GMO Golden Rice: A Panacea Or Hoax?

Golden Rice: A Panacea or Hoax?

Those who argue in favor of the creation and propagation of genetically-modified organisms, also known as GMOs, will be the first to tell you that GMOs represent a great humanitarian effort to “feed the world.”

Yet despite their rhetoric, GMOs have gotten a lot of bad humanitarian press. GMO crops like corn and soy aren’t living up to their high-yield propaganda. And in less than a decade, India’s seen more than 270,000 farmers commit suicide because of the crushing debt they experienced as outrageously expensive GMO cotton and cereal grains performed far worse than anticipated.

Given all the negative coverage, it’s no wonder that they’re trying to tout the humanitarian benefit of Golden Rice — a GMO rice that’s been modified to produce extra beta-carotene. According to biotech firms, this rice will save the lives of millions of children who are suffering from vitamin A deficiency.

If you are unfamiliar with GMOs, don’t be fooled! GMOs aren’t benign hybrids created by farmers using age old practices like cross-pollination or grafting to create new strains of vegetables and fruits. GMOs are created in laboratories by researchers inserting completely foreign DNA into plants & animals using the advanced gene-splicing tools of biotech engineering. Want to know more about GMOs? Read this.

Golden Rice: The Hype

According to the latest spin, those of us who question the safety of GMOs are responsible for the deaths of the 8 million children worldwide that died from vitamin A deficiency in the last decade.

From Slate.com, we read that in the last decade:

… about 8 million children worldwide died from vitamin A deficiency. Are anti-GM advocates not partly responsible? …. Two recent studies in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition show that just 50 grams (roughly two ounces) of golden rice can provide 60 percent of the recommended daily intake of vitamin A. They show that golden rice is even better than spinach in providing vitamin A to children.
(source)

In other words, if we had just fed these children Golden Rice, we could have prevented their deaths.

Golden Rice: The Truth

What the spin doctors won’t tell you is this: Golden Rice does not have elevated levels of vitamin A (retinol) in it. Rather, it contains high levels of a vitamin A precursor known as beta-carotene.

Many people can successfully convert beta-carotene into vitamin A.

But many more simply can’t.

But the transformation of carotene to retinol is rarely optimal. Diabetics and those with poor thyroid function, a group that could well include at least half the adult US population, cannot make the conversion. Children make the conversion very poorly and infants not at all…. Strenuous physical exercise, excessive consumption of alcohol, excessive consumption of iron (especially from “fortified” white flour and breakfast cereal), use of a number of popular drugs, excessive consumption of polyunsaturated fatty acids, zinc deficiency and even cold weather can hinder the conversion of carotenes to vitamin A, as does the low-fat diet.
(source)

Did you catch that? Children are poor converters of beta-carotene into vitamin A! Many recent studies continually affirm this fact (1, 2, 3, 4).

In other words, feeding these children beta-carotene rich Golden Rice will NOT prevent their vitamin A deficiency anymore than feeding them spinach or sweet potatoes will.

How To Get Real Vitamin A

The only true source of real vitamin A is animal foods. Since the liver helps store vitamin A, it is arguably the best source of vitamin A on the planet.

The best dietary sources of vitamin A are:

How to Improve Vitamin A Intake in Third World Countries

While the above foods may seem like premium or luxury foods in countries like the U.S., that’s only because they are so scarce in the wake of industrial agriculture. They are, in fact, as traditional as they come.

What could be more natural than a subsistence farmer having some hens, a cow (or goat, or yak, etc.), and a large garden to provide for his family?

Unfortunately, thanks to globalization, these historically normal foods are being pushed out of the diets of millions of impoverished families around the world as they are forced to abandon their life-sustaining land and resources and switch to wage economies that can’t support the swelling tide of hungry mouths.

In the short-term: supplement!

One of the most successful programs in the history of nutrition science is the global campaign to distribute high-dose vitamin-A capsules to children throughout Africa and Asia. Launched in 1997, the global campaign is a partnership between UNICEF and the World Health Organization (WHO) as well as the governments of Canada, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Japan and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The program has been particularly successful in Nepal where groups of local women known as Female Community Health Volunteers help distribute the capsules throughout the rugged terrain. In 2000, over 90 percent of Nepalese children had received their yearly dosage of vitamin A.
(source)

The international supplement program is, thankfully, supplementing with the animal form of vitamin A, retinol. At a cost of less than $1 per child per year, it is not a bad short term solution despite its inefficiencies.

In the long-term: return animals to the family.

Lack of animal foods, more than any other single factor, is the greatest contributing cause of vitamin A deficiency.

Organizations like Heifer International, which donate life-giving animals like cows, goats, chickens (and even bees!) to impoverished families, are changing the world.

Watch this video about Heifer International’s work, particularly highlighting their philosophy of Passing On The Gift, which requires helped families to pass on their animal’s offspring to other families in need.

There are many other organizations that provide animals to families in need including Episcopal Relief & Development, World Vision, and Oxfam, among others.

Golden Rice: A Panacea or a Hoax?

