What ever happened to "golden rice"?

Thursday, November 08, 2007

British Prospect Magazine has a cover story, "The Real GM Food Scandal" (via Arts and Letters Daily) that reminds me of the millions of malaria deaths in the Third World that can be traced to the anti-pesticide hysteria of the environmentalist movement.

Seven years ago, Time magazine featured the Swiss biologist Ingo Potrykus on its cover. As the principal creator of genetically modified rice -- or "golden rice" -- he was hailed as potentially one of mankind's great benefactors. Golden rice was to be the start of a new green revolution to improve the lives of millions of the poorest people in the world. It would help remedy vitamin A deficiency, the cause of 1-2m deaths a year, and could save up to 500,000 children a year from going blind. It was the flagship of plant biotechnology. No other scientific development in agriculture in recent times held out greater promise.

Seven years later, the most optimistic forecast is that it will take another five or six years before golden rice is grown commercially. The realisation of Potrykus's dream keeps receding. The promised benefits from other GM crops that should reduce hunger and disease have been equally elusive. GM crops should now be growing in areas where no crops can grow: drought-resistant crops in arid soil and salt-resistant crops in soil of high salinity. Plant-based oral vaccines should now be saving millions of deaths from diarrhoea and hepatitis B; they can be ingested in orange juice, bananas or tomatoes, avoiding the need for injection and for trained staff to administer them and refrigeration to store them.

None of these crops is yet on the market. What has gone wrong? [bold added]
What went wrong is that another "green revolution" is cashing in on the fact that in the West, facts and reason have slowly been disappearing from the public debate for some time. It's long, but read the whole thing.

One point later on echoes something I discussed here some time ago:
The alleged risk to health from GM crops is still the main reason for public disquiet—something nurtured by statements by environmental NGOs, who in 2002 even persuaded the Zambian government to reject food aid from the US at a time of famine because some of it was derived from GM crops. This allegation of harm has been so soundly and frequently refuted that when it is repeated, the temptation is to despair. But unless the charge is confronted, contradicted and disproved whenever it is made, its credibility will persist. The fact is that there is not a shred of any evidence of risk to human health from GM crops. [bold added]
There will always be those who doubt the safety of new technology, but until the standards of credibility in the cultural debate improve, travesties like this will keep on happening. The burden of proof that genetically modified food is "unsafe" -- or that the drive for corporate profits is an inherently sinister motive -- lie with those who make the assertion.

-- CAV


PG said...

From what I understand, the main problem with increasing the amount of genetically modified food grown in developing countries is that those countries (particularly ones that are former European colonies) have Europe as a major market whereas the U.S. agricultural subsidies make GM-friendly America less welcoming. Europeans don't like genetically modified food. People in developing countries are free to grow it for themselves, but then Europeans may be unwilling to buy from them. Are you planning to force Europeans to buy GM food, or food grown in areas that in the Europeans' view have been damaged by GM?

Sometimes freedom means the freedom to let others be stupid, and that in turn means the results of their stupidity will hurt more vulnerable people.

The burden of proof that genetically modified food is "unsafe" -- or that the drive for corporate profits is an inherently sinister motive -- lie with those who make the assertion.

That's not the standard we use for other things we ingest, like pharmaceutical products. Would you prefer that medications go to market with the burden of proof on the FDA to have some people die from them before the medications can be disapproved?

Gus Van Horn said...


You miss my point about the need for a more rational culture on several levels at once, particularly in your last paragraph.

From my excerpt of the article, recall that the food has already been proved safe. Also recall that environmentalists continue to insist that it isn't, and to spread their misinformation.

Sure. They have freedom of speech and are (and should be) free to waste their own money on inferior food, but were our culture more rational overall, nobody would listen to them.

So, no. We shouldn't force Europeans to do anything. But we should (for entirely selfish reasons) want to introduce better ideas to Europeans.

Cultures do not change by force, but through the adoption of better ideas by large numbers of people. This can only happen when some men introduce these better ideas and persuade others of their merit. Force is not and cannot be involved.

Incidentally, I favor abolishing the FDA, which has kept life-saving drugs off the market:

"To prevent patients from choosing their own risks is to prevent the rational, contextual judgments that their lives require--which often means to condemn them to suffering and death. The history of the FDA is filled with bans or delays of drugs like Interleukin-2, TPa, and various beta-blockers that many would have benefited from had they been free to take them. The death toll from such bans is, according to conservative estimates, in the hundreds of thousands."


Dismuke said...

From the article quoted by Gus:

"Golden rice was to be the start of a new green revolution to improve the lives of millions of the poorest people in the world. It would help remedy vitamin A deficiency, the cause of 1-2m deaths a year, and could save up to 500,000 children a year from going blind."

This is a pretty remarkable statement, if you think about it. Over a MILLION deaths per year from vitamin A deficiency? And another half million go blind from it?

Consider this: a single carrot contains about 200% of the RDA of vitamin A

Next time you are at the supermarket, look in the produce section. You will see that, regardless of what time of year it is, carrots are almost always the very least expensive produce item.

I think I paid about 55 cents per pound last week for a 3 pound bag of carrots (I like carrots so I buy them regularly). I just went to my refrigerator and put some on my kitchen scale to see how many there are in a pound. I counted six (though that depends, of course, on how big the individual carrots are).

To prevent vitamin A deficiency, all one has to do is eat a half a carrot per day - which means that a pound of carrots at 55 cents per pound will supply one's need for approximately 12 days at a cost of about 4.6 cents per day.

Human beings are dying and going blind for the lack of something that cost 4.6 cents per day or less than $17 per year - in today's world with all of the technology and the abundance that it makes possible. I can assure you that this does NOT take place in countries that have capitalistic or even semi-capitalistic economies. There is only one thing in the modern world which can reduce so many people to such levels of misery and poverty: socialism in one variant or other.

That's what happens when you put hard core socialists in charge of food supply and distribution and let them have their way. And now they want the same crowd to take over medicine as well.

Gus Van Horn said...

That's an eye-opening analysis and also shows something I hadn't thought of.

For all its merits, the article is, in the sense of not focusing on the real source of the poverty problem, a digression from the larger issue at hand. One could well ask, "Forget the golden rice! What about the carrots?" (And in this way, it resembles the global warming debate: It discusses science when it could be discussing political philosophy.)

In each case, the actions of large numbers of irrational people can limit the options of others, including you and me. This difficulty is greatly magnified, often to the point of lethality, when the government forces everyone to suffer the consequences of such irrational ideas.

Txangurro said...

Reply to the comment posted by Dismuke:

I agree when you say that it is necessary to administrate food more effectively and not to grow golden rice to save millions of lives.

I do not agree when you say that the reason why people do not receive their daily amount of food is socialism. How many socialist regimes do still exist? Most countries have nowadays capitalist economies and millions of people are starving.

It is pointless to discuss now whether comunism is better or worse than captalism but it is a fact that in many former socialist European countries people wouldn't die of hunger. They had other kinds of problems (quite big ones), but not hunger.

Congratulations for this interesting weblog.

Gus Van Horn said...

No country has a capitalist economy, including the United States. All economies mix, to varying degrees, capitalist elements and socialist/fascist elements of government control. To the extent that an economy is government-controlled (or run by plain criminals), it will fail to meet the needs of its participants.

True. Many countries do not starve their inhabitants, and yet still cause them to live limited, diminished lives.

The evil of government-run economies isn't just that they can kill, but also that they can mar so many lives.