Jan 15 2015

Marketing Biofortified GMOs

The first generation of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to hit the market mainly possessed agronomic traits, such as insect resistance and herbicide tolerance. These traits mainly benefit farmers, and when consumers accept such produce they expect them to be cheaper because of the increased efficiency.

There is a second generation of GMOs waiting in the wings, however, that have biofortified traits that can directly benefit the consumer. A recent article in Nature Biotechnology reviews these GMOs and marketing research about their acceptability.

There are six GMO staple crops ready for the market but awaiting regulatory approval. These include golden rice fortified with vitamin A, which has been held up in regulation for 15 years. Other products include rice fortified with folate, and multi-fortified crops such as corn fortified with vitamin A, folate, and vitamin C.

It is also possible to increase mineral content, such as iron, zinc, and copper. This can be done by increasing uptake by the roots, transport to edible tissues, or bioavailability (ability to be absorbed once eaten).

The recent review includes research that indicates most consumers would be willing to pay a premium of 20-70% for produce that has enhanced nutrition.

Further, they are effective and cost-effective interventions. The authors write:

The cost effectiveness of enhancing several micronutrients simultaneously is by far the most promising option because it generates aggregated health benefits at a relatively low additional cost ($1.9–9.6 per DALY saved); followed by Golden Rice and folate-biofortified rice. Even so, all transgenic, biofortified rice varieties fall well below the standard benchmark for evaluating micronutrient interventions (i.e., the upper boundary for highly cost-effective interventions of $267.4 per DALY saved in 2013, as set by the World Bank25). This demonstrates that from a public health perspective, these interventions are a worthwhile undertaking.

“DALY” is a disability adjusted life year. Not only are they cost effective up front, much of the cost is in development, and so once they are on the market the ongoing costs will be much lower.

The anti-GMO lobby has been deliberate, in my opinion, in opposing these biofortified GMOs. They run contrary to the narrative they have developed to scare people away from a safe and proven technology. The anti-GMO lobby has a significant overlap with the organic lobby (some believe it is the organic lobby) because opposition to GMOs is proven to benefit the growing organic industry.

The anti-GMO narrative pretends that GMO equals pesticides (referring to Bt crops and glyphosate tolerant crops). This strategy has been successful – I read many articles and comments that talk about GMOs as if they are all about adding pesticides to food. This is part of the strategy to demonize this technology.

Another part of the narrative is to equate GMOs with big agriculture companies, Monsanto being presented as evil incarnate.  It’s easy to demonize large corporations, because they do tend to act in their own interests and will often push the limits of being a good corporate citizen. But the anti-Monsanto narrative is largely built on lies and myths.

The challenge for the anti-GMO lobby is that this second generation of GM crops breaks many of their anti-GMO talking points. The biofortified organisms improve the quality of food, and have nothing to do with pesticides. They were also mostly developed by universities, and represent many different countries. The current research finds that they are acceptable to consumers in many countries as well, including Brazil, China, France, Italy, New Zealand, India, Malaysia, the US and the Philippines (many of which struggle with poor nutrition). This breaks yet another anti-GMO narrative – that of western imperialism raping third world countries. Many are also open source, and so are not protected by patents, breaking yet another anti-GMO talking point.

These biofortified GMOs are the Achilles heel of the anti-GMO lobby. They have the potential to show the world that GMO technology can be open source, international, have no environmental risks or connection to pesticides, may have no issues with cross-contamination, are not connected to Monsanto or Big Agro, and actually improve the quality of the food for the consumer. The authors agree, writing:

Given the market potential of transgenic biofortified crops, their cost effectiveness and the positive consumer reactions, one might argue that their authorization could break the legacy of first-generation GM crops and become a catalyst for the adoption of transgenic crops in the future.

They further argue that the most effective strategy might be to create second generation GMO crops that are multibiofortified and contain a trait that benefits farmers so that they would have a financial incentive to adopt them.

Why, then, do anti-GMO activists oppose golden rice and other biofortified GMOs? Precisely because there is nothing legitimate to oppose. These crops would destroy their anti-GMO line in the sand, and may just weaken the public fear and resistance they have spent decades cultivating.

Their opposition to golden rice is very telling. They have absolutely nothing legitimate to say, so they desperately search for any argument they can use.  They have resorted to arguing that there are better solutions out there than fortifying rice. This is a nirvana fallacy at best. Sure, there are other ways to approach micronutrient deficiencies, and these other strategies are being pursued – but they are not enough. Biofortified GMOs would be an additional strategy that can further reduce malnutrition which leads to disease and even death.

Greenpeace had the audacity to argue that golden rice would not solve the underlying problem of poverty. Neither, of course, does any welfare or aid program. Do they really think we should solve world poverty rather than engage in any program designed to improve the lives of those living in poverty?

