Alternet  [Printer-friendly version]
July 23, 2003


by Anuradha Mittal, AlterNet

The agricultural biotechnology industry hopes we will overlook
fundamental questions about genetically engineered food. Yet as
of today, nobody has convincingly assured consumers that
genetically altered foods are beneficial, or even safe, for
humans and the environment. The latest example of hype versus
hope is the claim that a new, genetically modified rice will
prevent blindness in malnourished children, in India and other
parts of Asia. Unfortunately, it probably can't.

When opposition to genetically altered food began to develop in
the United States, the industry mounted a $52 million public
relations campaign to extol the virtues of biotechnology,
especially the new rice, for improving world health. Corporate
This altered rice was given the honorific "golden" because a
daffodil gene was inserted, giving it an orange color. This
gene produces beta-carotene in the rice, a nutrient humans can
convert into vitamin A. Because vitamin A deficiency
contributes to blindness and infectious diseases among the poor
in developing countries, golden rice was aggressively
advertised as a miracle grain to end suffering for millions
around the world. More importantly, golden rice was the first
of several foods the biotech industry said would make it
possible to eradicate world hunger.

All told, more than $100 million went into developing golden
rice, not including the money spent by biotech companies to
advertise and promote this product to the American public,
overseas governments and international health officials. For
the moment, however, the only golden rice in the world resides
in a Swiss greenhouse, and that's where it should stay until it
truly measures up to claims.

Developers of this grain have been vague on how much golden
rice a person must eat to get enough beta-carotene for the
recommended daily vitamin A needs. But an analysis of industry
data shows that in order for those most vulnerable to blindness
-- infants -- to get enough vitamin A from breast milk, their
mothers would have to consume almost 40 pounds of cooked rice
per day.

Similarly, an adult male would need to eat 18 pounds of cooked
golden rice to meet his daily vitamin A requirement. In other
words, if golden rice were simply substituted for a daily diet
of conventional white rice, a child or adult would receive only
8 percent of their daily vitamin A requirement. Even so, the
body can convert beta-carotene into vitamin A only if adequate
amounts of fat and protein are also part of the diet. Generally
speaking, malnourished people, by definition, lack fat and
protein in their diets.

But this raises another, even more fundamental question that
the developers of golden rice apparently overlooked. Virtually
all Asian populations eat white rice. Brown rice, readily
available and considerably higher in essential nutrients, has
never caught on throughout Asia. Why, then, do biotechnology
promoters assume their rice will prove popular?

The answer is wishful thinking. Ninety percent of the world's
rice is grown and consumed in Asia, making this region a vast
potential market for a genetically engineered version of the
crop. Asian agricultural officials are highly suspicious of
golden rice, however, fearing that it will shift control over
food security from villages to multinational corporations.

World health officials have concluded that poverty, not a lack
of modern technology, is the fundamental cause of
malnourishment. And they point out that nutritional deficits
can be easily and cheaply corrected with a more varied diet.
Green leafy vegetables, oranges and red palm oil all are high
in vitamin A.

Any lingering illusion of altruism on the part of biotechnology
companies dims when the subject of patents arises. By the
middle of 1998, half the world's patents on genetically
engineered rice were owned by just 13 companies. In the case of
golden rice itself, Zeneca, the company that developed the
vitamin-A gene plant, now holds exclusive commercial rights,
which applies not just to rice but to all future crops that
might carry the gene.

Contrary to the biotech industry's lofty claims, the aggressive
promotion of golden rice does not spring from corporate
generosity. Defying all logic, they are saying to Americans,
"Accept largely untested, genetically altered ingredients in
your food, because people are going blind in India."

As an Indian, I feel strongly that neither Americans nor
Indians need eat these risky and unnecessary products. Healthy,
readily available alternatives are abundant.

Anuradha Mittal is co-director of Food First/The Institute for
Food and Development Policy (

2003 Independent Media Institute.