Just ask yourself this. If Golden Rice really was a panacea, the greatest humanitarian wonder ever to combat vitamin A deficiencies among the world’s poor and malnourished, then why is it patented?

Despite being the result of public research, golden rice is enmeshed in around seventy patents owned by some thirty-two companies and institutions, according to the US-based International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications.
(source)

Seventy patents? Proponents of Golden Rice will tell you that for humanitarian purposes, the rice is being licensed free of charge in developing nations.

However, the terms of the free license agreements are still unclear: they appear to cover research, but not release or commercialisation. This lack of clarity casts a huge question mark over how “free” the agreement really is and has huge implications for the accessibility, availability and affordability of golden rice to farmers around the world.
(source)

Noted spokesperson against the widespread use of GMOs in India, Vandana Shiva, has argued that until these biotech firms abandon their patents on Golden Rice, their motives for giving royalty free licenses for development of vitamin A rice “can only be taken as a hoax to establish monopoly over rice production, and reduce rice farmers of India into bio-serfs.”

(photo by IIRI)

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I am a passionate advocate for REAL FOOD -- food that's sustainable, organic, local, and traditionally-prepared according to the wisdom of our ancestors. I'm also an author and a nutrition educator. I enjoy playing in the rain, a good bottle of Caol Ila scotch, curling up with a page-turning book, sunbathing on my hammock, and watching my three children explore their world.
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25 Responses to GMO Golden Rice: A Panacea Or Hoax?
  1. Amber
    April 10, 2013 | 4:25 pm

    I’d buy it, today, if I knew where to find it, and I’m a gardener. I garden in my backyard because I believe in biodiversity, fresh, sustainability, thrift, and like having access to things not available commercially. I also believe in science and opportunity. I say that I’d buy it with clear conscience, because I’m not making a dime from it, nor is family. I don’t think I even know anyone directly involved, but I’ve been following along via research releases from Baylor College, Texas Children’s Hospital, Farmers’ blogs, etc. ~Amber of WhatAmberLoves

    • peggy gannon
      April 12, 2013 | 4:51 pm

      Amber, did you actually read the article? Who benefits from golden rice? Not the starving, vitamin-deficient children in India, nor many adults. The only one to benefit is the biotech industry, whose GM genes are destroying organic agriculture and contaminating the planet. Please educate yourself!

  2. Lucy
    April 10, 2013 | 7:29 pm

    Thank you for linking to World Vision — what a great organization! Every Christmas, instead of buying gifts for each other, our family send the money we would have spent on gifts to World Vision to buy goats, chickens, sheep, and other animals for needy families. This is the best way that I know of to improve the health of the world’s poor children and help lift their families out of poverty.

  3. Tricia Kinsey
    April 11, 2013 | 12:21 am

    Hi,

    I enjoyed your article and agree with the important points you made. I just wanted to point out a possible typo. It says that 270,000 farmers committed suicide, but the link says an estimated 125,000. Either way it is horrific, but I just mention it.

    Thanks for all you do!

    • KristenM
      April 11, 2013 | 9:45 am

      It’s not a typo. The linked article is five years old. The 270,000 number is as of February this year.

      • Tricia Kinsey
        April 14, 2013 | 8:57 pm

        Thank you for clarifying! That is a horrific.

  4. Kario
    April 11, 2013 | 12:28 pm

    I actually hope that they keep their patents on it because to unleash GMO on the world for free is disaster. I honestly believe that GMO seeds will effectively contaminate other crops and soil and render “organic” impossible to obtain in future generations. I am sick that we think we can experiment our way to a better world in a lab rather than doing the hard work it takes to protect biodiversity by decreasing human impacts on the planet. Thank you for such a well-researched and well-written post.

  5. Jennifer
    April 11, 2013 | 11:13 pm

    It’s nice to stumble upon a website that is promoting the beneficial aspects of genetically modified food. I find it upsetting that so many people are using their online platform to only focus on the “evils” of GMO rather than the fact that it has the potential to save so many starving children. I think you have made really positive suggestions for changing the world. I appreciated reading your ideas.

    • Riley
      April 12, 2013 | 12:43 pm

      You realize that the end conclusion of this article is still anti-GMO, right?

      • TyS
        April 13, 2013 | 1:04 am

        It’s a spam comment. Spammers, or the ones paying them, are getting better at seeming legit on the surface. “Jennifer” only posted here to link to a spam site. Even if no one clicks it the search engines will still see that they are getting linked to from a legitimate website, so they’re hoping that will help their rankings.

  6. kathi dunphy
    April 12, 2013 | 12:52 pm

    Jennifer, I think you need to read the article again. It said nothing about promoting gm food, but rather exposed the oft repeated spin of “feeding the world” as false and misleading. The form of vitamin A in gm golden rice cannot be utilized by childrens bodies. Rather, the article stressed returning autonomy and good nutrition to poor rural families in the form of support for their traditional crops and animals.

  7. Soohyen Park
    April 12, 2013 | 3:14 pm

    Nice. By the way, sharing is caring—so what about those who mainly Facebook or Twitter? Who uses Google+?? Just curious why you have omitted some major social networks to enable spreading the word.