Opposition to golden rice and other biofortified crops has also caused fissures in the anti-GMO movement. Some activists are not able to compartmentalize sufficiently to allow millions of children to die or go blind from vitamin A deficiency just to protect their ideological opposition to GMOs.

Although not covered in the current study, there is another recent approach to breaking the anti-GMO ideology that would have us forgo a safe, effective, and marketable strategy for improving the lives of the poor and malnourished, specifically “genetically edited crops.”

Part of the opposition to GMOs is the use of transgenic technology – introducing genes from other species, even kingdoms, that could never be introduced through breeding. Genetically edited crops, however, don’t involve introducing any new genes, just deleting or altering genes already present in the plant.

A 2014 study reviews the current technology of genetic editing and discusses it in the context of common fruits. We have recently been able to map the genomes of many commercial fruits, improving our understanding of the genetics of these fruits and how they are regulated. In addition there are several techniques for precisely editing these genomes.

The potential here is that scientists could enhance disease resistance, control ripening, lengthen shelf life, and enhance nutritional value in many staple fruits simply by editing existing genes, and without introducing any foreign DNA.

It is even possible that such genetic editing might not be covered under current regulations that present barriers to GMOs – so this may be more than a mere branding issue.


Current opposition to GMOs seems to be mainly ideologically and financially motivated. It has, however, been very successful in controlling the narrative and scaring many people off a safe and effective technology.

Push back against this ultimately anti-science narrative has been gaining steam as the deceptions of the anti-GMO lobby have been exposed. It is still an uphill battle, however, and meanwhile the anti-GMO lobby may increase their political advantages (for example by getting labeling laws passed).

The next generation of GMOs and genetically edited crops, however, may be a game changer. They are effective, are targeted at improving the lives of the poor, mainly in developing countries, and the usual anti-GMO talking points are not relevant.

Opposition to these crops from the hard core anti-GMO lobby also exposes their ideological agenda, and shows how far it can be taken. They are willing to let poor children die and go blind if that is what it takes (I know this sounds uncharacteristically dramatic, but I can come to no other conclusion.)

40 responses so far

40 thoughts on “Marketing Biofortified GMOs”

  1. MaryM says:

    Like other ideologues, they are also going after the textbooks now: https://www.yahoo.com/parenting/textbook-agrees-to-update-controversial-message-on-107918766597.html

    Precisely on those reasons you state:

    The page notes that genetically modified crops “can produce more food,” “have more nutrients,” “fight disease and insects,” and “need fewer chemical pesticides.”

    How terrible to have that in textbooks, right?

  2. evhantheinfidel says:

    Living in Kansas, I have a scary perspective on how people view GMOs. It is essentially universally accepted in the small town I live in that GMOs are bad and to be opposed. People are genuinely surprised to hear me say that the GMOs being marketed as food cause no health problems-they actually don’t even know that there is a debate; to them, it is settled that they are bad things and it is simply through industrial lobbying that they even still exist. This seems also to be in a strange juxtaposition to the generally conservative views in Kansas. I do think that most farmers are savvy in some ways, but at least in my small town, they aren’t about GMOs.

  3. Bronze Dog says:

    Re: Transgenic versus “edited”: As much as I’d like to think the new approach will be accepted, I think the anti-GMO demagogues can easily transition from talking of “Frankenfood” with patchwork miscegenated genomes to speaking as if OCP is taking dead plants and turning them into RoboCrop.

  4. BBBlue says:

    “Today [January 13] the European Parliament passed proposals to allow EU member states to permanently ban the cultivation of GMO crops on their territories, even if scientific assessments show that the crop is safe and environmentally beneficial.”


  5. My guess is this development won’t stop those opposed to GMOs from being opposed. A lot of the arguments I hear boil down to people being opposed to messing with nature, and no amount of good that a GMO may do negates that position.

  6. Wolfbeckett says:

    Ori: AKA, our old logical fallacy friend the Appeal To Nature rears its ugly head again.

