1.FactCheck: has the environment minister struck gold on GM?
2."Golden Rice" and the GM crop debate
3.Golden genocide

NOTE: Owen Paterson claimed in a Radio 4 Today programme interview, "Over the last 15 years… every attempt to deploy Golden Rice has been thwarted and in that time seven million children have gone blind or died. Young people will wake up this morning able to see and they will go to bed blind for life. Some of them will die today." In his speech he made a similar, although slightly less extreme, claim. These articles show that his claims about Golden Rice are without merit. These false claims have recently been revived by Mark Lynas, among others - see item 3. On the longer history of such PR claims for Golden Rice, see:

See also Sally Brooks's paper:
Biofortification: lessons from the Golden Rice project
1.FactCheck: has the environment minister struck gold on GM?
Channel 4, 21 June 2013

The claim

“Over the last 15 years, despite offering the seeds for free to those who would need them, every attempt to deploy this golden rice has been thwarted. In that time 7 million children have gone blind or died.” - Owen Paterson, environment secretary, 20 June 2013

The background

It’s a golden moment for GM crops, according to Owen Paterson.

While the world has been “ploughing ahead” with GM technology, Europe “risks being left behind”, he said on the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 this morning.

He went on to say the next generation of GM “offers the most wonderful opportunities to improve human health”.

Mr Paterson continued: “Golden rice was first created in 1999 by two German professors. They did this out of goodwill at a non-profit independent research institute.

“The World Health Organisation estimates that up to 500,000 children go irreversibly blind a year and 250,000 of those actually die.

“The problem is mainly in South East Asia but over the last 15 years, despite offering the seeds for free to those who would need them, every attempt to deploy this golden rice has been thwarted.

“In that time 7 million children have gone blind or died.”

Is there a grain of truth in the minister’s rice claims?

The analysis

Golden rice is a strain of the grain that was genetically modified to contain beta carotene, giving it its golden colour.

It was invented in 1999 by Professor Ingo Potrykus, who was then at the Institute for Plant Sciences, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, and Professor Peter Beyer, of the University of Freibur, Germany.

The idea was that beta carotene is converted into Vitamin A in the body. Vitamin A deficiency is the leading cause of preventable blindness in children, according to the World Health Organisation, and can lead to death in children.

The two scientists got together with the biotech giant, Syngenta, to develop the rice.

Since then, it has been upgraded, most notably in 2005, and has been going through numerous regulatory processes and field trials in the Philippines. It is awaiting approval from the country’s government regulators.

Golden rice is not yet available on the market. Which is why FactCheck got confused when Mr Paterson implied it was being offered for free.

We checked with the Department for Food and Rural Affairs. They confirmed that the seeds hadn’t yet been approved, but said that Mr Paterson was referring to the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), in the Philippines.

Set up in 1960, the IRRI is a non-profit organisation which is now working to develop golden rice. It has received support from biotechnology companies, such as Syngenta. Scientists funded by Monsanto have also gone to work at the IRRI.

The DoH said that the IRRI had been trying to “give the seed away”, but due to regulation, had been prevented from doing so.

The inventors claim golden rice has been made to jump through more hoops than other foodstuffs might have to. But as yet, prices haven’t been fixed for the seed because it hasn’t been approved.

However, the IRRI said on its website: “Golden Rice is expected to cost farmers about the same as other rice.”

In addition, the IRRI says, farmers won’t incur additional charges for using it, and they “are free to save the seeds for replanting”.

So the minister may be stretching the truth when he says that golden rice could be a free lunch.

What’s perhaps more alarming is his claim about 7 million children otherwise going blind or dying.

He’s right to quote World Health Organisation (WHO) figures. The WHO said an estimated 250,000 to 500,000 Vitamin A deficient children become blind every year, and half die within 12 months of losing their sight.

But, it’s far too simplistic an extrapolation – the figures haven’t been constant for 15 years (they’ve gone down), and it takes the worst case scenario – half of 500,000 for 15 years, when it could have been half, or even less, of 250,000 for 15 years.

What’s worse is that he makes a causal link when there is none. He can’t claim that by not providing the rice the blindness and deaths have occurred, as we don’t know what would have happened had the rice been provided.

It’s also the case that the problem, according to health experts, is a lack of Vitamin A, not of golden rice.

FactCheck asked Allen Foster, professor of international eye health at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, whether ophthamologists working internationally had considered the use of golden rice to combat blindness caused by Vitamin A.

He said: “Over the last 20 years there has been a reduction in blindness from Vitamin A deficiency due to better education and the provision of vitamin A with immunisation programmes.

“Golden Rice has more vitamin A than conventional white rice, however it needs to be accepted by the communities and families in which vitamin A deficiency occurs.

“There are locally available foods which have vitamin A including green leafy vegetables and some fruits. However often mothers do not know that they need to supplement breast feeding with these solid foods.”

It’s also worth pointing out that it was only later versions of golden rice which were thought to contain enough beta carotene to have an effect. So even if golden rice had been available 15 years ago, it would have been an early version that was scientifically proven to be less effective in eliminating Vitamin A deficiency.

The verdict

Mr Paterson has been misleading on a number of counts.

There haven’t been attempts to give golden rice out for free. The leading exponent of it says it will cost “about the same” as ordinary rice.

To then claim that 7 million children have gone blind or died as a result of such attempts being thwarted doesn’t follow either. The numbers are a large and inaccurate extrapolation, and we can’t claim one led to another without knowing what would have happened had golden rice been around for all these years.

