Ministers should support safer, sustainable alternatives for curbing vitamin A deficiency
A final decision on the release of GM golden rice will be made today by Bangladesh agriculture and environment ministers, following a recently reported impromptu meeting of the ministries with Nobel Peace Laureate Richard Roberts, who enquired about developments regarding the release of golden rice during his recent visit to the country.
Roberts is chief scientific officer for New England Biolabs, which develops products for the biotech industry. He consistently fails to declare this interest in his promotional activities for golden rice.
Golden rice, genetically modified to express the vitamin A precursor beta-carotene, is touted to address vitamin A deficiency (VAD) among children and mothers in developing countries such as Bangladesh, the Philippines, India and Indonesia. However, though golden rice is designed to be consumed by these vulnerable sectors, no safety tests have ever been conducted to ascertain that golden rice is safe to eat and will have no long-term effects among its consumers.
The Stop Golden Rice Network (SGRN), a coalition of more than 30 organizations across Asia, has appealed to the Bangladesh government, particularly the ministries of agriculture and environment, to protect the safety of the people and halt the commercialization of golden rice. The Network said in a statement that the fact that the government has not yet released golden rice "gives the farmers and consumers hope that they are still closely studying its health and environmental safety because we believe that the perceived benefits from the GM rice are gravely outweighed by the risks it poses to human health and crops diversity".
The beta-carotene in golden rice has been found to be of minimal or even negligible value. The US FDA stated that “the concentration of β-carotene in GR2E rice is too low to warrant a nutrient content claim". Local and traditional foods that are easily available and affordable have a higher amount of beta-carotene, but the erosion of food diversity due largely to chemical-based farming is seen as one of the leading causes of malnutrition problems.
Also, this already meagre amount of beta-carotene degrades fast after harvesting and processing, which includes cooking the rice. Farmers are recommended to vacuum-pack and refrigerate the unmilled paddy rice to save the beta-carotene, a practice that is unheard of in any rice-planting community.
In addition, vitamin A deficiency, like any other nutrient lack, is primarily caused by hunger and poverty. Though Bangladesh is reported to have made significant reductions in its poverty rates, millions of families still remain below the poverty line without sufficient income to afford the basic needs for the family, including a healthy and balanced diet.
The SGRN agrees that the health of children and mothers is of paramount importance. It stated, "VAD has been addressed through a mixture of efforts, including conventional food fortification. It is crucial to have a balanced diet that not only includes the leafy greens and fruits, but also meat or fish as source of good fats and oil to better absorb the vitamin A. By supporting and promoting diversity in farming and in the diets, sustainable agriculture and the protection of farmers’ rights to land, seeds and appropriate technologies, hunger and malnutrition can be addressed in a safe and sustainable way."
Golden rice proponents claim that it is a crime to prevent its release. SGRN responded, "The only crime being committed is turning a blind eye to increasing control of corporations, neoliberalization of food and agriculture, land grabs and climate injustice that are driving millions of peasant families and poor communities into malnutrition and hunger."
Source: Stop Golden Rice! Network