  8. frantasm
    April 12, 2013 | 6:23 pm

    I suspect “Amber” & “Jennifer” are paid to write pro gmo comments. They may deny it but this propaganda tool is being used increasingly by firms that represent for companies like Monsanto. Also such “comments” have the added benefit of creating dissension, thus taking focus off our uniting.

    • IC
      April 13, 2013 | 1:51 am

      Yes – the divide and conquer approach.

  9. Cecilia
    April 13, 2013 | 9:42 am

    Such a timely article! My BIO110 professor was just teaching about (benefits of) this rice YESTERDAY in lecture! Am printing this article, along with following up on some of the sources, as I write this. Thank you, so much!

  10. robyn
    April 13, 2013 | 12:09 pm

    I once got a pro-Teflon comment from someone paid to write it. These people are real– they just pretend not to understand it’s a negative article.

  11. Jan
    April 13, 2013 | 7:43 pm

    Propaganda – convincing people that something wrong is really right (Jennifer & Amber – and yes, they are probably both working for Monsanto [aka the Antichrist]).

    And, the research I’ve done says you need fats for the body to be able to absorb vitamin A. Stuffing people full of golden rice isn’t going to do a damn thing.

    And Amber, who do you suppose is footing the bill for the Baylor, etc.? I just hope when the real, truthful results are in, it isn’t too late.

  12. Stephanie
    April 21, 2013 | 3:02 am

    Nice article with well researched facts on vitamin A absorption. It’s also a good reminder not to take the claims of the GMO industry and their proponents at face value. Another important thing to note is that the long term effects of GM food consumption is not well understood yet. There has been research that show mice developing abnormalities when fed exclusively with GM food.The implications on humans are uncertain though

  13. Adam Stark
    June 11, 2013 | 5:30 am

    Gosh, it is so upsetting to me to see and hear all these people putting principle blindly before real-world issues. Today, I’m going to our state senate to testify on behalf of mandatory GM labeling. As a health food store owner and an herbalist, I support the GMO project, among other initiatives to keep food and agriculture clean. But I’m also trained as a scientist (biology, immunology), and I cannot see a single legitemate reason to actually dislike this particular GMO. You say that many people “can’t” convert beta carotene into vitamin A. Yet the sources you cite to support that point…. none of them actually say it! They say conversion may be sub-optimal. But none of them say conversion may be impossible. Citing sources dishonestly is just as “hype”-y as anything you may be critizing in Monsanto, etc. It is — what’s the word for it in journalism? — lying.

    Yes, Golden Rice is being used as a propaganda tool by the GM corporations. Yes, it’s not the same as eating liver. Yes, yes, yes, it’s not ideal. But it’s better than blindness. And the license to grow it on a small scale basis is real. To use an analogy from computing, it’s biologic freeware. If we want to make arguments against GMOs, let’s make them honestly. If we resort to trickery and disingenuous logic to support our principles, we’re no better than “them.”

  14. Will Holland via Facebook
    February 7, 2014 | 8:05 pm

    Hoax… A certain family member of mine involved in the industry touted golden rice 15 years ago… still haven’t seen it! Besides, we all know GMOs are meant to sell their Roundup! Disgusting.

  15. Monica Hoffman Fintel via Facebook
    February 7, 2014 | 8:19 pm

    Agreed – definite HOAX! And guess what the pro GMO at all costs group point to when they want to look good? This fraud of a product and the small scale success with Papaya in Hawaii. Meanwhile that brainwashed crowd completely ignores that the most widely planted GMO crops are corn and soy- which are requiring increasing amounts of pesticide!! GMO was developed to sell roundup- that’s it! Not to “feed the world”. That’s like saying mcdonalds is healthy because they offer apple slices with a happy meal!

  16. Iulia Iordachescu via Facebook
    February 7, 2014 | 8:30 pm

    hoax for sure!

  17. Kim Walker via Facebook
    February 7, 2014 | 8:37 pm

    Studies have shown (I believe by Rodale) that with proper care of the soil & organic gardening not only can you produce more per acre, more actual measurable nutrition and the cost are actually less. Plus you can save seed for next years planting & not have to keep buying from a company that doesn’t care about you or anyone else but their shareholders.

  18. Guillaume Dougados via Facebook
    February 7, 2014 | 9:34 pm

    No for profit company is in the business of saving the world, they all have the same agenda, domination and profit.

  19. Joan Desirée Thaisen Lowe via Facebook
    February 8, 2014 | 11:19 am

    1/3 of food produced is thrown away never eaten, but “only” 1/7 of the world’s population are starving – though many more malnourished. Surely, we can do better?

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Who Am I?

My name is Kristen Michaelis. I'm a nutrition educator, author, and mother of three. I adore hats, happy skirts, horizons full of storm clouds, the full-bodied feel of wind as I ride motorcylces, reading in my hammock, and a hearty shot of Caol Ila scotch. I'm also a rebel with a cause.
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