GM superfood, it is without peer.

But the battles over Golden Rice have been particularly heated even by the usual standards of GMO bombast. Critics see it as an unproven, expensive, and misguided bandaid—a Trojan Horse to open the floodgates of GM crops into the global south (Brooks 2010:76-83; RAFI 2000). Industry spokesmen, impassioned molecular biologists, and partisan journalists charge that children are being left blind by GMO critics having slowed the rice; hired activist Patrick Moore tirelessly (and cartoonishly) blames Greenpeace — which he claims to have founded — for “murdering” children (AllowGoldenRiceNow.org 2015).

Confusingly, other biotechnologists claim that Golden Rice is already in use and that it has “helped save many, many lives and improved the quality of life of those who eat it” (Krock 2009; also see Thomson 2002:1). These claims cause considerable discomfort to the scientists who are actually doing the Golden Rice breeding (Dubock 2014:73).

All the shouting tends to cover up a crucial issue with Golden Rice: who is it for, exactly?  Proponents usually discuss it as a vitamin tablet headed for generic underfed children in “poor countries” (Beachy 2003), or “developing countries” (Enserink 2008), or occasionally “Asia” (Dawe and Unnevehr 2007).

But here’s the problem.  Golden Rice is not just a vitamin tablet headed for malnourished kids wherever they may be.  It’s not a tablet at all; it’s rice, the most widely consumed and arguably the most culturally freighted crop in the world (e.g., Ohnuki-Tierney 1993). And it is headed specifically for the Philippines.  Golden Rice got its start in the Philippines (Enserink 2008), and it’s being bred and tested in a research institution in the Philippines, to be approved by the Philippine Bureau of Plant Industry, to be sold in Philippine markets to Philippine growers and potentially fed to Filipino children.   (Breeders and researchers in Vietnam, India, and Bangladesh are also working with Golden Rice, but release is unlikely to occur any time soon in those countries.)  Most discussions of Golden Rice ignore this Philippine context. Even economic analyses purporting to calculate “The Cost of Delaying Approval of Golden Rice” (Wesseler, et al. 2014) make no mention of the Philippines.

The neglect of this Philippine context is remarkable because the Philippines is hardly just a country with vitamin A-deficient children (in fact, such children are increasingly scarce there). The country is unique with respect to rice, with a storied history, complicated present, and contested future for the crop. This is the country that brought us the rice half of the Green Revolution (the wheat half was developed in Mexico); the country with famous Picture1rice terraces; the country with a resurgent trade in “heirloom” landrace rice; the country with the famous International Rice Research Institute (IRRI).

And Golden Rice simply doesn’t grow well in the Philippines — not yet anyway, after years of trying.  The actual rice grains on the cover of Time were not adapted to grow where underfed kids live; they were more like the plant equivalent of lab rats.  For the high-flying rice to actually be farmed, it had to be brought down to the ground—literally. It had to be re-bred to grow in a country where it might have an impact.  The Philippines—with the world’s premier rice research station, with a full-fledged biosafety regulatory apparatus, and a high incidence of childhood VAD at the time—was the obvious choice.

Golden Rice seeds arrived at IRRI in 2001 and began the long process of being crossed into locally-adapted varieties. By 2008, IRRI (along with the Philippine Rice Inst.) was running confined field trials of two different versions of Golden Rice bred into four rice varieties. During 2011-2013, they focused on field trials of Golden Rice bred into the Green Revolution workhorse rice called IR64 and also a popular variety called “Peñaranda” (A. Alfonso, pers comm). But as of this writing, over 14 years after IRRI began trying to bring Golden Rice down to earth in the Philippines, the best varieties still exhibit a “yield drag”—i.e., lower productivity than seeds that are identical except for the Golden Rice trait (Dubock 2014; Eisenstein 2014; IRRI 2014).

That’s right: contrary to claims that millions of children are dying because of Greenpeace’s opposition, Untitled-1Golden Rice is simply not ready, and hasn’t even been submitted to regulatory authorities for approval. IRRI is quite clear about this, as a visit to their website will show. I was at IRRI last month and the word was that 3-5 more years of breeding would probably be needed.

