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Golden Rice: a biotechnology 20 years in the making

Sarah Lloyd explores the turbulent history of the genetically modified rice that promised to curb Vitamin A deficiency.

A humanitarian panacea’. This bold headline was announced by Golden Rice to the world in 2000. Constituting a genetically modified (GM) strain of rice, this biotechnology was projected to prevent childhood blindness and death in the developing world. Two decades on from its public debut, Golden Rice is still struggling to gain approval in most nations. What went wrong?

Golden Rice was created to address the global Vitamin A deficiency. Estimated to affect over 250 million children annually, this deficiency can lead to blindness and even premature death. Our bodies cannot synthesise Vitamin A; instead, we must acquire the nutrient from the food we eat. Vitamin A deficiencies are inherently linked to poor diet, therefore developing countries are disproportionately affected.

Rice is a staple meal in many of these countries. While rice is a good source of energy, it is naturally very low in Vitamin A. Golden Rice has been genetically modified to contain two additional genes, resulting in higher biosynthesis of beta-carotene. This orange-coloured pigment is the precursor for Vitamin A, hence the name ‘Golden Rice’. Consuming Golden Rice would thereby increase Vitamin A uptake.

It sounds like a solid plan: improve the nutrient quality in staple crops and make them freely available to poor farmers. How could anyone have a problem with that? But, as with most GM biotechnologies, Golden Rice has had its fair share of hate—ranging from media fear-mongering to flawed scientific papers.

Environmental groups are often the loudest critics. It isn’t so much Golden Rice they have an issue with; opposition from these groups stems from a preconceived prejudice against all GM crops. They fear the repercussions on the environment and human safety. Perhaps these concerns are fuelled by a lack of understanding surrounding genetic modification. After all, sensationalist headlines surrounding GM crops have become an all too familiar sight. Regardless, some environmental groups persist in their efforts to thwart the production of GM crops.

Take Greenpeace. The organisation is particularly vocal in its disdain for Golden Rice, declaring it to be a hoax created to divert resources from other humanitarian efforts. They continue to campaign against it to this day: numerous speeches, articles, petitions, and demonstrations have been held against Golden Rice. In one extreme incident, activists went as far as destroying a test field of the GM crop. Despite continual scientific rebuttal, their claims have created a general mistrust of GM food.

Golden rice—a perfect concoction of medicinal and humanitarian dreams—represents a biotechnology that had the potential to win over the public. But the biotechnology has not only faced opposition from activists: the crop has been caught up in a bureaucratic war. The Precautionary Principle of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, an international trade deal agreed in 2003, declared that if a biotechnological product posed a possible risk to human health, measures should be taken to restrict or prevent its introduction.

Of course, safety should always be top priority when it comes to implementing new technologies. However, there are concerns that the clause contains loopholes that allow politicians with anti-GM agendas to justify delayed approval of new biotechnological products. GM crops are investigated from every possible angle, entangling them in a never-ending net of rules, guidelines, restrictions, and prohibitions. Supporters of Golden Rice have likened the clause to ‘guilty until proven innocent’. Delayed Golden Rice development as a result of these regulations has arguably led to avoidable losses of sight and life.

However, there is hope. Many scientists have lobbied around GM crops. In 2015, Golden Rice was formally recognised as a humanitarian game-changer and received the Patent for Humanity Award by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. In 2016, over 100 Nobel Laureates formally backed Golden Rice, helping to improve its profile. Even better, they didn’t just praise the product; they actively condoned those against it, declaring, “How many poor people in the world must die before we consider this a crime against humanity?”

Golden Rice has even won over some of those who originally opposed it. Patrick Moore, one of Greenpeace’s founders, became outraged with his organisation’s continued disapproval and launched a rival campaign: Allow Golden Rice Now. He has since organised protests across Europe.

This ongoing support has led to great advances for the crop. In the last few years, Golden Rice has been slowly commercialised in target countries. Thwarted by anti-GM activists and weighed down with red tape, no crop has ever been so exhaustively criticised or researched.

But the wait is almost over. In December 2019, the Philippines became the first country to permit its growth, with Bangladesh closely following suite in 2020. More countries will follow. This is a colossal victory in a long and exhausting battle fought by scientists and humanitarians alike.

From Issue 21

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