Washington University, ST LOUIS. Golden Rice was once believed to be the grain that could end world hunger. Featured on the cover of Time magazine in the year 2000 as the poster-crop to support GMO research and biotechnology generally, 16 years later scientists have concluded the benefits once believed to be so great, aren’t all they’re hyped up to be.
The recent study by Washington University states that a number of the benefits originally advertised have failed to be delivered within the timeframe established.
The idea behind Golden Rice was to provide rural farmers with a subsistence crop that would be capable of adding many essential nutrients, such as Vitamin A, to the food sources of people in third-world countries who had a deficiency in these nutrients. The project was first thought of in the 1980’s, however wasn’t a focus of active research until the early 1990’s. It is often cited as an example of the benefits of GMO crops.
Anti-GMO groups have long stated that Golden Rice was over-advertised as a cure to third-world malnourishment that had a hidden agenda; namely the acceptance by consumers of cheap, mass-produced and profitable GMO crops compared to conventional groceries.
On the other hand, GMO proponents blame environmental groups such as Greenpeace for preventing the spread of Golden Rice in global markets, and thus extending the misery and malnourishment of poor people in third-world countries.
However, the lack of success of Golden Rice isn’t believed to be due to anti-GMO groups. In a study by Dominic Glover, a rice expert at the Institute for Development Studies, University of Sussex, it was found that there is scarce evidence to suggest that anti-GMO protesters are to blame for the lack of acceptance of Golden Rice by third-world populations, especially the Philippines where most of the research and marketing of it is being conducted.
Activists aren’t entirely free of blame however. They did destroy a test plot of Golden rice during a protest in 2013. Nevertheless, this incident alone is isolated and is unlikely to be the reason behind the lack of acceptance of Golden Rice by world governments.
Golden Rice was originally perceived as a way to provide beta-carotenes in the diet, the primary ingredient required by the body to create Vitamin A. The beta-carotene compounds are yellow in color, and hence give the rice its name of “golden”. Unfortunately, researchers have had trouble developing these beta-carotene enriched rice strains – and so far non-GMO strains grown by local farmers have been found to contain even more of the compound than the GMO variety.
Whilst other countries such as Bangladesh are also conducting their own research and trials, it is unlikely that their efforts will proceed any quicker than the trials being conducted in the Philippines.
Even if GMO beta-carotene enriched rice becomes widely available, there are still questions being raised just how much it would actually help those who are malnourished, especially third-world children. Recent concerns have arisen as to whether or not the beta-carotenes in Golden Rice could even be converted to Vitamin A in children that already malnourished – since the conversion requires key nutrients that were formerly assumed to exist in everyone.
Further concerns have been raised as to how long the rice could be stored when compared to traditional strains, and whether it would have a negative impact in culinary uses, such as flavor or traditional cooking methods that are in use for non-GMO strains.
Since the year 2000 when Golden Rice made its International debut in Time, Vitamin A deficiency, which was once endemic within the Philippines, has since been treated via other non-GMO methods, and the incidence of it has been lowered. None of this sells well for the original advocates of Golden Rice. Whilst this doesn’t spell the definite end of the wonder-crop, it does call for a re-evaluation of its original claims.
Source: Agriculture and Human Values