November 2015 addition: The IRRI post cited above (“What is the status of the Golden Rice project coordinated by IRRI?”) was changed after this blog was posted.  Here is the IRRI post from before my blog, and here is the IRRI post as of 10 Nov 2015.

Even if Golden Rice is brought up to speed agronomically, and even if it is approved, released, and adopted by farmers, its goal of saving millions of lives—or even having any significant public health impact—is probably unlikely. Nutrition programs have brought the incidence of childhood VAD from a peak of 40% in 2003 to 15% in 2008 (Food & Nutrition Research Inst. nd), and the incidence has almost certainly fallen more since then. Again, IRRI itself has been transparent, acknowledging on their website that VAD is being effectively reduced without Golden Rice (IRRI nd).

IRRI is also quite explicit that it will release Golden Rice only IF “it is found to be safe” and IF it is “shown to improve vitamin A status” (see their website).  It is not yet known if it will be effective in raising Vitamin A levels in underfed children.  Filipino children who still suffer from VAD have poor diets lacking in the fats that are needed to absorb Vitamin A (Dawe, et al. 2002; Haskell 2012; Nestle 2001). To date, the human feeding trials have only been conducted with well-nourished individuals. In the heavily cited (and since retracted) study by Tang, et al. (2012), children were fed balanced meals with 20% energy from fat; this  demonstrated only that Golden Rice worked in children who did not need it.

Golden Rice has soared as a high-flying superfood on magazine covers, the New York Times, industry front group websites and speeches by paid activists; the problem comes from bringing it down to earth.


Sources Cited

  • AllowGoldenRiceNow.org 2015 About. http://www.allowgoldenricenow.org/about.
  • Beachy, Roger N. 2003 Editorial: IP Policies and Serving the Public. Science 299(5606):473.
  • Brooks, Sally 2010 Rice Biofortification: Lessons for Global Science and Development. London: Earthscan.
  • Dawe, D., R. Robertson, and L. Unnevehr 2002 Golden rice: what role could it play in alleviation of vitamin A deficiency? Food Policy 27(5–6):541-560.
  • Dawe, David, and Laurian Unnevehr 2007 Crop case study: GMO Golden Rice in Asia with enhanced Vitamin A benefits for consumers. AgBioForum 10(3):154-160.
  • Dubock, Adrian 2014 The present status of Golden Rice. Journal of Huazhong Agricultural University 33(6):69-84.
  • Eisenstein, Michael 2014 Biotechnology: Against the grain. Nature 514(7524):S55-S57.
  • Enserink, Martin 2008 Tough lessons from golden rice. Science 320(5875):468-471.
  • Food & Nutrition Research Inst. nd Seventh National Nutrition Survey 2008-2009: Department of Science and Technology (Philippines).
  • Haskell, Marjorie J 2012 The challenge to reach nutritional adequacy for vitamin A: β-carotene bioavailability and conversion—evidence in humans. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 96(5):1193S-1203S.
  • IRRI 2014 What is the status of the Golden Rice project coordinated by IRRI? http://irri.org/golden-rice/faqs/what-is-the-status-of-the-golden-rice-project-coordinated-by-irri.  Downloaded 24 Feb 2015.
  • IRRI nd Why is Golden Rice needed in the Philippines since vitamin A deficiency is already decreasing? In IRRI website, http://irri.org/golden-rice/faqs/why-is-golden-rice-needed-in-the-philippines-since-vitamin-a-deficiency-is-already-decreasing.
  • Krock, Becca 2009 Researchers look to enriched crops to solve childhood malnutrition. Student Life, 28 Sept.
  • Nestle, Marion 2001 Genetically Engineered “Golden” Rice Unlikely to Overcome Vitamin A Deficiency. Journal of the American Dietetic Association 101(3):289-290.
  • Ohnuki-Tierney, Emiko 1993 Rice as self: Japanese identities through time. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ Press.
  • RAFI 2000 Golden Rice and Trojan Trade Reps: A Case Study in the Public Sector’s Mismanagement of Intellectual Property. RAFI Communique 66.
  • Tang, Guangwen, et al. 2012 b-Carotene in Golden Rice is as good as b-carotene in oil at providing vitamin A to children. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 96:658–64 [Retracted, August 2015].
  • Thomson, Jennifer A. 2002 Genes for Africa: genetically modified crops in the developing world. Landsdowne: UCT Press.
  • Wesseler, Justus, Scott Kaplan, and David Zilberman 2014 The Cost of Delaying Approval of Golden Rice. Agricultural and Resource Economics Update, Vol. 17, No. 3, Jan/Feb, 2014 17(3):1-3.

