This Food Could Help Save 2 Million Lives, But Now People Are Fighting to Block It

A hand holding a jar of Golden Rice which is rich in vitamin A

A global problem: Vitamin A deficiency is a serious public health concern. Around the world 2 million people suffer from it, and it's estimated to kill 670,000 children under the age of 5 each year. According to the World Health Organization up to 500,000 children a year become blind due to vitamin A deficiencies. Sounds like a global problem that could use all the technology that we have, right?

One of the promising solutions is a grain called "Golden Rice." Around the world, 3.5 billion people consume over 80% of their daily calories from rice. Golden Rice is infused with a high amount of vitamin A and is a low-cost, efficient way for local diets to incorporate vitamin A into the daily routine. Yet no one's eating Golden Rice, and over the last decade it's been besieged by criticism, protests and even sabotage. Why? Because Golden Rice is a Genetically Modified Organism (GMO).

A recent study conducted by environmental economists has estimated the cost of opposition to Golden Rice. In monetary terms, it's over $2 billion. But the striking figure is another metric. The researchers estimate that over 1.4 million "life years" have been lost in India alone because this vitamin A-rich rice was not accessible. 

Prevalence of vitamin A deficiency. Red is most severe, green the least. Image Credit: Wikipedia

How does it work? Golden Rice boosts vitamin A levels because it contains copies of a vitamin A producing gene called beta carotene, which has been extracted from plants such as carrots or corn and inserted into the rice genome. Because of the nature of this process, there are no new genes in the rice grain itself, just the plant that produces it. Nutritional studies have shown that the rice significantly boosts vitamin A to levels as good as nutrient supplements and more than the natural beta-carotene in spinach, without any notable side-effects. Unlike some other GM crops which were designed to withstand herbicides sold only by certain chemical companies, and have been highly criticized, Golden Rice was designed to directly benefit the consumer.

Image Credit: TIME Magazine

One of the important critiques that anti-GMO groups put forward against the technology is the concentrated corporate control of the food commodities system. By contrast Golden Rice is a publicly funded, non-profit technology. In an effort to bring wide access to Golden Rice, proponents have arranged for royalty-free access to over 70 patents held by various biotechnology companies. This allows non-profits like the International Rice Research Institute to further develop the grain free of charge, with no biotech companies receiving royalties from its distribution.

What's the debate? Despite the potential of Golden Rice, the GM crop has become a lightning rod for anti-GMO activists. Many groups see Golden Rice as a PR stunt, a Trojan horse that will allow a flood of for-profit, less socially focused GM products onto the market.

Two things are absolutely essential: A focus on corporate accountability and a food system that is humanitarian and prioritizes people's needs. However, solving the world's food security problems will require a diversity of tactics. To dogmatically oppose a technology despite supporting evidence is poor advocacy. Golden Rice is not Roundup.

Yet hard-line, provocative retorts by GM crop proponents like the one seen in this study are unlikely to help ease the situation. Playing the morality card — some proponents have even called anti-GM activists "wicked" — and positioning Golden Rice as silver bullet solution only leads to more polarization.

What's needed is a much more nuanced discourse. Research into GM technology should be encouraged because of its track record of success and its potential to solve many of the world's health and food problems. It's irresponsible to attack the technology without even allowing the necessary, responsible research. Science can and should be supported while always questioning how technology should be managed for public benefit over private corporate gain.

It is exactly this spirit of radical openness and collaboration in science that we need if our civilization is to survive.