  7. BizReporter says:

    I see your point about biofortified GMOs. You are correct, of course, about the spreading perception that GMO = pesticides and therefore GMOs are inherently evil. However, I personally avoid GMO food products after working as a reporter in the health care and biotechnology industries. After speaking with countless physicians, scientists and biochemists about the possible ramifications of consuming pesticide residues, I would rather pay a couple pennies extra for food grown without pesticides and potential residue. Is that because I’m certain that pesticide-resistant GMOs are dangerous? No. I’m not certain enough residue remains to be harmful. However, there is scientific evidence that suggests it is dangerous to infants as concluded here (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2974704/) and harmful to the environment as concluded here (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3044129/). So why not buy organic and non-GMO if I can be certain there are no pesticide residues on the food?
    As far as biofortified foods, it sounds quite nice. I, like anyone else who read your tweet about blind children, would like to save people who don’t have access to nutrition. Whether biofortified foods are healthy or not is kind of peripheral to my concerns, and perhaps the concerns of the anti-GMO camp. How would these new healthy GMOs be labeled? Would consumers know the difference between pesticide-resistant GMOs and biofortified GMOs? That might be the crux of the anti-GMO aversion. Will the reputation of “new and healthy GMOs” eradicate the work they’ve done to educate consumers about pesticide and insecticide use? Will consumers start buying produce with potentially dangerous pesticide residue thinking that GMOs are healthier because they have more vitamins? I think the real argument by anti-GMO is they want labeling and transparency from food manufacturers – not that all GMOs are bad.
    As far as portraying the anti-GMO lobbyists as this super influential group buying up politicians and political opinion, I’m not sure how powerful their lobbying activities are. Anti-GMO lobbying spending amounted to about $400,000 in the first quarter of 2014. Pro-GMO lobbying spending amounted to over $9 million in the first quarter of 2014. I don’t know, but in terms of lawmaker influence, I think having 22 times the buying power might make the pro-GMO more influential.
    I think it’s a very complex topic that deserves attention. Thanks for bringing to light the negative side effects of blanket-labeling GMOs as “bad.”

  8. jsterritt says:

    “Why, then, do anti-GMO activists oppose golden rice and other biofortified GMOs?”

    Anti-GMOers deny that any GMO can have merit. They routinely reject open-source, humanitarian, even life-saving GMO food as a “Trojan horse.” This gambit is despicable, as it places baseless, unscientific ideology above even the lives of children. I suspect that part of the reason anti-GMOers give no ground, even when it comes to slam-dunk boons like Golden Rice, is that they can’t spare it: there isn’t a single reality-/science-based argument against GMO safety. The anti-GMO argument is magical thinking, tantamount to religious belief. As such, it poisons everything. To abide suffering and death — or to impede progress and universal benefit — because of one’s personal, made-up, nonsensical beliefs is wrong.

  9. hardnose says:


    This article about allergies and GMOs more or less defends GMOs; however at the end it says:

    “The more GMOs are present in the marketplace, the more exposure people will have to new proteins in their diet. The possibility that new allergic reactions may arise is not out of the question. However, automatically assuming that GMOs cause food allergies is not proven.”

    No one on either side really knows, but the current mainstream faith in GMOs seems awfully reckless. Allergies, like most medical problems, are not well understood, so how can the FDA, or anyone, really decide if a GMO is safe?

  10. BillyJoe7 says:


    “Today [January 13] the European Parliament passed proposals to allow EU member states to permanently ban the cultivation of GMO crops on their territories, even if scientific assessments show that the crop is safe and environmentally beneficial.”

    Apparently there is an upside:

    “Johnjoe McFadden, Professor of Molecular Genetics at the University of Surrey, spoke for the glass-half-full portion of the scientific community by saying:
    Devolving decisions down to national level will allow each country to make up their own mind and thereby free up GM technology from the pressure of intense anti-GM lobbying at the centre of the EU. Farmers and consumers across the EU will be more accepting of GM technology when they can see its benefits across their borders”

  11. BillyJoe7 says:

    hardnose: “This article about allergies and GMOs more or less defends GMOs”

    Actually it’s too even handed:


    “food allergies are on the rise ever since GMOs were introduced into American food supplies”

    “this increase is limited to the U.S. and not in other areas where the use of GMOs in banned”

    “GM soybean and corn crops are triggering allergies”

    “89% of soy in the US in genetically modified with a foreign bacterial gene. Sections of this protein are identical to known allergens”

    “[GM] soybean now requires 86% more herbicide use compared to fields with non-GM soy”

    “John Boyles, MD, an Ohio based allergy specialist used to test for soy but now that it’s genetically engineered stated “it is so dangerous that I tell people never to eat it-unless it says organic.””

    “a study performed by John Graham at York Laboratory in the UK in 1999, which found that reactions to soy had increased by 50% in one year’s time”

    “Organic foods do not contain GM ingredients. Buying products that are certified organic or non-GMO are two ways to limit ones risk to GM foods, if one chooses to do so”

    “The more GMOs are present in the marketplace, the more exposure people will have to new proteins in their diet”

    “The possibility that new allergic reactions may arise is not out of the question”


    “northern Europe, has documented the same increase in food allergies as the U.S. even though GMOs are largely banned from that area”

    “The rise in autoimmune disorders, including allergies, started long before GMOs were introduced. This trend is also mimicked in countries where GMOs are banned”

    “A study published in the Journal of allergy and clinical immunology, shows there is cross-reactivity with soybeans and peanuts. This leaves the question as to whether GM soy, which was introduced into the US food supply in 1996, has anything to do with the doubling of US peanut allergies from 1997 to 2002″

    “The prevalence of food allergies in children has increased considerably over the past 20 years. While this increase is partially coincident with the introduction of GMO foods into the American marketplace, the increasing prevalence of food allergies in children actually began 5-7 years before the introduction of GMOs”

    “Furthermore, the food allergies that have increased the most such as peanut, tree nut, egg, and milk allergies are foods that are not GMO”

    “No evidence suggests that the prevalence of soybean allergy has increased over the past 20 years.”