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38 Responses to Golden Rice: Bringing a Superfood Down to Earth

  1. LFP says:

    Superb. You really should approach mainstream publications like Slate, which have instructed its agriculturally illiterate and partisan hack writers to parrot the biotech industry’s talking points. The popular audience really needs a balanced, informed voice such as yours. Seriously — have you considered that?

  2. Yield drag is an interesting problem. There is a limited pool of amino acids available to make proteins for new traits introduced with biotechnology. Most of the current traits don’t express in great volume, but over time stacking traits could add up.

    I expect the response will be to look for modifications to increase production of the limiting factor. I’d be surprised if this is easy in any stretch and can imagine it being a limiting factor for some time to come.

    That said, I wouldn’t say no to a high-starch, low-methane biofortified rice if they can swing it.

    http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v523/n7562/full/nature14673.html

  3. jskirk88 says:

    The original article didn’t have the graphic images — much better with them! Golden Rice is just another example of the kind of disinformation that is put out by the biotech industry, coupled with the great tactic “Emotional Blackmail.” It’s usually used in terms of “we can’t feed the world of 7 billion people without GMO foods, and those anti-GMO activists are going to cause the deaths of millions of people!” Really — there is a video surfacing about Patrick Moore saying the same kind of thing about Golden Rice (those anti-GMO activists are responsible for the deaths and blindness of children, don’t you know!). He’s the guy, by the way, who said glyphosate was so safe you could drink it, and then refused to do so and walked off the set of the interview. So here is a link to his emotional blackmail on video about Golden Rice — the reference to it starts at about the 3:50 mark. [A caution: the entire video – less than 5 minutes — is nothing but spin and disinformation, it may make some sick just watching it].

  4. Drake Brown says:

    Thanks for this great explanation. It is so hard to find anything about Golden Rice that isn’t b.s. Question: what do you make of the retraction of the Golden Rice article?

    • Glenn says:

      The article by Tang et al. in Am J Clinical Nutrition was retracted because it ran afoul of the IRB — the Institutional Review Board that every univ has to regulate research on human subjects. IRB’s themselves are something of a problem, but it’s worth noting that in this case the problems had to do with consent, not with the data. Their data really do show that the b-carotene in Golden Rice was converted to vitamin A in their sample of children who were fed meat, vegetables, fruit, noodles, and cookies, with approx 20% of the food energy coming from fats. (Tang also published an earlier study with a small group of subjects that were given meals with 23-40% fat.) It is unclear why some people feel this is relevant to the question of the rice’s potential impact on its target — kids with terrible diets obviously lacking in fats. To quote Tang herself, “It is well known that dietary fat is a critical factor that affects bioavailability and bioconversion of b-carotene.”

      Tang, G. (2010). “Bioconversion of dietary provitamin A carotenoids to vitamin A in humans.” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 91 (suppl): 1468S–1473S.

      • Alexander J. Stein looked at the fat solubility problem in his dissertation and concluded that even in poor countries enough fat would be in the diet for the beta-carotene to be absorbed (Shiva’s hoax from page 104 and footnote 86):
        http://opus.uni-hohenheim.de/volltexte/2006/157/pdf/Stein_biofortification.pdf

        This might still need more research, but it seems like a critical point that the author overlooked.

        I also don’t agree with how the author translated the IRRI’s statement about Golden Rice. He claims the IRRI says vitamin A deficiency is being effectively reduced without Golden Rice, while his own link to the IRRI says this:

        “Golden Rice could be a sustainable and cost-effective way to help those still affected by vitamin A deficiency in the Philippines, including some of the most vulnerable children and women, if it is found to be safe, shown to improve vitamin A status and used in combination with existing programs.”

