The Great Golden Hype

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The latest weapon in the genetically modified (GM) food fight is a variety of japonica (white) rice that has been genetically engineered with two daffodil genes containing beta-carotene and a bacteria gene. Biotech companies say that 'golden rice' will help alleviate blindness among the 100-million children in developing countries with vitamin-A deficiency. They have vowed to wave their patent rights so that farmers in developing countries can grow it.

However, critics say that it is the biotech industry's latest attempt to feed on world hunger to solve its bad public-relations image. Asian researchers report that a serving of 150 grams of golden rice per day (the average rice intake of a Filipino child) comes up 90 per cent shy of the daily vitamin-A requirement calculated by the World Health Organization. Based on that amount, it would take a minimum of 1,550 grams - four pounds daily - (older children need twice that) to prevent vitamin-A deficiency. They also point out that in poverty-stricken African countries like Ethiopia and Somalia, rice isn't consumed in high enough quantities.

Another problem is that the body can only convert beta-carotene into vitamin A when fat is present in the diet. This is a nutrient that is absent from the diets of most malnourished children. Chronic diarrhea and zinc deficiency - common problems among the malnourished - inhibit proper absorption.

None of this stopped the biotechnology industry from launching a new ad campaign that claims golden rice will "help prevent blindness and infection in millions of children" throughout the world. More than $100-million was invested in creating golden rice and $50-million to advertise biotechnology's benefits.

Biotech companies are poised to introduce nutritionally altered rice, lettuce and other foods in North America. Fifty-six field trials for GM wheat are underway in Canada. Their biggest deficiency is public support.

"It is shameful that the biotech industry is using starving children to promote a dubious product," says Michael Khoo of Greenpeace, which asked the Advertising Standards Council to pull the ads. "This isn't about solving childhood blindness, it's about solving biotech's public relations problem."

After a similar campaign in 1998, Monsanto was forced to withdraw a European TV commercial using images of the poor and hungry to sell biotechnology. Leaders of twenty-three African countries had told the United Nations that biotechnology would not solve hunger.

Even Gordon Conway, president of the Rockefeller Foundation, one of the main funders of the original golden-rice technology admits that, "The public-relations uses of golden rice have gone too far ... We do not consider golden rice the solution to the vitamin-A deficiency problem." According to Greenpeace, it has not been proven that the beta-carotene in golden rice even converts to vitamin A in humans.

Regardless, development experts in South East Asia point out that malnutrition only increases when people have more unbalanced diets based on fewer foods. They predict biotechnology will worsen poverty since it extracts hefty fees from farmers who are prohibited from saving their seed. Part of the mistrust stems from the fact that many of the biotech companies that have a stake in golden rice also manufacture the agricultural chemicals that contribute to poor soil conditions and declining agricultural diversity.

In India, high-yield rice demands the use of chemicals that can pollute water, resulting in a decline in fish, shrimp and frogs (read: protein). Another cruelty is that aquatic weeds, also rich in vitamin A, become scarce after prolonged use of agricultural chemicals. According to Dr. Samson Tsou of the Asian Vegetable Research and Development Centre, growing more vegetables is a better solution than biotechnology. (Two tablespoons of yellow sweet potatoes or a half-teaspoon of red palm oil meet the entire daily vitamin-A requirements of a child.)

According to Daycha Siripatra of the Alternative Agriculture Network in Thailand, the solution to malnutrition is radical and simple: "The poor don't need vitamin A," she says, "They need vitamin L, that's vitamin Land. And they need vitamin M, that's vitamin Money. Malnutrition is because of poverty not [a lack of] technology."

Penni Mitchell is the editor of Herizons, Canada's largest feminist magazine. A different version of this article appeared in The Winnipeg Free Press.

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