    “There are others sources of new proteins, such as conventional plant breeding…changes in processing…Exotic fruits that are newly introduced to European and American markets”

    “The National Academies of Science and the FDA have concluded that GM foods pose no more harm than conventional or organic goods”

    “automatically assuming that GMOs cause food allergies is not proven”

    “It is impossible to claim that there is zero risk from using GMO technology in food but does that make it a valid reason to avoid technology?”

    Take home lesson:

    Nothing is ever 100% certain in science.
    Decisions must be based on the presently available evidence, not on evidence that you know/think/hint/hope will be available in the future.

  12. BBBlue says:

    Howdy Hardnose,

    “Allergies, like most medical problems, are not well understood, so how can the FDA, or anyone, really decide if a GMO is safe?”

    Conventional breeding methods produce a similar risk, but the main difference is that GMOs are closely evaluated for this potential while new varieties developed using conventional methods are loosed on the consumer without such testing.

  13. bachfiend says:

    I’m not necessarily opposed to GMFs, but Golden Rice may not be the universal panacea against vitamin A deficiency as promised. It’s fat soluble, and still needs a decent diet to be absorbed, one containing a reasonable amount of fat. An egg a day provides both the fat and vitamin A adequate to prevent vitamin A deficiency.

    It’s sounds reasonable that Golden Rice should be able to prevent vitamin A deficiency, but has it ever been proven in the real world?

    Michael Egnor, before he pulled up stumps on his blog Egnorance and moved wholy to EvolutionNews (which doesn’t take comments allowing him to be told that he’s an idiot many times a day) often used to criticise ‘greenies’ for banning Golden Rice, while at the same time banning DDT for malaria control (not true), without recognising that in the real world over-enthusiastic spraying of internal walls with DDT has sometimes drifted into neighbouring chicken coops killing the chickens, and making vitamin A deficiency more likely.

    We should use Golden Rice. But we should also confirm that its use is effective. There’s no point in doing something, particularly if it’s more expensive, if it doesn’t have the promised benefits.

  14. _Arthur says:

    I think you have it in reverse, Dr. Novella.
    I think the bio-fortified cereals are a deliberate PR operation from agricultural companies to polish their glyphosate-tarnished image.

    And yes, I do hope it will be effective (and helps feed the Third World).

    Greenpeace has also opposed the EnviroPig, a swine that generate much less phosphorus in its manure.
    Pig manure slurry is a major cause of agricultural pollution, and pig piss containing half of the phosphorus would go a long way to reduce that kind of pollution.

    Alas, for Greenpeace ideological purity counts much more than say, actual pollution.

  15. bachfiend says:


    The EnviroPig would certainly (if it’s true) reduce pollution due to pigs by 50%. Getting rid of pigs as a food source would reduce pollution due to pigs by almost 100%, definitely.

    I suppose that there are some members of Greenpeace who are vegetarians for ideological reasons. And since I contribute to Greenpeace and am a vegetarian (the global population can’t be fed if we all move to an expensive energy-intensive food source such as pork), I suppose I might fall into that group.

  16. ccbowers says:


    I am not at all surprised about your experience in Kansas. I have remained unconvinced due to lack of evidence (and some evidence to the contrary), that anti GMO sentiment is an inherently ideologically liberal issue for the general public in the US. GMO technology certainly rubs certain liberal ideologies the wrong way, particularly anticorporate ones, but other ideological commitments, e.g. the naturalistic fallacy, or concerns about science going ‘too far’ or “playing god” are not specfic to liberal ideologies and sometimes lean towards conservative ones.

    It is clear that the antiGMO perspective has won the early PR on the topic, since the there are now labels touting a lack of GMO ingredients on many foods (e.g. a bottle of water). These labels exist, and people know about them, while most people know very little about genetics or what GMO even means in a basic sense. In other words, the ‘framing debate’ has already skewed things. GMO is almost a pejorative term, which makes reasonable discussions and education difficult from the start. I am glad Steve has decided to emphasize this topic, as it is needed

  17. Arthur – the problem with you hypothesis is that the big agro companies are largely not the ones producing these biofortified varieties. Golden rice is open source and was developed in a university – no company, no patent.

  18. BizReporter:

    I’m not sure why you seem to think non-GMO agriculture does not involve pesticides. Even organic farming uses “organic” pesticides.