      • Glenn says:

        Love it — perfectly illustrates the point of the blog, which was that conditions in the Philippines, the only country where Golden Rice is moving towards release, are ignored in GMO bombast. Reader cites a generalization in someone’s dissertation on India about diets “in poor countries.”

        Also illustrates my earlier blog on how brains work in GMO brawls (“This is Your Brain on GMO’s“). Bitching about Vandana Shiva and claiming irrelevant work to be “critical,” this reader’s posterior cingulate is lit up like a Christmas tree.

      • I agree that the “critical” wasn’t really necessary. I realised it as soon as I hit post, but by then I couldn’t edit it any more, my bad.
        However, instead of actually addressing my comment you just attack me personally, which I don’t really appreciate.

        You mention that the fat solubility is a problem, so I show you a research that looked at this very fact and concluded that even very poor diets contain enough fat. Instead of showing me why this doesn’t constitute as proof you instead just ridicule me.

        All the research I have seen so far concludes that beta-carotene would be absorbed, even though fat/oil definitely increases the absorption. If you have research disputing this I’d be more than interested though.
        What I mostly don’t understand is why it would matter where this research has been done. It seems rather pedantic to demand it be done in the Philippines when the only reason you give is because that’s where they want to release it first.

        Why is research from India not valid?
        http://www.cabdirect.org/abstracts/19801408610.html

        Just because the Philippines is the first place where the organisation got a foot on the ground doesn’t mean it’s the only target.

        Or am I missing something? I’m genuinely trying to figure it out.

      • Glenn says:

        Well the post was explicitly about what I see as a flawed perspective on Golden Rice, which was the same perspective which your comment evinced. In other words, my whole blog post addressed your point. To recap: Golden Rice is almost always discussed by GMO partisans as a generic vitamin tablet for kids in poor countries (as did you), but it is nowhere near readiness anywhere except in one country — the Philippines. And there it still hasn’t been made to work agronomically in local varieties even after 14 years of breeding, during which time VAD rates have been plummeting due to other interventions. Plus IRRI itself says we don’t know if it will raise vitamin A levels in the target audience and doesn’t plan to release it unless/until this is demonstrated.

        I noted that other countries are working with Golden Rice, but they are way behind the Philippines. Plus their progress is slower; they don’t have anything like the scientific infrastructure of IRRI plus PhilRice. I would be amazed if it is released in India or Bangladesh before 2022. When you have a rice technology that has been under development and breeding for several decades and still isn’t ready to go, but people still use it in almost every defense of GM technologies, you start to wonder if it is a public health project or a public relations project.

        Your comment exemplified the “motivated thinking” I discussed in an earlier blog, which I pointed out. Didn’t strike me as an attack, sorry if it did you.

        I hadn’t heard of the Jayarajan et al 1980 paper before — none of the recent literature seems to cite it — but thanks, I just read it. Science often proceeds by baby steps and this 35-year old study on a small, poorly described, sample containing 12 kids with VAD certainly is a baby step. Crucially, we don’t know how much fat the kids actually had in their diets — they only say “about 5 g of visible fat” for the whole sample and don’t say where that figure came from, how it varied among kids, etc. They found that without fat supplements, spinach did raise serum vitamin A in kids who started with the lowest levels, but it lowered serum vitamin A in the other kids. Not sure what to conclude from this study about spinach supplementation, even less sure what to conclude about Golden Rice.

      • Thanks for the reply. I interpreted your previous response as a snarky unwillingness to engage, my bad. I admit that I might be biased in favor of Golden Rice, but I still feel like you’re not actually explaining why it’s not correct.
        You say the Golden Rice narrative is flawed because it doesn’t take the Philippines into account, but you don’t give a proper reason what specific data they are missing with that. Just because they are lagging behind in other countries doesn’t mean the data about vitamin A deficiency isn’t representative of the Philippines as well.
        I agree more research needs to be done, but the China ethic fiasco shows how hard it might be to do proper experiments while NGOs like Greenpeace are telling everyone GMOs are poison.
        While I agree that Greenpeace isn’t the sole cause of the lag in Golden Rice’s application, I hope you’re not denying that Greenpeace is openly disrupting the process by destroying crops and spreading fear.
        You say Greenpeace can’t be blamed because the research hasn’t finished. But the vandalism and fearmongering specifically disrupts that process. I admit it’s hard to say where we would have been without them, but I wouldn’t say they’re blameless. And I don’t think the research is lagging that much. It’s just on everybody’s radar already.
        The IRRI might not have a viable crop yet, but consider that crossbreeding takes time and a lot of money. This crossbreeding has to be done with every crop, GMO or non-GMO. From start to first success, the Green Revolution took about 15 years as well, and they had the shuttle breeding technique.
        You also interpret the fact that the IRRI is still conservative in its predictions as them not believing in the crop, yet on other parts of their website they say:

