The Return of ‘Golden Rice’

The return of ‘Golden Rice’

After the 2000 media blitz on the miracle of ‘Golden Rice’ engineered to produce pro-Vitamin A, the promise turned cold. Seed giant Syngenta has now entered the stage with an ‘improved’ version, but the biosafety and social concerns remain.

By Chee Yoke Heong

WHEN ‘Golden Rice’ was first presented in 2000, it was done so with much hype. Its proponents claimed that the rice, which is genetically engineered to produce pro-Vitamin A (beta-carotene), a substance that is converted by the body into Vitamin A, will save millions of people, especially children, from blindness.

However, critics say Golden Rice is not a practical solution to solving the Vitamin A deficiency in the developing world as it requires people to consume some 12 times more rice than normal to satisfy the minimum daily adult requirements of Vitamin A.
Five years on, the promoters of Golden Rice have once again presented research results of a new version of the genetically modified (GM) rice that it claims will have a beta-carotene content 23 times higher than in the first generation of this rice variety. Whereas the original Golden Rice contains 1.6 micrograms of pro-Vitamin A per gram of rice, the new strain, developed by Syngenta, is said to contain up to 37 micrograms of pro-Vitamin A.

To increase the levels of pro-Vitamin A, Syngenta’s scientists scrutinised the original Golden Rice plants, which contained two extra genes. One, called phytoene synthase, had been taken from daffodils and the other, called carotone synthetase 1, came from the soil bacterium, Erwinia uredovora. They discovered that the enzyme made by the phytoene synthase was the limiting step in the production of beta-carotene. When they tried counterpart genes from other plants to see if they work better in the rice, the gene from maize showed the most potential in increased accumulation of carotenoids.
But critics point out that it remains to be proven that the pro-Vitamin A is absorbed and converted into Vitamin A when people eat the rice. Also, it is still not known how much pro-Vitamin A is left when the rice is cooked. Losses of beta-carotene during cooking have already been reported and losses during storage are expected – both of which can severely undermine the effectiveness of Golden Rice.

Better alternatives

Many have commented on the absurdity of offering Golden Rice as the cure for Vitamin A deficiency when there are better answers to the problem – solutions that are cheaper, more effective, more sustainable for the environment and free of risk, such as fruits, green vegetables and unpolished rice that are also rich in other essential vitamins and minerals. Many other food sources that naturally contain a high amount of beta-carotene include refined red palm oil, carrots, sweet potato, cassava, mango, papaya and watermelon.

Groups like Greenpeace believe that Golden Rice won’t overcome malnutrition but instead draws funding and attention away from the real solutions to combat the very real problem of Vitamin A deficiency.

These concerns are also voiced by other prominent figures.
Dr Richard Horton, editor of the British medical journal The Lancet, said: ‘Seeking a technological food fix for world hunger may be… the most commercially malevolent wild goose chase of the new century.’

And from the biotech industry itself, Steve Smith, who worked for Syngenta Seeds before his death in June 2003, said: ‘If anyone tells you that GM is going to feed the world, tell them that it is not … To feed the world takes political and financial will – it’s not about production and distribution.’


According to Greenpeace in their briefings released in anticipation of the announcement of Syngenta’s ‘improved’ Golden Rice, food safety remains unknown as no proper risk assessment on the impact on human health is conducted.
However, the environmental risk is clear. Golden Rice could cross-pollinate with wild and weedy relatives to contaminate wild rice forever. If a hazardous, unexpected effect arises with the GM rice, e.g. increased toxicity or susceptibility to disease, there could be no withdrawal of the gene because of contamination. This could undermine the food security of a region if the problem is widespread. It concludes that ‘When the risk is high, the potential consequences devastating, and the benefits unclear, precaution is called for.’

Greenpeace pointed out that since Golden Rice was presented in 2000, solutions such as increased food diversity, vitamin supplements and home gardening have proven to be working solutions for Vitamin A deficiency. While Vitamin A deficiency is still a serious problem in countries such as Bangladesh, Indonesia, Vietnam, Nepal and the Philippines, these solutions helped to virtually eliminate Vitamin-A-related blindness in children. There are also traditional rice varieties that could combat Vitamin A deficiency. A number of regional varieties of rice have been identified so far which naturally contain a certain amount of beta-carotene.