  19. jsterritt says:

    Arthur makes an interesting point, although as Dr Novella points out, he arrives at it from the wrong direction (by assuming biofortified GM foods to be a PR tool of Big Agro). That point: that biofortified GM foods should be a PR victory for biotech, one that in some measure reverses the misinformation, disinformation, and lack of information the anti-GMO campaigners have relied on to control a “debate” absent any scientific rationale.

    To recap the point of the OP, these new GM foods, with potential to improve health and save lives in the developing world, and to offer better nutrition and other value-added benefits directly to the consumer in supermarket aisles, may help stem the tide of irrational fear that has dominated the “controversy” over GMOs. In the developing world, biofortified GM foods are a much-needed, highly effective intervention to combat malnutrition and related morbidity (e.g., blindness) and mortality (death). The sooner the adoption of such foods becomes widespread, the sooner the benefits will be plain to see. Ideologues will no longer be able to wage a war against food science in abstract terms. Rather, their demagoguery will mean taking lifesaving food out of the mouths of children. In other words, they will be saying: “[we] are willing to let poor children die and go blind if that is what it takes” to advance their anti-science agenda of fear and ignorance.

  20. RC says:


    Foods grown without pesticides don’t exist. (atleast in commercial scale growing). “Organic” farms typically use much higher levels of pesticides than conventional farms do, as the organic pesticides are typically less targeted, and less effective. They’re no less toxic.

    In addition, pretty much every plant on earth grows its own pesticides – tomatoes produce solanine – a neurotoxin themselves – peppers produce capsaicin, which makes tissue feel like its burning, etc. Nature isn’t a happy safe thing – it’s a warzone.

  21. evhantheinfidel says:

    With the conservative statement, I was more referring to how anti-Monsanto they all are (anti-corporate sentiments tend toward the left). I do think that anti-GMO sentiments can be bipartisan.

  22. _Arthur says:

    My bad,
    “The grain known as golden rice was developed with the support of the Rockerfeller Foundation and others over several years by Dr Peter Beyer of the University of Freiburg in Germany and Professor Ingo Potrykus of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich. The technology involves modifying the DNA of the commonest rice plant, Oryza sativa, by adding bacterial and daffodil genes to produce rice cells capable of making betacarotene using certain methods patented by the life sciences company Monsanto. Monsanto have now agreed to provide royalty-free licenses for its technologies to help fast-track the further development and distribution of the rice.”

    I was mistaken thinking Monsanto had *funded* the research.

    Waiving the royalties is still a nice gesture. With a nice PR payoff.

  23. BillyJoe7 says:


    But didn’t you read the article on which you’re commenting:

    “They were also mostly developed by universities…Many are also open source, and so are not protected by patents”

    And then:

    “Waiving the royalties is still a nice gesture. With a nice PR payoff”

    Sometimes you can’t win can you?

  24. _Arthur says:

    Billy, I had researched Golden Rice last year. The Wikipedia article linked the researchers to Monsanto.

    I went to one of the Wikipedia sources, it’s now clearer to me that Monsanto isn’t funding the creation of Golden Rice.

  25. MaryM says:

    @BizReporter: if you got your list of contacts from Carey Gillam, burn that list. You need better sources. I wish you luck with that. And best of luck with improving your research skills. If you think organic foods are grown without pesticides, you aren’t very good at it.

    And can you please source your claims on the anti/pro lobbying dollars? You haven’t conflated the GMO issue with other ag lobbying, have you?

  26. ccbowers says:

    I’m amazed at how certain misconceptions stick around so long: like the idea that the ‘organic’ label on produce means no pesticides were used. It’s become cliche- like thinking the influenza vaccine causes the flu.

    But I guess there is more motivation to have such myths stick around as it keeps demand up (fear sells), and the occasionally myth busting article won’t have a huge impact for the passive learners out there.

  27. David Haddad says:

    Dr. Novella, It is my understanding that the scientific consensus is that most people easily get all the nutrients they need from eating a balanced diet and that consumers are largely throwing away billions a year on vitamin supplements. Yet you seem to write about bio-fortified GMO in a positive light as if it would have benefit. Why would bio-fortified GMO food be any different* that vitamin supplements, it sounds like another way to get consumers to pay more for something of dubious value?

    *Other than special use cases such as golden rice for impoverished countries where the poor don’t have access to a balanced diet.

    Thank You

  28. BillyJoe7 says:


    Good question.
    But I think the consensus is that we CAN get all our vitamins from food, but that not all of us do, and that supplements are not the solution because metabolism is complicated and supplements contain only those nutrients that we are presently aware of. Fortifying food, then, would be a better solution. A certain percentage of the population ARE deficient in a narrow range of nutrients (eg fe, vit d, thiamine), so it would make sense to fortify food with these nutrients.

  29. David,

    Also, this is primarily meant for the vast amount of the world that is malnourished, not western developed countries. Poor nutrition is a huge problem in the developing world.