        “Because rice is widely produced and consumed, Golden Rice has the potential to reach many people, including those who do not have reliable access to or cannot afford other sources of vitamin A.”
        http://irri.org/golden-rice/vitamin-a-deficiency

        So while you might be right in saying that the pro-Golden Rice side is overstating its benefit, so far it seems like you went overboard with your corrections a bit as well. I’m not excluding the possibility that I’m wrong though, so I do appreciate you taking the time to respond.

      • Glenn says:

        One last time, as I’m going to wrap up this conversation: Golden Rice rice still hasn’t been successfully bred into varieties adapted to the Philippines, and Greenpeace has had nothing to do with this. Coming to IRRI in 2001 (11 years after Rockefeller started funding the molecular biology part of it), the rice has enjoyed attention from the world’s greatest concentration of rice scientists (both IRRI and PhilRice), unusual administrative support (including Gerard Barry moving to Los Banos for many years just to shepherd the project), and unprecedented funding (including Gates and Rockefeller). It still yields less than isogenic lines and won’t be ready to be submitted to the Bureau of Plant Industry for years. Greenpeace has not slowed the breeding or “disrupted” it by “spreading fear,” and has not “tied it up in litigation” as Mark Lynas fibbed in the NY Times in April (slipping one past the Times’ fact-checkers). The destruction of one 0.1 ha field by leftist groups in 2013 is hardly the reason the breeding has not been successful after 25 years.

        Your information on the Green Revolution is garbled. Shuttle breeding was a strategy used in wheat. Borlaug started using it in 1945, and by the early 1950’s his fertilizer-intensive varieties were being adopted in Mexico. As far as rice goes — IRRI opened in 1961 and rolled out Green Revolution rice in 1968. There is a lot written on this; I recommend Cullather’s history, Hungry World.

  5. Wr341 says:

    Well now, that’s something NEW. Someone who actually knows something about Golden Rice. Thanks for the very informative post.

    • Glenn says:

      Thanks for the link on Bangladesh. There are a few misleading statements in this although much of it seems to be a pretty reliable account. Again we see that the institutes actually working on Golden Rice are more believable than many of the partisans. But I assure you that the claim that there is “promise for the approval of GR for commercial production in the near future” in Bangladesh is wrong. There is an odd pattern of claims of Golden Rice being approved or ready to be approved when it is nowhere near approval.

  6. W Wylie says:

    Yield drag? I don’t understand this. I thought the genes were of known function. Do the genes affect plant growth as well as the carotene production? If not, why would the Golden Rice genes make the crop produce less?

    • Glenn says:

      Aha, good question. I don’t think anyone knows for sure, but I can give you a partial answer. When you transform a plant, either with Agrobacterium or the gene gun, you basically have no control over where your genes land. In the Golden Rice transformation event they are using, the genes landed in a stretch of DNA involved in root development. Might that have been the problem? Maybe, and they have turned to another event to work on.

      Here are a couple of not-very-technical articles on this (email me if you can’t get access):

      Dubock, Adrian 2014 The present status of Golden Rice. Journal of Huazhong Agricultural University 33(6):69-84.
      Eisenstein, M. 2014 Biotechnology: Against the grain. Nature 514(7524): S55-S57.

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  8. eb3627a says:

    I really appreciated this article – detailed a little more what I’d already been thinking. Could you speak/elaborate on the footage of people destroying the test plots though?

