Golden Rice™ is a biofortified (GMO) variety of rice developed with the intention to produce and accumulate provitamin A (β-carotene) in the grain. According to the World Health Organization (WHO): "The grain known as golden rice was developed with the support of the Rockefeller Foundation and others over several years by Dr. Peter Beyer of the University of Freiburg in Germany and Professor Ingo Potrykus of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zürich (ETH). The technology involves modifying the DNA of the most common rice plant, Oryza sativa, by adding bacterial and daffodil genes to produce rice cells capable of making beta-carotene using certain methods patented by the life sciences company Monsanto." WHO says Monsanto is (or at least was at the time) providing royalty-free licenses to the rice. According to Monsanto: "Golden rice is not a Monsanto project. We supported it early on with the grant of a royalty-free license on the technology we had developed in the lab. Other companies have supported it in the same way. No one is going to make a profit from enriching rice to help poor children."
First introduced in 2000, it was improved in 2005 with the development of "Golden Rice 2", with the capacity to produce 23 times more β-carotene than the original golden rice.
In 2015, golden rice was one of the seven winners of the 2015 Patents for Humanity Awards by the United States Patent and Trademark Office.
On June 29, 2016, 128 Nobel Prize laureates signed and published a petition letter addressed to the Leaders of Greenpeace, the United Nations and Governments around the world in support of Precision Agriculture (GMOs) in general and Golden Rice in particular.
Despite all these accolades, as of January 2020 golden rice is still not being planted on a large scale in any of the regions that could benefit from it.
Vitamin A deficiency
Golden rice was created with the humanitarian intention to combat vitamin A deficiency (VAD) in developing nations. A key crop grown in many of these developing nations is rice, which convinced scientists to find a solution in this particular crop. VAD is one of the most important issues in terms of global public health, according to the WHO. It is a leading cause of childhood blindness in the developing world, and weakens the immune system, increasing vulnerability to illnesses such as measles (also known as rubeoloa), respiratory infections and diarrhea, often leading to death.
In 2012, the WHO reported that about 250 million preschool children are affected by VAD, and that providing those children with vitamin A could prevent about a third of all under-five deaths, which amounts to up to 2.7 million children who could be saved from dying. Vitamin A deficiency also causes 500,000 cases of irreversible blindness annually. Vitamin A also helps prevent death from measles, malaria, respiratory and other infections ARI (acute respiratory infections).
The Golden Rice Project expects that in countries with high per capita consumption of rice, a "locally adapted variety" producing less than 30 μg of β-carotene per gram of rice would be enough to maintain appropriate levels of vitamin A in the body.
Despite the humanitarian goal and groundbreaking progress in bioengineering to address worldwide health problems, some people just can't have that. Golden rice has met opposition from environmental activists and anti-globalization groups, including Greenpeace, an environmentalist group known for its blatant disregard for the scientific consensus on the safety of genetically modified food. In October 2014, Greenpeace released an 18-minute video, "All that Glitters is not Gold – The Truth about GE 'Golden' Rice" It features Filipino then-Representative Walden Bello, who is critical of GMOs. His argument in the video is basically that promoters of golden rice "are promoting a technological fix to a social question" (i.e., poverty). Other speakers argue GMOs are unnatural and unpredictable. Professor Teresita Ramos-Peres of the Ateneo de Manila University states, "The biotech companies claim there has been no ecological impact nor impacts on the health of the population but we have not found any publication regarding such claims." The video implies the reason why people suffer from vitamin A deficiency is because they do not know how to feed themselves. This is nonsensical because in developing nations foods rich in vitamin A are not always widely available. The video does not feature any blind person or any victim of vitamin A deficiency.
Destroying golden rice fields
On August 8, 2013 an experimental plot of golden rice being developed at International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines was uprooted by "militant farmers." Beau Baconguis, a program manager for Greenpeace, publicly supported the destruction, saying, “I think that the farmers know what they want. What they want is a safe environment that they can grow their crops in.” The only problem here is that, contrary to what Baconguis said, the mob of people uprooting the fields were not farmers. According to Raul Boncodin, the senior manager of the golden rice project in the Philippines, the uprooting was caused by protesters from the city. Interestingly, the vandals didn't wear protective clothing, thus revealing their lack of any concern for potential "contamination" that anti-GMO activists often attribute to golden rice and GMOs in general.
Golden Rice testing process
Before being approved, all genetically engineered crops are subject to rigorous testing and stringent food safety regulations by the countries reviewing them. There has been no study suggesting any health issues related to the consumption of vitamin-enhanced genetically engineered rice. A recent report by Australia and New Zealand's food safety regulator FSANZ found that consumption of Golden Rice "is considered to be as safe for human consumption as food derived from conventional rice cultivars." The FSANZ safety assessment found "no concerns regarding the potential toxicity or allergenicity."
"There is no reasonable argument that would support any public health, human toxicological or any other adverse effect in respect of carotenoids," the Golden Rice Humanitarian Board writes, in reference to the beta-carotene produced by Golden Rice. "Indeed, carotenoids are more generally associated with imparting important health benefits."
Who supports Golden Rice?
Golden Rice has the support of the vast majority of scientists with and without expertise in agricultural biotechnology. In June of 2016, a group of 110 Nobel laureate scientists penned a letter criticizing Greenpeace for its campaign against GMOs, specifically its effort to block Golden Rice. The letter states:
“”We urge Greenpeace and its supporters to re-examine the experience of farmers and consumers worldwide with crops and foods improved through biotechnology, recognize the findings of authoritative scientific bodies and regulatory agencies, and abandon their campaign against 'GMOs' in general and Golden Rice in particular.
The list has since grown to 129 Nobel laureates.
The Golden Rice project has received funding and support at various stages from the Rockefeller Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the European Union, the US Agency for International Development and various other humanitarian groups.
- Bulletin of the World Health Organization, 2000
- Monsanto Blog, November 7, 2013: "Golden Rice, Children and Ideology" (dead link)
- Pelletier DL, Frongillo EA Jr, Schroeder DG, Habicht J-P (1993) Epidemiological evidence for a potentiating effect of malnutrition on child mortality. American Journal of Public Health, 83:1130-1133.
- FSANZ Releases Approval Report for Food Derived from Provitamin A Rice Line GR2E Food Standards Australia New Zealand