The minister might be accused of over-filling his plate with statistics. Perhaps he’s bitten off a bit more than he can chew, on this occasion.
2."Golden Rice" and the GM crop debate
STEPS Centre, 24 June 2013

Guest blog by Sally Brooks, Researcher and Associate Tutor at the University of York, and former STEPS Centre member

In an interview on the Radio 4 Today Programme last week, Owen Paterson, Minister for Environment, outlined his case for a "new push" by the Government to promote the development and adoption of GM crops in the UK.

Interestingly, Mr Paterson’s argument was largely based, not on evidence demonstrating benefits to UK agriculture, but on an account of a project which aims to develop beta carotene-enriched "Golden Rice" as a way to address malnutrition-induced child blindness and mortality, which is a "problem mainly in Southeast Asia".

The decision to back GM crops was presented as a matter of life and death. As Mr Paterson explained: "Over the last 15 years … every attempt to deploy this Golden Rice has been thwarted. And in that time, seven million children have gone blind or died." The implication was clear - those who had "thwarted" attempts to deploy a life-saving technology bore some responsibility for this tragic outcome. Such people, Paterson suggested, "should really reflect".

This is not the first time that the specific case of the Golden Rice project has been deployed as the lynchpin of an argument for policy and regulatory changes to accelerate the commercialisation on GM crops in general. This is problematic for a number of reasons which I have set out in a new article.

The presentation of Golden Rice as a technology that has been available for 15 years, but whose deployment has been delayed only by excessive regulation, is familiar but misleading. In fact, the first genetic transformation, achieved in a Swiss laboratory in 1999, was just the first step in a complex, interdisciplinary research endeavor that has also included plant breeding (to "back cross" the modified materials into rice varieties adapted to the tropical environments of Southeast Asia) and nutritional testing (to find out whether the beta carotene in Golden Rice converts to usable vitamin A when consumed by malnourished children and adults).

As well as bringing more heat than light to an already overheated debate, the deployment of Golden Rice as "poster child" in the GM crop debate has had serious consequences for the way the research has been carried out ‘on the ground’ over the years. In research stations in Southeast Asia, the pressure cooker environment surrounding the project has not been conducive to the kind of open discussion and debate – among crop scientists, nutritionists, public health experts, and others – that an ambitious research effort such as this warrants and requires. Unfortunately, too much hype "upstream" has tended to close down opportunities for open scientific enquiry and debate "downstream", just where it is most needed.

A recent statement issued by the International Rice Research Institute, based in the Philippines (due to be the first country to commercialise Golden Rice) was therefore an important moment in the history of the project. Why was it so important? Because it stated, unambiguously, what is still a key unknown – whether Golden Rice will actually improve the nutritional status of malnourished children and adults. Moreover, it states clearly that the remaining stages of the project, which include both regulatory assessment and nutrition studies to establish whether Golden Rice does indeed have potential to prevent malnutrition-induced child blindness and mortality, will take "two years or more".

It is important, therefore, that at this critical stage in the project, the researchers and their partners in the Philippines are able to complete these studies – and, most importantly, openly share their results, whatever the outcome – unencumbered by inflated expectations and claims generated in support of the adoption of agricultural biotechnologies elsewhere. In the meantime, the GM crop debate in the UK would surely be better served by evidence sourced much closer to home.

Further reading:
Brooks, S. (2010) Rice Biofortification: Lessons for Global Science and Development, London: Earthscan
More of Sally Brooks' publications can be found on her website:
3.Golden genocide
Extract from "The repentant environmentalist: Part 3"
[links to sources in original]

Another emotionally potent weapon that all the repentant environmentalists flock to is golden rice. This is because of the association of the vitamin A deficiency it's designed to ameliorate, with blindness and death in children in the developing world.

It's a particular favourite with Patrick Moore, who has repeatedly used it to berate environmentalists - even accusing them of murder and of a crime against humanity.

Bjorn Lomborg, who achieved worldwide celebrity by branding himself The Skeptical Environmentalist, has also made use of golden rice, claiming opponents of GM have caused a "12-year delay" in its introduction during which time "about 8 million children worldwide died from vitamin A deficiency."

Mark Lynas also directly ascribes the deaths of children to opposition to golden rice. "There are tens of thousands of kids who are dead who wouldn't be dead otherwise," he told the Observer. "Imagine if Monsanto had been culpable in the deaths of tens of thousands of children!"

Lynas, just like Lomborg, argues that these children's deaths were unnecessary because golden rice has been ready to use "for over a decade" and it has only been held up by "over-regulation".

But these claims are simply untrue. As recently as 2008, a largely sympathetic article in the journal Science pointed out that golden rice still had a long way to go in its development. This is because it was created with Japonica cultivars "that are scientists' favorites but fare poorly in Asian fields." As a result, researchers were having to backcross golden rice lines "with the long-grained, nonsticky Indica varieties popular among Asia's farmers". These new varieties, the Science article pointed out, "must not only produce enough beta carotene but also pass muster in terms of yield, seed quality, and appearance". This laborious cross-breeding process and the accompanying field trials take years, and this has absolutely nothing to do with regulations requiring golden rice be proven safe.

After the publication of the Lomborg piece and the Observer article that quoted Lynas, the International Rice Research Institute, which is at the forefront of the development and evaluation of golden rice, felt it necessary to release a statement making it clear that contrary to the claims in these articles golden rice is still not ready to go into farmers’ fields, and probably won't be for at least another two years or more. The statement also pointed out that they've yet to prove that golden rice does actually reduce Vitamin A deficiency, and that community wide research would be needed before that became clear. Yet the golden rice section in Stewart Brand’s book is headed: Golden Rice Saves Lives, Prevents Blindness in Millions.