    • Glenn says:

      I can tell you the PhilRice and IRRI coordinate their work on Golden Rice but they have had a general division of labor in which PhilRice focuses on regulatory research and IRRI on basic research. It was an IRRI field that was trashed down in Camarines Sur in 2013 and I assume it was it was involved in more forward-looking basic research, but I don’t know with any certainty. Not do I know what impact this incident had on the overall progress.

      But I do know it had an impact on Golden Rice theater, which is important since the only impact this rice has had — and maybe the only impact it will ever have, who knows — is in public relations. The attacks on the test plot, for which a couple of lefty organizations took credit, has been used in what I have called the FoxNews-ization of GMO’s (see my EnviroSociety blog). Follow the links to the seething Fox News blowhard who explains that

      These activists are essentially accessory to mass murder. I say hang them by their toe nails. These creeps operate from the evil notion that everything on earth is good and everything made my man is bad. It’s an idea propagated by green journalists crusading against Monsanto, morose health editors and loopy celebrities who condemned vaccines. For every media loud mouth who favors natural over manmade, some poor peasant dies.

      In a writeup in Science back when the destruction happened, IRRI Director General Robert Zeigler was quoted as saying “the vandals are unfairly attacking the public sector project as if it is a multinational company producing GM plants for profit” and that they “are condemning this technology by association.” Zeigler has a point, but the link between Golden Rice and corporate biotechnology wasn’t the activists’ idea, it was Monsanto’s. I cover this in my earlier blog, showing how Monsanto has used Golden Rice to burnish their own image so much that Golden Rice had a “big ugly M branded on its ass when it was young [that] will cause problems for the rest of its life.”

  9. Deanna says:

    This is GMO rice!!! Toxic as is gmo corn, gmo soybeans and gmo sugar beets!!!!

    Go away!!! We’ve had enough of Monsanto and their games! Perhaps your next!!!

    WE the people are better informed than you give US credit for!!! WE are many! WE are strong!

    Many of US are not buying your products any more!!!

  10. Reblogged this on mestizarise and commented:
    Another great piece by Glenn Stone, navigating the GM debate and offering some much needed clarity over the potential of Golden Rice (or rather, the lack there of).

  11. Yeah, it’s such a Trojan Horse. Did you know they are going to have to sneak this in to the Philippines–where there are only 86 GMO approvals already? http://www.isaaa.org/gmapprovaldatabase/approvedeventsin/default.asp?CountryID=PH&Country=Philippines

    Worst trojan horse evah. There’s already dozens of horses out of the barn.

    • Glenn says:

      Well I’ll let you and the anti-GMO activists take it outside.

      I can’t speak for those making the “Trojan” claim, but it may have less to do with getting specific transformation events approved by the Philippine regulatory bodies (which is what your link is about) than with Golden Rice being used as a public relations tool to burnish the image (and marketability) of corporate GM crops in developing countries. This sort of “boundary-blurring” is a real problem by biotech brawlers on both sides of the fence. IRRI chief Robert Zeigler complains about it, as did I in academic writing several years ago.

  12. Dear Professor Stone:

    Thanks for this article, it was very informative. I’ve spent some time in the Philippines (as a guest) and Indonesia (as a student) so these issues are close to my heart.
    —————————————-
    There are a few quotes and statistics passing like ships in the night between the text and the links in your article, so I am hoping you can clarify some of them for me and your other readers:

    1) In your text, you state:
    “The neglect of this Philippine context is remarkable because the Philippines is hardly just a country with vitamin A-deficient children (in fact, such children are relatively scarce there).”

    Yet the Science magazine article you link to says:
    “The deficiency affects approximately 1.7 million children aged 6 months to 5 years in the Philippines alone, according to the International Rice Research Institute.”

    Are these two statements consistent?
    ——————————————–
    2) In your text you state (the percentages apply, I think, to the number of children in the Philippines between 6 months and five years):
    “Nutrition programs have brought the incidence of childhood VAD from a peak of 40% in 2003 to 15% in 2008 (Food & Nutrition Research Inst. nd), and the incidence has almost certainly fallen more since then.”

    “Even if Golden Rice is brought up to speed agronomically, and even if it is approved, released, and adopted by farmers, its goal of saving millions of lives—or even having any significant public health impact—is probably unlikely.”

