The mirage of Golden Rice hype
This is great news in GM propaganda terms as Golden Rice was the best poster child the technology had until Syngenta, the GM giant which owns many of the patents on the rice, and its supporters overplayed their hand.
TIME magazine ran a cover bearing the legend: "This rice could save a million kids a year" while Syngenta itself claimed that a single month of marketing delay would cause 50,000 children to go blind.
This sudden passionate concern might anyway be somewhat hard to take from a company that has been embroiled in unsavoury controversy over its child-labour practices in India and that could, if it had been that concerned, have made a major dent in the problem at any time by just diverting a fraction of its advertising revenues, but it also emerged that the very low level of precursor Vitamin A in Golden Rice meant that it couldn't possibly provide the help that Syngenta was claiming for it.
To add to Syngenta's embarrassment, the Chairman of the Rockefeller Foundation, the main sponsor of the project, responded to a letter of concern from Dr Vandana Shiva by saying, "I agree with Dr Shiva that the public relations uses of golden rice have gone too far. The industry's advertisements and the media in general seem to forget that it is a research product that needs considerable further development before it will be available to farmers and consumers."
But now, it seems, the bandwagon is up and running again with news of a new improved extra-vitamin A Golden Rice - despite the fact that there are a whole series of other issues that remain unaddressed. Curiously, one of Syngenta's own scientists raised a key point of concern in comments he made to the BBC journalist Alex Kirby: "All the genes are present in rice. One could make a non-GM vitamin-A rice simply by studying those genes in a more focused way."
Alex Kirby's thought-provoking article, which that quote is taken from, is reproduced below. It makes quite a contrast with the new (and the old!) wave of hype.
Syngenta is, of course, highly unlikley to be encouraging its scientists to study those genes that would make a non-GM vitamin-A rice possible, because that would deny Syngenta the GM poster child the industry so desperately needs, given its failure to demonstrate any benefits to consumers or the poor.
Similarly, the international Rice Research Institute is busy preparing to run trials on Golden Rice even though IRRI's own scientists already have types of rice they've been working on for longer that are *naturally* rich in vitamin A, iron and zinc.
Golden Rice has the money and support to be developed even though it's perfectly possible to achieve the same results without all the uncertainties of genetic engineering.
The renowned Indian scientist Dr Pushpa Bhargava has pointed out that in terms of meeting the requirement for vitamin A, "there are other cheaper and better sources already available". Promoting the use and the access to food naturally rich in provitamin A, such as red palm oil, is one way forward.
The only long-term solution, of course, is to work on the root causes of poverty and to ensure access to a diverse and healthy diet. Vitamin A deficiency, like almost all hunger and malnutrition, thrives where there is poverty, poor food distribution, lack of land and resources to grow food, and a lack of political will to address these issues.
If the will and resources are some how now available to overcome all the complex and massively expensive devlopment, testing and distribution issues, in the case of Golden Rice, why are they not available in the case of the cheaper alternative sources of vitamin A already available, and why are they not available to address the underlying issues - the ones that would make a global difference to the lives of the poor?
The Golden Rice project makes no sense except in a context of Public Relations. And in that context, is it too cynical to suggest that it was someone acting on behalf of Syngenta who last week leaked to the journal Nature the story about Syngenta's rogue Bt10 corn going into the food supply, just days ahead of the publication of the Syngenta scientists' Golden Rice paper?
It must have been very helpful to know that such a feel good story involving Syngenta would be coming so hard on the heels of news of a Syngenta fiasco - a fiasco that might just remind people how poorly controlled this technology really is.
The mirage of GM's golden promise
Golden rice burst on a world ready and eager for a new beginning.
Announced with a flourish in January 2000, it promised to save millions of people from blindness and disease.
It can certainly help to improve nutrition and health in many developing countries.
But, as the publicists' dust settled, it became clear that golden rice was never going to be a silver bullet.
It is a genetically modified (GM) strain of rice that has been engineered to produce beta-carotene.
That not only gives it its eponymous golden colour, but enables people eating it to produce vitamin A.
The World Health Organisation estimates about 250 million people globally are deficient in vitamin A, increasing their risk of blindness, immune problems and other serious conditions.
Improving on Nature
So golden rice sounded like a real answer to a genuine problem, especially since the biotech company responsible, Zeneca, said it would offer the seeds freely to farmers in poor countries.
The reality, though, appears a little more prosaic. For a start, the genes for beta-carotene are already present in conventional rice.
It is just that they do not work as well in the "natural" varieties as in the novel version.
Beyond that though, poorly-fed people are unlikely to be able to absorb beta-carotene even when they eat golden rice. To use it, they need a diverse diet, including green leafy vegetables.
But the sorts of vegetables people used to be able to find have declined in number as the green revolution of the 60s and 70s emphasised monocultures of new varieties.
Household consumption of vegetables in India has fallen by 12% in two decades.
The prospects for golden rice receded a little further in 2002, when scientists published the draft sequences of the rice genome.
That promised quicker results from conventional plant breeding, partly because it established where the beta-carotene "pathway" sat in the rice code.
A scientist from the biotech company Syngenta, which now includes Zeneca, said: "All the genes are present in rice. One could make a non-GM vitamin-A rice simply by studying those genes in a more focused way."
Golden rice may prove part of the answer to vitamin A deficiency, though not the comprehensive solution it seemed to be.
But it would be an answer that came with a hefty price-tag: the persistent concerns about the safety of GM technology to human health and to wild species.
Golden rice looks like being a special case, anyway, because the biotech industry is unlikely to give poor farmers free access to all its inventions.
People who campaign against GM crops are sometimes accused of wanting to deny the wretched of the Earth the chance to escape poverty and disease, all in the name of their own ideological obsession. But some impressive figures echo their concerns.
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."
Every day 800 million people go to bed with empty stomachs. Every day more than 30,000 under-fives die, from easily prevented diseases or from hunger.
The world is out of joint, and it will stay that way until those of us who are well-fed care enough to wage a war on hunger as ferocious as that against terrorism.
Science, perhaps including GM technology, can provide the weapons for that war - but that won't ever be a silver bullet.
"We already know today that most of the problems that are to be addressed via Golden Rice and other GMOs can be resolved in matter of days, with the right political will." - Hans Herren, Director General, The International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology, Kenya; winner of the World Food Prize 1995
"As compared with the challenge of controlling protein-energy malnutrition, elimination of VAD [Vitamin A Deficiency] can be achieved rapidly. The cost-effectiveness ratio is also highly favourable. It is therefore a test case of political will, and managerial capacity to implement known technologies and known solutions." - World Health Organisation, 2000