    But it will also help with pockets of poor nutrition in the US and other developed worlds. Staple crops largely provide calories but little micronutrients. Adding key vitamins or minerals to staple crops helps. Vulnerable populations include:

    “Vegans, persons with alcoholism, toddlers and preschool children living below the poverty line, and recent immigrants or refugees from developing countries”

  30. RickK says:

    “Why would bio-fortified GMO food be any different* that vitamin supplements, it sounds like another way to get consumers to pay more for something of dubious value?”

    Surprisingly, there are parts of the world where rice paddies are more prevalent than GNC stores.

  31. RickK says:

    BizReporter asked “So why not buy organic and non-GMO if I can be certain there are no pesticide residues on the food?”

    Let’s not make a false dichotomy – “pesticides vs. organic”. Organic growing uses pesticides. The Bt toxin when delivered by a bacterial spray is no different than the Bt toxin found in some GMO foods, yet the first is organic and the second is not. Caffeine is an “organic” pesticide and is 10 times more toxic than glyphosate which is not.

    Yes, we should farm in a way that has a low impact on the environment as possible. But this equation is not simple. Conventional farming can put more (or at least different) pesticides into the environment. “Organic” farming can take significantly more land and/or energy to produce the same amount of food. Determining which is more harmful is not at all simple. But any rational person will acknowledge that the right answer is not a hysterical ban of any given technological tool.

  32. Teaser says:

    GM Watch makes a more convincing argument to discontinue Golden Rice.

    Golden Rice: Scientific Realities

    GM Watch and GM-Free Cymru, 13 January 2014

    Claire Robinson claire@gmwatch.org
    Brian John brianjohn444@btinternet.com
    Golden Rice (GR) is genetically engineered to contain increased levels of beta-carotene, a precursor of vitamin A (also known as provitamin A). The rice is claimed to help cure blindness and other illnesses caused by vitamin A deficiency in the Third World. It is also claimed that opposition to GR by environmentalists and anti-GMO activists has caused millions to die or go blind in the developing world.

    However, the claims made for and about GR are factually incorrect and unscientific.


    While there have been long delays in the development of GR since it was “invented” in 2000 (1), this has not been due to the activities of anti-GMO activists, but to basic R&D problems.

    This is confirmed in a statement by the International Rice Research Institute, the main body working on the GR project (2). According to the Institute, the time frame for developing a new product is about 13 years, and GR is “still under development and evaluation”. In September 2013 the IRRI expected GR to take another two years before it was ready.


    GR is an expensive and unproven ‘solution’ to a problem for which better solutions exist. It has swallowed millions in development money and yet is still not ready.

    In contrast, World Health Organisation programs to combat vitamin A deficiency are cheap, already available – and proven to work. They focus on methods such as educating people to grow green leafy vegetables in kitchen gardens, encouraging breastfeeding of babies, and giving supplements and fortified foods when necessary.(3) Research by Dr Vandana Shiva’s organization Navdanya in India has calculated that green leafy vegetables are up to 3500% richer in beta-carotene than GR.(4)

    These programs only need modest funding to roll out more widely. They have the additional advantage of simultaneously treating other nutritional deficiencies, as these do not occur in isolation. For example, beta-carotene can only be absorbed by the body if the person eats enough fat. Will GR proponents give out dietary fat with the GR to those who need it?

    Other problems with GR include:

    1. Hidden Information on GR’s Genetic Makeup

    There has been no adequate characterisation of GR in the peer-reviewed literature (5). Where there is secrecy, there is mistrust.

    2. Breeding Problems

    The early varieties of Golden Rice were GR1 and GR2 — both bred from Japonica rice varieties because of severe difficulties with breeding from Indica varieties. In the areas which are being initially targeted – India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Philippines – the vast majority of the population eats Indica, not Japonica varieties. Testing of a GR Indica variety did not start until 2010 and outdoor trials appear to be confined to the Philippines. There is still no published data available as to the stability, uniformity, yields or beta-carotene levels of either the older or newer versions of GR.

    3. Beta-carotene Persistence

    No one knows how much beta-carotene will remain in GR over time when stored in normal domestic conditions. When some GR1 was sent in 2001 to scientists in Germany, they found that the level of beta-carotene was less than 1% of what it should have been. After cooking the level declined further, by 50%. This finding set back the project by many years.

    4. Bioavailability

    No one knows how “bioavailable” the beta-carotene in GR will prove. Only two published human feeding studies have been conducted to test this – a controversial child-feeding study published in 2012 and an earlier feeding study involving adults, published in 2009 (see point 7 below). Both these “proof of principle” studies fail to give information on whether GR would work in a real-life situation. For example, the GR samples were stored at -80 degrees C and -70 degrees C respectively, prior to their use in the trials. This was to delay any decline in beta-carotene levels. The studies gave no information as to the usefulness of GR in real domestic situations and in a typical diet. Also, the adult feeding study was designed to maximise the absorption of beta-carotene through the addition of 10% butter to the test diet – an unrealistic scenario with respect to the poor people of Asia.

