Jonathan Benson recently wrote an article criticizing GMO foods that seek to prevent malnourishment and death within the developing world, namely Golden Rice and GM bananas. Lindsay and Andy find common ground in their discussion, bringing to light the question: Is there ever a point where GMOs can be praised?
I’m not sure how to write this without appearing as though I’ve just had a bipolar moment and completely forgotten my personal convictions.
I’ve lived most of my adult life in the gray—believing that little in this world is black and white, that our understandings and knowledge are always skewed, always biased, always prejudiced, and as I’ve journeyed through agricultural issues throughout the last few years, I’ve understood that really—if we’d all stop shouting for a moment and listen—we’d realize that we’re all working towards the same goal: The world is hungry. Bellies must be filled if this revolving blue marble is going to stay populated for very long.
The problem with working towards the same goal, though, is that there’s always conflicting thoughts, non-aligning ideologies, and when looking into the agricultural world, I’m not sure I can think of any greater example than the GMO debate.
So, when I came across this article last week, an article that condemned Golden Rice as yet another ploy of biotech giants, I wasn’t surprised to find myself disagreeing with someone who’s supposed to be “on my side.” I quickly sent an email to Andy:
See, this is the kind of stuff that burns me from the organics side. . .
I could swear I’ve come across solid scientific articles praising the advent of Golden Rice. Am I wrong?
And I had read articles on Golden Rice, many that talked about how Golden Rice was intended to be given for free to the growers and communities. For over a decade, researchers had worked on this rice, gathered the evidence, the numbers—an estimated 40,000 lives, every year, saved because of the nutrients genetically engineered into the rice.
You see, Vitamin A deficiencies kill people, mostly women and children. It causes blindness, disease and infections, things the developed world never sees because we are overfed. Most of us can’t imagine hunger that kills.
To my knowledge, Golden Rice hasn’t failed as author Jonathan Benson so boldly claims. It is still fighting for approval, still waiting to see if it can help out in countries where rice is the only food most people can afford to grow and eat, countries where “nature’s offerings are [indeed, Mr. Benson,] inadequate to provide nourishment for humans.” Of course, we should be investing in education, but that requires shifting an entire culture, and any sociologist will tell you that such a feat takes time—the kind of time that malnourished populations don’t have time for.
This isn’t a case of Frankenfood taking over the world. Rather, it’s an example of the common good, of working to find a solution, and while there may be better solutions to develop, exploiting the intent of Golden Rice simply to sustain a narrative of “Big, Evil Biotech” produces nothing but blindness and death for mothers and children throughout the developing world.
I am a strong supporter of agriculture, which includes using biotechnology to create GMOs. I also believe that biotechnology has successfully increased agricultural productivity in done so in a sustainable way. So when Lindsay emailed me the article ‘GMO Advocates Ignore Failure of Golden Rice, Quietly Move On to GM Bananas’ my first reaction was to question the ‘failure’. I am not aware of any failure but I am aware of the noise created by detractors. There are numerous references on the potential impacts of Golden Rice in fighting Vitamin A deficiency and I’ve compiled a short list at the end of my article. If you are interested in reading more about Vitamin A deficiency, The World Health Organization provides a good overview here http://www.who.int/nutrition/topics/vad/en/. Through using biotechnology, researchers developed Golden Rice to contain beta-carotene. The beta-carotene in Golden Rice is converted by our bodies into vitamin A.
Biotechnology has not yet been fully utilized or adopted for key food crops such as rice, banana and sorghum. But advances are being made with Golden Rice (http://irri.org/golden-rice), Better Bananas (http://www.gatesnotes.com/Development/Building-Better-Bananas), and Biofortified Sorghum (http://biosorghum.org/). These are a few examples of several crop initiatives that use biotechnology to help improve human health on a global scale — this is definitely praise-worthy! And for crops that are directed towards subsistence farmers there are no plans for patents or licensing.
Let’s ignore the noise, find common ground and work towards a solution for reducing hunger and nutrition deficiencies. On the issue of Golden Rice, Lindsay and I have found more common ground.
Early references for Golden Rice
Improving the nutritional value of Golden Rice through increased pro-vitamin A content (2005) http://www.nature.com/nbt/journal/v23/n4/abs/nbt1082.html
Biosynthesis Pathway into Rice Endosperm by Genetic Engineering to Defeat Vitamin A Deficiency (2002) http://jn.nutrition.org/content/132/3/506S.short
Recent references for Golden Rice
Nutritional enhancement of rice for human health: The contribution of biotechnology (2013) http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0734975012000389
β-Carotene in Golden Rice is as good as β-carotene in oil at providing vitamin A to children (2012) http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/96/3/658.short
Golden Rice and ‘Golden’ crops for human nutrition (2010) http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1871678410004450
References for GMOs
GMO Answers http://gmoanswers.com/