‘Golden Rice’ and the GM crop debate

Golden Rice grain compared to white rice grain in screenhouse of Golden Rice plants / IRRI

Guest blog by Sally Brooks, Researcher and Associate Tutor at the University of York, and former STEPS Centre member

In an interview on the Radio 4 Today Programme last week, Owen Paterson, Minister for Environment, outlined his case for a ‘new push’ by the Government to promote the development and adoption of GM crops in the UK.

Interestingly, Mr Paterson’s argument was largely based, not on evidence demonstrating benefits to UK agriculture, but on an account of a project which aims to develop beta carotene-enriched ‘Golden Rice’ as a way to address malnutrition-induced child blindness and mortality, which is a ‘problem mainly in Southeast Asia.’

The decision to back GM crops was presented as a matter of life and death. As Mr Paterson explained: “Over the last 15 years … every attempt to deploy this Golden Rice has been thwarted. And in that time, seven million children have gone blind or died.” The implication was clear – those who had ‘thwarted’ attempts to deploy a life-saving technology bore some responsibility for this tragic outcome. Such people, Paterson suggested, “should really reflect”.

This is not the first time that the specific case of the Golden Rice project has been deployed as the lynchpin of an argument for policy and regulatory changes to accelerate the commercialisation on GM crops in general. This is problematic for a number of reasons which I have set out in a new article.

The presentation of Golden Rice as a technology that has been available for 15 years, but whose deployment has been delayed only by excessive regulation, is familiar but misleading. In fact, the first genetic transformation, achieved in a Swiss laboratory in 1999, was just the first step in a complex, interdisciplinary research endeavor that has also included plant breeding (to ‘back cross’ the modified materials into rice varieties adapted to the tropical environments of Southeast Asia) and nutritional testing (to find out whether the beta carotene in Golden Rice converts to usable vitamin A when consumed by malnourished children and adults).

As well as bringing more heat than light to an already overheated debate, the deployment of Golden Rice as ‘poster child’ in the GM crop debate has had serious consequences for the way the research has been carried out ‘on the ground’ over the years. In research stations in Southeast Asia, the pressure cooker environment surrounding the project has not been conducive to the kind of open discussion and debate – among crop scientists, nutritionists, public health experts, and others – that an ambitious research effort such as this warrants and requires. Unfortunately, too much hype ‘upstream’ has tended to close down opportunities for open scientific enquiry and debate ‘downstream’, just where it is most needed.

A recent statement issued by the International Rice Research Institute, based in the Philippines (due to be the first country to commercialise Golden Rice) was therefore an important moment in the history of the project. Why was it so important? Because it stated, unambiguously, what is still a key unknown – whether Golden Rice will actually improve the nutritional status of malnourished children and adults. Moreover, it states clearly that the remaining stages of the project, which include both regulatory assessment and nutrition studies to establish whether Golden Rice does indeed have potential to prevent malnutrition-induced child blindness and mortality, will take ‘two years or more’.

It is important, therefore, that at this critical stage in the project, the researchers and their partners in the Philippines are able to complete these studies – and, most importantly, openly share their results, whatever the outcome – unencumbered by inflated expectations and claims generated in support of the adoption of agricultural biotechnologies elsewhere. In the meantime, the GM crop debate in the UK would surely be better served by evidence sourced much closer to home.

Further reading:

This article was originally posted on the The Crossing.