According to scientist Mae-Wan Ho of the Institute of Science in Society, Vitamin A deficiency is accompanied by deficiencies in iron, iodine and a host of micronutrients, all of which come from the substitution of a traditionally varied diet with one based on monoculture crops of the Green

The real cure is to re-introduce agricultural biodiversity in many forms of sustainable agriculture already being practised successfully by tens of millions of farmers all over the world.

There are ways to combat Vitamin A deficiency using existing methods, without resorting to the high-risk strategy of GM crops. In general, it is acknowledged that Vitamin A deficiency is not so much a problem lacking solutions; the question is whether it is given enough priority by international, regional and national politicians and policy makers.

Successful strategies

There are two strategies which have been successful in combating Vitamin A deficiency, according to Greenpeace. They are the medicine-based strategies and food-based strategies.
Medicine-based strategies include supplementation with Vitamin A tablets. The Micronutrient Initiative and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) state that 43 countries now have formal supplementation programmes reaching at least two-thirds of all young children, and that 10 of these have virtually eliminated Vitamin A deficiency.
Food-based strategies include ‘home gardens’, where vegetables are grown in household gardens. This strategy is promising because an estimated 50% of the undernourished are small-scale farmers and only 20% are urban poor who may not have access to a garden. For example, a study in Bangladesh showed that 75g of Indian spinach, a low-cost green leafy vegetable available all year round in Bangladesh, provides enough pro-Vitamin A on a daily basis.

These successful approaches to tackling Vitamin A deficiency should be given support on all possible levels. The high risks of growing and using Golden Rice as food to alleviate Vitamin A deficiency do not make it look very promising in this context. GM rice is an unnecessary high-tech solution that is plagued with too many open questions and severe potential to endanger the environment and human health.

‘New “golden rice” carries far more vitamin’, Andy Coghlan, New Scientist, 27 March 2005(
‘The mirage of GM’s golden promise’, Alex Kirby, BBC News, 23 September 2003
‘All that Glitters is Not Gold’. Greenpeace Briefing Paper. March 2005.
‘Vitamin A deficiency: Diverse Causes, Diverse Solutions’. Greenpeace. 2005.
Mae-Wan Ho. 2002. ‘”Golden Rice” – an Exercise in How Not to Do Science’.


Patents on rice: the genetic engineering hypocrisy
AT their AGM on 26 April the genetic engineering (GE) corporation Syngenta celebrated with its shareholders how much money they made in the last year. At the same time Greenpeace research1 reveals how they plan to further profit from farmers all around the world.

Sygenta has spent the last five years trying to develop a magic rice seed that they claim will cure blindness and eradicate malnutrition across the world. While claiming that the development of Golden Rice was not a commercial, but humanitarian venture2, they had already applied to patent it in over 100 countries3. It would apply even in developing countries although it had previously said the seed would be provided free.

‘Anyone applying for patents wants to make money from them,’ says Greenpeace’s patent expert, Christoph Then. ‘Syngenta seems to have problems with the truth in general. The company also kept secret the recent scandal involving unauthorised varieties of genetically manipulated corn. The patent claims now discovered show the true face of a company that wants to ensure it has monopolistic rights over plant-breeding, agriculture and food production, without concern for the dangers to people and the environment.’

At least another five patents have been filed for important gene sequences in normal rice plants. Greenpeace is calling on Syngenta to withdraw its patent applications. In addition to this, patenting seeds and forms of life must be banned.

‘Syngenta will undoubtedly claim they are happy to allow the free use of the patent by researchers,’ said Then. ‘But patents last for 20 years and the company can start charging anytime’.

The agro-industry has been arguing for years that genetically manipulated rice would help combat deficiency diseases. However, agrarian scientists warn that patents impede research and plant breeding and jeopardise the existence of farmers who are no longer allowed to use their own harvest for re-seeding.

The patent applications filed for the rice genome are unprecedented in plant cultivation. They cover over 1,000 genetic sequences which also affect normal plant breeding. Syngenta’s patent claims are aimed at the most important gene sequences for plant growth, resistance to disease and nutritional content. All genes with a similar structure and function in other varieties of plant are even included in the claims. – Greenpeace International


2 Nature Biotechnology, 23, 2005
3 (WO 04/085656) Countries included in the patent application are India, China, the Philippines and 16 African nations

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