Last updated March 6, 2017 at 3:18 pm
Science Update is a monthly written series from Dr Paul Willis tackling some of the controversial topics in the public and aims to provide the current research behind these subjects.
This Science Update focuses on the controversial story behind Golden Rice, one of the earliest cases to divide the public on genetically-modified food. This debate still endures to this day as Golden Rice development continues decades on.
What is Golden Rice?
Golden rice is a genetically engineered variety of rice (Oryza sativa). It has been modified by inserting a gene from maize and a gene from bacteria found in soil which allows the plant to biosynthesise beta-carotene in the edible parts of rice. Beta-carotene is naturally found in many fruits and vegetables, such as squash, papaya and carrots, giving them their yellow colour and it can be synthesised by the human body to make vitamin A. Characteristically, this genetic modification makes the rice grains a golden yellow colour.
Why is it being made?
The intention of boosting beta-carotene in Golden Rice is to help combat severe vitamin A deficiency in the developing world. Vitamin A deficiency causes blindness in a quarter of a million to half a million children each year, mostly in Asia and Africa. It also weakens the immune system and it is estimated that around two million die each year of diseases they would otherwise survive. In particular, vitamin A deficiency is estimated to kill 670,000 children under the age of 5 each year .
The Development of Golden Rice
Golden Rice was originally conceived by Professors Ingo Potrykus and Peter Beyer and it was their desire to donate Golden Rice as a gift to resource-poor farmers in developing countries. Early work during the 1980s on Golden Rice was funded by the Rockefeller Foundation and the European Union.
In 2000 the inventors’ established a public-private partnership with agricultural technology company Syngenta to help further develop Golden Rice. Part of the relationship with Syngenta was involved in gaining patents around Golden Rice but they also carried out additional laboratory, greenhouse and field research to help raise the beta-carotene levels.
Golden Rice 2 was announced in 2005, which produces up to 23 times more beta-carotene than the original Golden Rice. At this yield it is calculated that 144g (around one cup) of Golden Rice would have to be eaten to receive a recommended daily dose of vitamin A.
The Golden Rice Project now operates under a humanitarian board within the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and they have been working together since 2006.
Golden Rice was one of seven winners of the 2015 Patents for Humanity Awards by the United States Patent and Trademark Office.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is now supporting the final testing of Golden Rice and, as of the close of 2016, it is still in development.
The first field trial of the Golden Rice in Bangladesh has yielded promising results, and it is expected that Golden Rice will be released there early as 2018.
A different approach
There are significant differences between the development of Golden Rice and other GM crops that have already been bought to market. Most earlier GM crops have been modified to assist the grower through increased herbicide resistance or built-in insecticides. Golden Rice is being developed to benefit the consumer through enhanced nutrition. Previous GM crops have been developed and owned by large, multinational agribusinesses with a tight control of IP and a strong profit motive. Golden Rice, while still being subject to a number of patents, are comparatively more open with access to their IP and its development is being funded on a non-profit basis. Opponents fear this may be a small part of a wider, more sinister game-plan to put a more beneficent face to genetic technologies.
IRRI has shown that Golden Rice is safe for human consumption. Specifically, they have demonstrated that beta-carotene in food is a safe source of vitamin A, that the beta-carotene in Golden Rice is the same as the beta-carotene that is found in other foods and that the proteins from the new genes in Golden Rice do not show any toxic or allergenic properties.
Any new proteins produced by the rice have been shown to break down quickly in simulated gastric fluid and a mouse feeding study is under way in a laboratory in the United States.
The potential that the Golden Rice would cross-pollinate with other varieties has been studied and found to be limited, because rice is typically self-pollinated. And its production of beta-carotene does not appear to provide a competitive advantage — or disadvantage — that could affect the survival of wild varieties with which it might mix.
Opposition to Golden Rice
Environmental and anti-globalisation groups have provided the most significant opposition to the development and deployment of Golden Rice. The main arguments surround the safety for humans ingesting a GMO, the environmental safety of Golden Rice as a GMO, questions around the cost of development as opposed to other ways of combatting vitamin A deficiency and general complaints concerning the industrialisation of the food chain.
One of the most high-profile opponents to Golden Rice is Greenpeace who argue that it “is a proposed but not practically viable crop solution that has never been brought to market.” They further argue that it is also environmentally irresponsible and could compromise food, nutrition and financial security.
A more detailed set of arguments have been provided by a group called Science In Society. Their main objections can be reduced to a dot-point list of 12 arguments under the heading “‘Golden rice’ is no technical improvement and more unsafe” which were redressed in this article from the Golden Rice Organisation.
The general arguments against Golden Rice as a GMO have been rebutted in an earlier Science Update.
The Philippines Protest
In August 2013 a group of 400 people broke into the Department of Agriculture Regional Field Unit No. 5 at Pili, Camarines Sur in the Bicol region of the Philippines and destroyed a 1000 square metre test crop of Golden Rice. This test site was run by the International Rice Research Institute.
Some claims have been made that this was a group of farmers while other sources claim it was a group of anti-GMO activists. Whoever these protesters were, they appear to have little understanding of the science around GMO safety, relying heavily on misconceptions and fears, as well as motivated by anti-globalisation and corporate agricultural issues.
It was this protest that spurred a petition spearheaded by Nobel Laureates and other scientists in support of GM technology and Golden Rice. So far 121 Nobel Laureates and 6334 scientists have signed this petition.
Golden Rice is a genetically engineered strain of rice that has the potential to save millions of people from suffering and death due to vitamin A deficiency. It has had a long period of development and testing but should be ready for release within the next few years. Arguments against the development and release of Golden Rice do not appear to have a solid basis in science.
- ABC Radio National: Golden rice and the struggle over genetically modified food
- Quartz: Golden Rice—a star among GMO foods—has a major study retracted