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Rice That Saves Lives?

by Carbo Friday, Feb. 10, 2006 at 3:51 PM

This Rice Can Save Lives & Cure Blindness. Why Do People Protest It?

Rice That Saves Live...
rice.jpg, image/jpeg, 225x300

Every day, 24,000 people die from malnutrition. The major cause of these deaths is poverty. In a cruel paradox, the undefinable fears of western pressure groups are being used to justify regulations that perpetuate death and suffering by denying genetically-modified crops to poor people.

Rich people can afford to ban GM foods — as Switzerland has just done — and their opposition gives credibility to people in both poor and wealthy countries who intend to prevent this technology from being used at all. Nowhere has this been more evident than the Golden Rice saga, a sad story of ideological opposition to new technology by activists. Golden Rice was developed to address Vitamin A deficiency, which kills at least 6,000 children every day and leads to irreversible blindness in 500,000 children each year. Traditional ideas, such as the distribution of vitamin A capsules by the WHO, are helpful but have not substantially reduced these figures.

In a 15-year project, two teams of European scientists successfully modified in 1999 the starchy tissue of rice (the part consumed by humans) to produce pro-Vitamin A (the chemical that is converted into Vitamin A in the body). This rice was dubbed "Golden Rice" because of its colour. The World Bank has recently calculated that the economic benefit to Asia from Golden Rice, through increased agricultural productivity of healthier populations, would amount to US billion annually.

Activists, always willing to reject the good in favour of the perfect, objected that a poor person would not obtain the necessary levels of dietary Vitamin A simply by eating normal quantities of the fortified rice. However, a new strain of the rice has been developed that would provide 23 times more pro-Vitamin A compared to Golden Rice 1, effectively solving this problem.

Since 1999, the inventors have been seeking to transfer the benefits from this technology to the poor in developing countries. Governments and charities — including the Rockefeller Foundation — were able to finance the whole of the initial project research but not the subsequent essential development and regulatory stages. The remaining problem which has thwarted attempts to take Golden Rice to its next phase, with field trials and tests for nutritional compatibility, is an overly precautionary approach by regulators, fuelled by the sentiments and actions of activists.

Since 1999, environmental activists have argued that this humanitarian effort is actually a wolf in sheep's clothing — no more than a profiteering plot by the biotech industry. Since the seeds will be licensed for free to smallholder farmers and can be grown and saved in the same manner as traditional rice, this could hardly be further from the truth.

While regulators may not share the ideological beliefs of activists, and they probably understand the substantial benefits that Golden Rice and future products of bio-fortification may bring, regulatory systems tend to favour the status quo rather than technological change. This explains why agencies such as the FAO and the WHO have been slow to embrace the project. Likewise, regulatory authorities in developing countries are less experienced, more insecure and, therefore, more stringent than their colleagues in developed countries — although India and the Philippines will see field trials of Golden Rice 2 later this year.

The field trials have been delayed because opponents of Golden Rice insist thatthe plants must pose no risk to the environment. For humanitarian projects, such barriers create unnecessary expense and delay. This is not to say that Golden Rice should be exempted from normal regulatory procedures. In general, regulators have only considered the imaginary risks rather than reasonably assessing the actual risks alongside the real benefit: the potential to immediately reduce Vitamin A deficiency and thereby save lives. As a result, researchers will be less inclined to use bio-fortification to solve other micronutrient problems — such as iron and protein deficiency.

Early next year, the WTO will rule on a complaint by the US, Canada and Argentina against the EU's restrictions on GM imports. The outcome of this dispute may affect the poor for decades to come. Those who need these technologies most — poor people in less-developed countries — have no voice in this debate.

Golden Rice offers an opportunity that must not be passed up. Better food means better lives and better productivity, a chance to break the cycle of poverty that traps traditional farmers all over the world: blanket opposition to all GM foods is a luxury that only pampered westerners can afford.

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LATEST COMMENTS ABOUT THIS ARTICLE
Listed below are the 10 latest comments of 23 posted about this article.
These comments are anonymously submitted by the website visitors.
TITLE AUTHOR DATE
garbage GM Gb Friday, Feb. 10, 2006 at 4:10 PM
Garbage? That's going a little bit far sh(A)ne Friday, Feb. 10, 2006 at 5:25 PM
Moore garbage Gb Friday, Feb. 10, 2006 at 5:37 PM
Kiwis sh(A)ne Friday, Feb. 10, 2006 at 5:52 PM
Bozo science Gb Friday, Feb. 10, 2006 at 6:25 PM
GM Allergies sh(A)ne Friday, Feb. 10, 2006 at 6:33 PM
Hybrid? sh(A)ne Friday, Feb. 10, 2006 at 6:37 PM
Not wise = Stupid Gb Friday, Feb. 10, 2006 at 6:52 PM
Violets & Rice sh(A)ne Friday, Feb. 10, 2006 at 11:34 PM
Not = johnk Saturday, Feb. 11, 2006 at 12:35 AM
Cross whosawhat?? sh(A)ne Saturday, Feb. 11, 2006 at 8:37 AM
differences hmmmm Saturday, Feb. 11, 2006 at 8:48 AM
GM Already Has an Impace jk Saturday, Feb. 11, 2006 at 12:11 PM
for corpor(a)te individu(a)ls Sheepdog Friday, Feb. 17, 2006 at 9:12 AM
ugg. sh(A)ne Saturday, Feb. 18, 2006 at 2:03 AM
You Can't Separate Them johnk Saturday, Feb. 18, 2006 at 7:22 AM
more BS Sheepdog Saturday, Feb. 18, 2006 at 7:26 AM
Kiwi johnk Saturday, Feb. 18, 2006 at 7:34 AM
Smoothie-fruit sh(A)ne Saturday, Feb. 18, 2006 at 8:59 AM
repost for sh(a)ne- forgive me, IMC Sheepdog Saturday, Feb. 18, 2006 at 9:06 AM
guns & butter & genes Hex Saturday, Feb. 18, 2006 at 9:56 AM

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