Mar 08 2019

Golden Rice Finally Released in Bangladesh

Bangladesh has cleared the way for the cultivation of golden rice, with the first plantings 2-3 months away. This is great news. Golden rice is genetically modified to have higher levels of beta-carotene, a precursor to vitamin A. Bangladesh is a perfect country for use of this crop because of high levels of vitamin A deficiency, and rice is a staple crop.

According to the WHO:

An estimated 250 000 to 500 000 vitamin A-deficient children become blind every year, half of them dying within 12 months of losing their sight.

That is a huge health burden, mostly on poor children. In response to this, an international consortium has been working on potential solutions using biotechnology.

Rice is the primary food staple for over half of the world’s population, but it is also a very poor source of essential micronutrients and protein. Accordingly, human micronutrient deficiencies are prevalent in many rice-consuming regions, especially throughout the developing world where poverty exacerbates the problem of insufficient intake of animal products and other nutrient-dense foods. To reduce the global incidence of these nutritional disorders, a transgenic approach will be applied to improve the nutritional value of rice, with a specific focus on combining provitamin A and vitamin E in the rice grain and to increase the protein content to achieve a balanced composition of essential amino acids. Golden Rice will be combined with high iron lines. In addition, the knowledge necessary to enhance the bioavailability of iron and zinc in target crops will be generated. This will be achieved by identifying the corresponding QTLs in the model plant ArabidopsisGolden Rice and other engineered rice lines with stacked traits will be incorporated into ongoing breeding and seed delivery programmes for developing countries. The products generated will be made freely available to low-income farmers to address these deficiencies inherent to rice-based diets on a global scale.

Sounds like a solid plan – fortify staple crops with needed micronutrients and make them freely available to poor farmers. No reasonable person could have a problem with that. But of course ideologues are rarely reasonable, almost by definition. And the propaganda they spread can be very effective at misinformation.

It is a good rule of thumb that if one side in a debate routinely lies in order to defend their position, that position is likely weak and lacks valid support. In response to the imminent release of golden rice, anti-GMO activists are panicking. They cannot allow GMOs as a category to have a perceived “win.” How dare GMO proponents save starving poor children. What kind of evil plot is this? Oh, you think I’m joking. That is their actual position.

In an article titled: “Beware of the GMO trap! Golden Rice release in Bangladesh a marketing tool for GMOs,” anti-GMO activists argue:

“Proponents are using Golden Rice not as solution to micronutrient deficiency, but as a marketing tool for other GMOs that will only benefit the agrochemical companies that develop them,” said Cris Panerio, National Coordinator of MASIPAG and lead convenor of SGRN. “Promoted as a ‘humanitarian’ project, Golden Rice will try to condition the acceptance of the people to unsafe and unnecessary crops.”

At this point, if you have any self-respect, you should be imagining Admiral Ackbar from Return of the Jedi saying, “It’s a trap!”

This is a good example of, no good deed goes unpunished. Seriously – a humanitarian group, using donated money allows free access to corporate patents and develops a crop whose only purpose is to improve nutrition, targeting the poorest and most needy people in the world, and giving away the results for free – and some how this is an evil corporate plot. This is, simply put, a lie. Anyone can look up the golden rice project and see what they are about.

But the lies keep coming, supporting the standard anti-GMO narrative. They have to lie to support their narrative, because it is a fantasy and a conspiracy theory. Here is another lie:

“Farmers’ seeds, land and rights are being snatched away because multinational companies want farmers to be dependent on them for seeds,” said Anowar. “As a result, the process of preserving and producing the own seeds of the farmers will be disrupted. Farmers will lose their sovereignty over traditional seeds.”

The consortium has one overriding rule – any crops that result from their project are to be given – for free – to poor farmers. How is giving free seeds to farmers taking away their rights? This also perpetuates the – farmers saving their own seeds – mythology. When farmers have the opportunity to buy seeds every year, they generally choose to do so, because it is a massive time and resource saver. Saving seeds is a lot of work. It’s cheaper to just buy them. And in this case – they are just being given the seeds. Even if farmers want to save their seeds, they can go right ahead and do so. No one is stopping them or taking away their “sovereignty.”

Another lie is that golden rice doesn’t work. This always seems to crop up as a strategy of science deniers. Anti-GMO propaganda in this way is virtually identical to anti-vaccine propaganda. Antivaxxers claim not only that vaccines have not demonstrated safety (they have) but they don’t work (they do). Similarly, anti-GMO activists lie about the evidence for the vitamin A content and availability of golden rice.

The above article repeats this blatant deception. They write:

In its 2018 approval, the US Food and Drug Administration (US FDA) concluded that “the level of beta-carotene in Golden Rice is too low to warrant a nutrient content claim.”

I already debunked this bit of nonsense:

The FDA has specific rules for labeling of approved food products. In order to claim that a food is fortified with a specific vitamin, it has to include a specific amount based on typical American consumption. But the typical southeast Asian eats 25 times the rice of the typical American. So the amount of beta-carotene in the golden rice is not sufficient, given levels of consumption, to be significant for an average American, but is significant for a child growing up in southeast Asia with Vitamin A deficiency.

Rice was targeted because it is a staple crop for half the world, including much of the world that is poor and undernourished – which does not include the US.

The other lie is that golden rice is not needed.

“Farmers from the Philippines, India, Indonesia, Vietnam and other rice-growing countries are in solidarity with the Bangladesh farmers on rejecting the commercialization plan of Golden Rice. Poverty and genuine development must be addressed to ensure that the people have access to diversified, safe and healthy food, and sustainable livelihood. We must resist Golden Rice together as a global community and assert our food sovereignty.”

Right – all we have to do is fix poverty, change the farming and eating habits that people have had for centuries, completely rework the farming infrastructure of half the world, and find a way to produce enough calories to replace a staple crop. That’s much easier than just planting golden rice. What were we thinking?

The anti-GMO movement, largely fueled by well-fed Westerners and the organic food lobby, then does some astroturfing – they create the appearance of a grassroots movement against GMOs. They do this by lying outright to poor farmers and then getting them to organize against GMOs, based on those lies. They then point to the fake fear and outrage they generated as evidence they were right. And then they lie about the results.

For example, in Bangladesh Bt brinjal has been a wonderful success. A 2018 study shows that Bt brinjal improves yield, reduces pesticide use, and makes poor farmer a lot more money. For this reason, the farmers are clamoring for more Bt brinjal – why would’t they. This is despite the fact that they are being lied to about the brinjal being unsafe and being a Western plot to harm them and take over their land. The results, however, are just too good to ignore.

I have been following the story of golden rice (and the brinjal story is also good) because it represents a complete failure of anti-GMO propaganda. It breaks all of their talking points. Golden rice is not about using chemicals, it is not patented, no big corporation is benefiting, the seeds are given freely to poor farmers, and the only goal is to improve nutrition for poor people, especially children, and to reduce their health burden. What more could you ask for?

The actual situation so thoroughly flies in the face of all the anti-GMO lies and distortions that it causes them to panic. Oh no – a GMO is about to actually help people. We must stop this “at all costs.” The anti-golden rice propaganda machine is going into full steam. Hopefully, however, reality has too much momentum to stop.

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