Oct 24 2013

Golden Rice – A Touchstone

Psychologists have documented a human tendency to pick a belief and then defend it at all costs. We all do this to varying degrees, and the more emotionally invested we are in a belief, the more extreme we are in our defense.

In fact, a skeptical world-view is largely about avoiding this mental trap by tentatively accepting or rejecting claims based upon available evidence, and modifying our beliefs as new arguments and evidence come to light. Skepticism values the process over any individual belief.

Since reality is complicated, if one follows an objective process it will often be true that any controversial issue will have valid points on both or all sides. This is not always true (creationists are completely wrong in their denial of evolution, making this a false controversy), but it often is. For this reason, one of my skeptical “red flags” to alert me to the probability that someone is an ideologue rather than an honest broker of information and analysis is whether or not their opinions point entirely in one direction on a genuinely controversial topic.

In other words, if they believe that one side of a controversy is completely wrong all the time on every detail, then it seems more likely that they are biased rather than the facts favoring them 100%.

Looked at from the other direction, if someone can acknowledge a valid point on the other side, I tend to value their analysis more. It means they can recognize complexity, they can take a nuanced approach to an issue, they have a reasonable amount of comfort with uncertainty, and they are probably more interested in the truth than in defending “their side.” This does not mean they are free from bias, but at least you can have a meaningful conversation with them.

For many controversies I find that there are often touchstone issues – questions that seem very useful in separating ideologues from honest brokers. Even if you are against compulsory vaccination, you must acknowledge that vaccines work, and that the germ-theory of disease is valid. If not then you are likely an anti-vaccine ideologue who is only comfortable if every single relevant fact is anti-vaccine, and you do not have to deal with the complexity of a nuanced position.

Recently the issue of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) has been a hot topic in skeptical circles. This is a good issue for skeptics because there are some genuine controversies, and there are valid points on both sides. There is also a great deal of misinformation, propaganda, and ideology, and separating all this out challenges one’s skeptic-fu.

For example, even if you are generally pro-GMO, you have to acknowledge, in my opinion, the problems of monoculture. This issue – over-reliance on very few cultivars – is not new or unique to GMO, but is encouraged by it. I believe this is a looming issue for world agriculture that we have to deal with.

If you are anti-GMO then I think the best current touchstone issue is golden rice – rice with genes inserted for the production of beta-carotene, a vitamin A precursor. Let me explain why.

Vitamin A deficiency is a world-wide problem, but especially in poor and third-world countries. The WHO reports:

The available evidence suggests that nearly 800,000 deaths worldwide can be attributed to vitamin A deficiency among women and children. Approximately 20–24% of child mortality from measles, diarrhoea and malaria and 20% of all-cause maternal mortality can be attributed to this preventable condition. Africa and South-East Asia have the highest burden of disease.

In addition 250,000 to 500,000 children become blind every year due to vitamin A deficiency. This is a massive cause of preventable morbidity and mortality in children.

Rice is a staple food, especially in those parts of the world where vitamin A deficiency is a problem. Adding vitamin A to rice is like adding iodine to salt, or calcium to milk – putting a deficient nutrient into a food staple to have the broadest impact on the population. It’s a no-brainer, and it would work.

Implementation of golden rice, however, has been held up for years by anti-GMO activists and fear of “frankenfood”.

The reason this is such a good touchstone issue is that all the usual objections to GMO are not relevant here. Golden rice would not increase the use of a pesticide or herbicide. It is not introducing a novel protein to human consumption. The genes come from other plants, already present in food consumed by humans. There is no risk of spreading resistance or unwanted properties to wild plants.

Golden rice is the golden child of GMO, with the potential to save millions of poor children from premature death and blindness. Being against golden rice is really a hard sell for anti-GMO activists.

Here is what they say:

Promoters of golden rice have not proven that it will work. First, the concept here is so simple that not much proof is necessary. When a fortuitous mutation created the first orange carrots in Europe (orange from beta-carotene) orange carrots became an important staple, dramatically reducing vitamin A deficiency. African farmers have bred a variety of sweet potatoes (which already have beta-carotene) with increased beta-carotene, and this has increased vitamin A levels in populations fed this sweet potato. Increased intake of vitamin A treats vitamin A deficiency.

In addition, there are studies that show that golden rice leads to increased vitamin A levels in those that consume it, sufficient to prevent blindness. However, anti-GMO activists have dismissed this study over ethical controversies – there is some controversy over whether parents were given sufficient information that their children would be eating GMO food. This controversy has nothing to do with the results of the study, however.

Another objection is that there are other methods to fight Vitamin A deficiency – supplements and introducing other vitamin A rich foods. These methods can help, but there are already programs in place and they are having little impact. The problem is that the very locations where vitamin A deficiency is rampant are poor and lack the infrastructure to effectively implement such programs. Whereas swapping out existing rice with golden rice does not require any new distribution infrastructure.

Greenpeace International opposes golden rice. They give three reasons: They cite the reason I discussed above, that the money would be better spent on traditional nutritional programs. This is a false dichotomy, we can and should do it all. (Plus the money has already been spent on the development of golden rice, so it’s not even relevant.)

They also argue that contamination from GE rice to non-GE rice would compromise the market for those who are anti-GM. This is circular reasoning, however.  Finally they argue that some populations have expressed resistance to golden rice. This is more circular reasoning – we should be against golden rice because some people are against golden rice.

They go on to list their reasons for generic opposition to GM. They also make the vacuous argument that golden rice does not address the underlying problem – poverty. Sure, you fix world poverty, meanwhile let’s let millions of poor children die or go blind. This is the same logic as CAM advocates who deride treating symptoms rather than the “underlying” cause of an illness. This is a false choice, and while we are searching for cures, I’m sure people would like to have their pain and other symptoms managed.


Golden rice is an excellent example, in my opinion, of the difference between reason and ideology. GMO technology is a complex topic – it’s a powerful tool that can cause both harm and good. We need to be cautious about this new technology, but not frightened children or luddites. If used carefully and with proper regulation, GMO technology can be a useful contribution to global agriculture.

Further, each GMO crop needs to be evaluated on its own merits. Those who make sweeping statements about all GMO are likely acting out of ideology, not logic and evidence. Some GMO crops can be harmful, others can be useless, while still others can save millions of children from death or blindness. We should be focused on individual crops, not the technology itself.

Golden rice has become the poster child for GMO advocates, for good reason. This one GMO crop seems to be a fairly solid case for the potential benefits of GMO. Opposition to golden rice, from what I can tell, is not based upon any solid reasoning or evidence concerning golden rice itself, but ideological opposition to all GMO.

Ideology can be a powerful and harmful force. It can even lead an organization that believes it is dedicated to humanitarian efforts to oppose a technology which could save millions of poor children. This has led UK environmental secretary Owen Paterson to declare such opposition “wicked.” This is political hyperbole, but I agree that the result (if not the intent) is wicked.

Ideology can lead good people with good intentions to do wicked things.

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