    5. Biofortification is Risky

    GR is a “biofortified” product. But there are issues with “nutritional enhancement” and fortification. Due to differences between individuals (old and young, healthy and ill, male and female, overweight and undernourished), some people in the population will get too little of the nutrient and others too much. Overdosing on vitamin A has been linked to an increased risk of birth defects, and in the case of smokers to an increased cancer risk. (6)

    6. No Proof that GR is Safe to Eat

    Genetic modification can result in novel toxins or allergens being created in plants, or changes in nutritional value. New toxins or allergens can appear even if the gene of interest is taken from a non-toxic source, since changes can happen after the gene is inserted into the new host plant. Such unexpected changes are difficult to detect without dedicated animal feeding safety trials. One potential hazard, as pointed out by Prof David Schubert of the Salk Institute in the USA, is associated with retinoic acid, a vitamin A derivative which can damage human fetuses and cause birth defects. (7)

    But no toxicology trials with animals have yet been carried out, in contravention of the Codex Alimentarius guidelines. Many scientists have complained about the manner in which the Golden Rice Humanitarian Board has simply assumed that GR is safe to eat, without having demonstrated it in studies. (8) After prolonged pressure, the IRRI announced in 2013 that animal feeding studies on mice were under way in an American laboratory. (9) But there has been no indication whether these studies are intended to demonstrate nutritional equivalence or safety. Until such studies have been published in the peer-reviewed literature, GR has not been proven safe to eat.

    7. Unethical Trials on Humans

    Even though GR has not been tested for unexpected toxins or allergens in animal feeding trials, the Golden Rice Humanitarian Board, in conjunction with Tufts University, has conducted three feeding experiments on humans. One included the use of children “without adequate vitamin A nutrition” (10). In 2009 a group of 32 scientists (11) complained to Tufts about this breach of medical ethics and the Nuremburg Code. When the research resulted in the publication of two papers (in 2009 and 2012), there was a furore in China due to the use of children in one experiment without informed consent. The revelation led to the sacking of three Chinese officials and the forced retirement of the lead researcher at Tufts.

    The above points relate to the scientific issues surrounding GR. Other issues with GR relate to food sovereignty and security of supply, agricultural system preferences, and socio-economic and political factors.(12)

    There also appear to be issues with corporate control and patenting, which throw into question claims that GR is a “public” product. The Sublicensing Agreement on the GR website states: “The inventors have assigned their exclusive rights to the Golden Rice technology to [GM giant] Syngenta… Syngenta retains commercial rights, although it has abandoned its plans to commercialise Golden Rice… Commercial rights of improvements to the technology go to Syngenta.”(13)

    The statement that Syngenta has “abandoned” its plans to commercialise GR is not legally binding. The firm could reverse this decision at any time it sees commercial potential in the product. And farmers who make “improvements” to GR strains could find themselves owing royalties to Syngenta.

    In conclusion, GR is not a realistic solution to the problem of malnutrition and could well create further serious problems for the people who grow and eat it.


    (1) Ye et al (2000) Engineering the Provitamin A (b-Carotene) Biosynthetic Pathway into (Carotenoid-Free) Rice Endosperm; Science, Vol 287.

    Patrick Moore (on the GoldenRiceNow web site) has accused Greenpeace of “crimes against humanity” over its opposition to genetically modified GR.


    Moore states that Greenpeace’s “scientific blindness has led to the actual blindness of 8 million people, mostly children”. This is a serious and unsupportable accusation that bears no relation to the facts about GR. During January Moore is holding a series of “protests” and “forums” in European cities, with the help of Klaus Ammann and others and with the support of Europabio (the trade association for biotechnology companies), the John Innes Centre and other institutions and organizations with an interest in the promotion of GMO crops and foods.



    (2) http://irri.org/about-us/our-organization



    (3) Tough Lessons From Golden Rice, by Martin Enserink, Science 25 April 2008: Vol. 320 no. 5875 pp. 468-471






    (4) http://www.gmwatch.org/index.php/news/archive/2014/15250

    (5) http://www.goldenrice.org/Content2-How/how1_sci.php



    Patrick Moore’s assertion that GR is “normal” apart from the insertion of two genes is a misrepresentation.

    http://www.allowgoldenricenow.org (Video presentation)

    (6) http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminA-HealthProfessional

    (7) Schubert DR (2008). The problem with nutritionally enhanced plants. J Med Food 11(4): 601-605.