    But at one of the IRRI links that you suggest, I found this statement:
    “Yet vitamin A deficiency remains a public health problem in the Philippines, affecting more than 1.7 million children under the age of five and 500,000 pregnant and nursing women. Many of them live in areas that are difficult to reach with existing programs. Studies have shown that providing adequate amounts of vitamin A can reduce overall child mortality from common illnesses (including measles, severe pneumonia, and persistent diarrhea) by 23-34%.”

    If it is true, as you state, that any significant public health impact is probably unlikely, why would IRRI pursue golden rice? Are they being overly optimistic or irrational in your opinion? Could it be possible that golden rice and conventional vitamin supplementation are complementary, and that either alone will prove to be insufficient?

    Thanks again for the article, I hope you can make time to squeeze in a reply.

    Michael Barnes
    Principle Editor
    UC Berkeley College of Chemistry

    • Glenn says:

      Thanks for your questions.

      First, on scarcity of VAD. Data on this is from the Food and Nutrition Research Inst (in Dept. of Science & Technology) which does nutrition surveys every 5 years. They do a pretty good job — certainly better than surveys in some other countries where I’ve worked. They have released part of the 2013 survey but no new VAD data. However we can at least come up with an educated guess on how far VAD rates have dropped.

      Earlier surveys showed VAD among 0-5 yr olds dropping from at 40% in 2003 to 15% in 2008, due to public health interventions. A 2011 report said the Vitamin A supplementation program was reaching over 91% of kids aged 1-5, so it’s reasonable to expect further drops. The 2013 data show that since 2008, anemia has dropped 29% for 6-12 mo and 46% for 1-5 yr. If VAD has tracked anemia, it should be down to 8-11% now.

      Does an estimated incidence of 8-11% constitute relative scarcity? That depends on what you compare it to. It’s certainly scarce relative to The GoldenRice website’s reference to 40% of children <5 in the developing world. It’s scarce relative to the Philippines' rate in 2003. It’s very scarce relative to some countries in Africa where rates are over 50%.

      The kids who are still vitamin deficient are in “areas that are difficult to reach with existing programs.” Will the varieties that are released (when they finally get it working agronomically) grow well and be adopted in those areas? Obviously no one knows; we don’t even know what varieties it will be released in.

      Second, why is IRRI breeding Golden Rice? IRRI is a CGIAR center; its job is to do pro-poor research on rice, for which it has to raise funds. Golden Rice is rice, it’s intended to be biofortified for the very poor, and it came with unique attached specifically (including Gates, Rockefeller, and corporate support). On top of that it came with administrative support (Golden Rice Humanitarian Board, Gerard Barry coming to IRRI just to shepherd it, etc.) and also an endless stream of positive publicity. For all these reasons it should be obvious why IRRI took it on, and continues to work with it. Breeding/research centers work on lots of projects that don’t reach fruition or have much impact. That’s how it works.

      So no, there’s nothing overly optimistic or irrational at IRRI, and moreover the long process and halting progress are certainly not due to any lack of ability there. IRRI is filled with top-notch scientists and administrators, really impressive people. I have done some work with them and I have enormous respect for them and their abilities. (They even have an interesting program going on now with heirloom rice growers.) PhilRice has some great people too. (For that matter, so does Rockefeller, starting with Gary Toenniessen who decided to fund it in the first place – I quote his work all the time). This technology was worth a shot. But the fact is that it has been in the works for 25 years and still is years away from being ready for release, during which time vitamin A deficiency has been dramatically reduced by public programs.

  13. thanks for the clarity in defense of working minds.

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  15. J. Fagan says:

    So all of the scientists and researchers really “neglect the Philippines”? Why is that, exactly?

    • Glenn says:

      Pretty much. Between the academic literature and the press, thousands of articles have been published with claims about Golden Rice without considering the situation in any particular country where it might be grown. There is a very small handful that actually address conditions in the Philippines, where it is likely to be released.

      Here is one of the very few, in case you’re interested:
      Zimmerman, R. and M. Qaim (2004). “Potential health benefits of Golden Rice: a Philippine case study.” Food Policy 29(2): 147–168.

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