Now reading Is Golden Rice the Future of Food?

Is Golden Rice the Future of Food?

Yes, it’s a GMO. But it might save millions from malnutrition.


Illustration by Aaron Glasson

Right now, those in the business of feeding us face two monumental hurdles: a skyrocketing population that threatens to outpace our food supply, and climate change, with all its attendant catastrophes. There is no silver bullet that can save us from ourselves, but there are people out there devising solutions that might seem like science fiction. 

In our Fantasy issue (which is now on newsstands!), we explored possible panaceas that are already being floated in discussions about our food future. We offer no definitive verdicts; instead, we encourage you to decide for yourself which dreams seem worth pursuing. This week, Derek Bothereau looks into Golden Rice.

What’s the idea?

The modern American food world is inundated with anti-GMO campaigns and aspirational promises. Whole Foods has pledged “full GMO (genetically modified organism) transparency for our customers by 2018” and Chipotle declared they are “G-M-Over It.”

But while we enjoy our non-GMO tabbouleh and corn salsa, a very different conversation is taking place about the testing and application of GMO seeds as a tool to provide food to malnourished populations. GMOs are created by extracting genes from one organism—be it plant, animal, or bacteria—and transferring them to another in order to create a new species with (or without) certain traits. GMOs can improve a plant’s yield, along with its ability to resist insects, survive drought, or retain its color on the way to the grocery aisle. GM seeds aren’t new: 89 percent of all U.S. corn and 94 percent of all U.S. soybeans are GMO. Perhaps the most well-known GMO crop is Golden Rice, which was first conceived by European scientists and has been in development for more than thirty years.

Golden Rice is engineered to produce beta-carotene, a naturally occurring nutrient that the body converts into vitamin A. Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) is common in Africa and Southeast Asia, particularly in places like the Philippines and Bangladesh, where rice is the staple crop and local diets lack nutrient diversity. In villages that subsist primarily on rice, VAD is rampant, causing blindness and death from weakened immune systems, especially in children and pregnant women.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), VAD is the “leading cause of preventable blindness in children,” with more than 250,000 children going blind annually, and half of them dying within twelve months. Golden Rice supporters believe this GMO crop could be part of the solution, while opponents think the benefits of “Frankenfood” are overblown and that Golden Rice is just a Trojan horse to get unwitting governments to accept GMOs.

What do we stand to gain?

While agronomy training—teaching farmers about managing water, soil, nutrients, crops, and pests—and improving infrastructure are essential agricultural objectives, many governments and development organizations like the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation believe that GMO seeds can be a blockbuster solution to malnutrition. The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), one of the organizations currently developing Golden Rice, claims that a single cup can provide 50 percent of the recommended daily intake of vitamin A.

Meanwhile, a pair of researchers from Berkeley, California, and Freising, Germany, have attempted to model out the costs of delaying the approval of Golden Rice; they estimate that “1.4 million life years [have been] lost over the past decade in India” as a result of not planting Golden Rice. One of the researchers, Dr. David Zilberman, professor of agriculture and resource economics at UC Berkeley, says, “Golden Rice is not the issue, it’s a manifestation of where we are on GMOs.” He also says, “If tomorrow you allowed GMO rice, wheat, everything, everywhere, the prices of food would go down significantly, maybe 20 to 30 percent across the board. We are discovering new tools that would allow us to accelerate genetic selection. We know what we are doing, and it’s safe. This is how we learned about electricity.”

The three coinventors of Golden Rice recently won the 2015 Patents for Humanity Award for creating a licensing agreement (in partnership with Syngenta) that will provide Golden Rice seeds for free to farmers who make less than $10,000 per year in developing countries.

But what are the costs?

Objections to Golden Rice (and GMOs in general) are largely based on worries that bioengineered seeds are potentially dangerous to human health, while the claimed benefits remain unproven. Some of the early clinical trials regarding Golden Rice’s beta-carotene content have been debated and discredited. In a 2001 essay for the New York Times Magazine, Michael Pollan scoffed at Golden Rice, suggesting it may be a “purely rhetorical technology.”

“When I wrote about it, the quantities of beta-carotene were so small someone would have to eat tremendous amounts to get any benefit,” Pollan says now. “I understand they’ve raised the levels, so maybe it can be of use.” Still, he remains dubious about the approach: “I continue to think it’s an unnecessarily expensive high-tech fix to the problem, which can be remedied by diversifying agriculture. Think what could have been done with the hundreds of millions of dollars that have gone into this technology.

Opponents believe that VAD should be addressed through the root causes of poverty and overreliance on monocultures, and not through seeds with unknown effects. There are also concerns that, contrary to the promises of GMO supporters, widespread GMO use is actually triggering higher pesticide and herbicide use as a result of new resistant insects and weeds.

Vandana Shiva, a prominent environmental activist and one of the most vocal opponents of Golden Rice, is concerned that patented seed varietals will further privatize the seed market, block biodiversity, and empower private companies like Monsanto and Syngenta, which, in her view, are imposing “food totalitarianism.” Shiva calls Golden Rice “a hoax” and points to the high costs of GMO seeds that would disproportionately exploit farmers in India.

Syngenta maintains that it has no commercial interest in Golden Rice and that its free distribution of seed is an “exclusively humanitarian project.” Shiva and others say that the project is about getting a foot in the door, and that the future promise of GMOs is absolutely tied to the bottom line of biotechnology firms who control the IP and distribution of seeds.

The outlook

It’s not a foregone conclusion that Golden Rice will reach the broader market. Golden Rice is currently in testing by international research institutes and NGOs in Asia to ensure it does what it promises. Dr. Zilberman believes Golden Rice will eventually see wide release, most likely in Bangladesh first.

The EU, which has historically been opposed to GMOs, recently lifted its ban, allowing individual countries to decide for themselves on approved GM crops. China is also undertaking more efforts to explore GMOs as a way to increase yields. Meanwhile, in 2013, a self-proclaimed farmer-led group of anti-GMO activists destroyed trial fields of rice in the Philippines.

Golden Rice is only one small aspect of a much larger debate over the place of genetic modification in agriculture, but it is a prime example of the interests at play. On one side is the optimistic view of feeding the world and improving livelihoods through bioengineering, and on the other are a number of legitimate (and unsettling) questions about who in the system is actually benefiting and whether there are undiscovered health risks. One glaring problem is that developing countries that stand to gain the most from GMOs often lack the resources to really investigate and vet the issues, and to cut through all the noise. Currently, the level of investment and the political tone indicate that GMOs will be a part of our global food future, at least in some part, even as the two opposing fantasies of their elimination and their acceptance duke it out for our attention.

Check out last week’s Food Future, about vertical farming, here.