    Also see:




    (8) http://www.goldenrice.org/index.php

    (9) http://irri.org/golden-rice/faqs/will-golden-rice-be-tested-on-animals

    (10) http://clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/show/NCT00680212?cond=%22Vision+Disorders%22&rank=17


    (11) http://www.gmfreecymru.org/open_letters/Open_letter12Feb2009.html

    (12) http://earthopensource.org/files/pdfs/GMO_Myths_and_Truths/GMO_Myths_and_Truths_1.3b.pdf





    (13) http://www.goldenrice.org/Content1-Who/who4_IP.php

  33. kevinfolta says:

    I’ve said for a long time that acceptance of science will come when consumers see the real benefits. RR and Bt don’t feel warm and fuzzy. The low-acrylamide potato is a currently deregulated example of a crop with consumer benefit. Plenish oils will do this too.

    The opposition knows that they must stop the first science domino from falling. The day that beta-carotene enriched rice saves a few eyeballs and lives, their game is over, and anti-GMO heroes like Shiva, Smith and Hansen will hopefully be recognized for the damage they have done.

  34. BillyJoe7 says:

    Firstly, from the point of view of Newtonian physics, the Sun and the Earth both revolve round their combined centre of gravity – which lies within the Sun itself because if it’s much larger mass.
    Secondly, the special theory of relativity applies only to inertial frames of reference – objects travelling at constant speed I n a straight line with repect to each other.
    Thirdly, the general theory of relativity introduces the concept of curved spacetime. The curvature of spacetime caused by the mass of the Sun is much greater than the curvature of spacetime produced by the Earth. But, in fact, according to the general theory, both the Sun and the Earth travel in a straight line through spacetime.
    In other words, neither Nwetonian physics, nor either theory of relativity support the posters view.

  35. BillyJoe7 says:

    Sorry, wrong blog!

  36. jsterritt says:


    “In conclusion, GR is not a realistic solution to the problem of malnutrition and could well create further serious problems for the people who grow and eat it.”

    As Dr Novella excellently counters in his follow-up to this post, @Teaser’s Gish Gallop of scattershot, cherry-picked, often irrelevant arguments against GR is fatally flawed, because it demands that the perfect precludes the good. It’s a nirvana fallacy — and a cynical one at that. Teaser’s store-bought propaganda baldly conflates the mundane, the beuracratic, and the practical aspects of developing food science and delivering medical/nutritional aid on an international level with food safety and with bogeymen/red herrings like business practices of Big Ag (the conspiracy always lurking in the shadows to make Big Bucks off of humanitarian aid). In other words, this spurious approach argues that if GR isn’t perfect and ready NOW, it should be abandoned entirely. Cravenly, this argument also blames the humanitarian developers of GR for its lack of perfection and delay to market, rather than the onerous and complicated international bar to entry — not to mention vociferous, anti-science pushback from anti-GMOers like Greenpeace and Shiva — that has slowed development, trials, and adoption of this nutritional boon to developing countries where rice is a staple food and Vit A deficiency blinds and kills. The facts are clear: food scientists working with (and as) humanitarians are working hard to bring beneficial, livesaving foods to those who need them; meanwhile, anti-GMO activists are working hard to see that those foods never reach the people who need them. These latter do so at the expense of human suffering and lives lost. Even though no GMO has ever harmed a single person, GMO opponents rail against even the most noble and promising of GM tech, using lies and tortured logic (like Teaser’s cut-n-paste) in support of their ideological and anti-science objection to GMOs. Stupid screeds like Teaser’s have only one purpose: to trick others into being afraid and leveraging that fear in support of the anti-GMO agenda.

    It is a shame. Anti-GMOers see GR as a Trojan horse. This is a despicable, militarizing metaphor. It is cutting off the nose to spite the face. It is also not an argument. It is an admission that GM has promise, enough to threaten anti-GMO zealots who will cede NO ground lest the levies break and the truth comes out: GMO and food science have great potential to benefit the world, beginning with some of our neediest fellow-humans.

  37. grabula says:


    “Allergies, like most medical problems, are not well understood, so how can the FDA, or anyone, really decide if a GMO is safe?”

    Through science you moron.

  38. grabula says:

    Per GM Watch:

    “…and giving supplements and fortified foods when necessary”

    huh, fortified foods, interesting.

  39. Mlema says:

    In case Dr. Novella decides he’s interested in some scientific skepticism on the issue (as opposed to marketing research):

    The Problem with Nutritionally Enhanced Plants

    I would be interested to know how consumers who are willing to spend 20-70% more on biofortified foods would answer the survey if they knew that the nutrients were already cheaply and abundantly available in non-engineered foods?

    Some are willing to pay extra for a smidgen of science and technology stirred into their sprouts – under the guise of improved ecology or climate. The industry will gladly accept it’s percentage.

  40. Mlema says:

    Anyone who references Mercola on GMOs can be dismissed as an ideologue. Likewise anyone who says that Golden Rice isn’t available yet because of stringent regulations.

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