The golden rice saga began in 1999 when researchers developed a genetically modified version of rice that produces beta-carotene (hence the yellow or “golden” color), which is a precursor to vitamin A. Finally, last month the Philippines approved golden rice, which is now cleared to be planted by farmers. The reason for the two-decade delay was mostly regulatory, and caused by ideological opposition to genetically modified organisms (GMOs), not based in science or evidence. The story reflects some important basic principles in public health.

Golden rice was developed to fight vitamin A deficiency, which remains a serious problem in many parts of the world. The prevalence of vitamin A deficiency (VAD) is about 140 million worldwide, with 250,000-500,000 children going blind every year from VAD, half of whom will die within a year. These numbers are despite existing programs to distribute vitamin A supplementation to poor children in developing nations, and programs to introduce vitamin A rich fruits and vegetables into their diet.

The concept of golden rice is simple. Rice is a staple crop in many parts of the world, often being responsible for a majority of calories consumed, but those calories come largely without micronutrients. This is not an ideal diet, which should contain a larger portion of fruits and vegetables. But if the rice itself could be fortified with vital micronutrients, such as vitamin A, then this would create a self-sustaining automatic supplement system.

Golden rice was developed by a humanitarian organization, who obtained the necessary licenses from the companies who own them. They sublicense the technology to anyone who wants to create local varieties through conventional breeding with the golden rice strain. This sublicense requires that the rice seed is freely available to farmers. Therefore, despite the common anti-GMO narrative, there are no corporate profits involved here. This is a purely humanitarian project.

The current strain of golden rice is also effective, with a single cup providing 50% of the RDA of vitamin A. It has gained symbolic approval by the FDA in the US and also by Canada and New Zealand – symbolic because these countries do not grow and have no need for golden rice, but the approval was meant to support countries that do.

Despite what sounds like a potential home run for public health in developing nations, many environmental groups oppose golden rice on purely ideological grounds. Greenpeace has infamously opposed golden rice, writing about the recent approval:

The GM rice variety was approved despite longtime opposition from Filipino farmers, scientists, consumers, health advocates, and environmental groups who have clamored for stricter regulatory systems for GM crops on the basis of the precautionary principle.

There are a few general points brought up by the opposition from Greenpeace and other groups. First, this is an abuse of the precautionary principle. Medicine and public health correctly adhere to the principle of first do no harm, and to err on the side of caution. But this sensible position can easily be twisted to oppose any new technology or intervention. We never have 100% perfect knowledge, and risks can never be guaranteed to be zero. There is always a risk vs benefit assessment with the knowledge we have. Anti-vaxxers use this technique as well, and it is not surprise that there is a large overlap between the anti-vaccine and anti-GMO groups.

Further, the position of Greenpeace and many opponents to golden rice is both a false choice and the Nirvana fallacy. Golden rice is not a perfect solution to a complex socioeconomic and health problem. It will not fix poverty, make the distribution of resources equitable, nor perfect the farming infrastructure. Nor can we afford to wait around for these problems which have plagued humanity for literally thousands of years to be fixed before we take action to prevent blindness and death in poor children. We can take actions to improve all of these deep-seated issues, while mitigating some of the negative effects in the meantime.

Greenpeace falsely asserts that by freely giving farmers access to fortified rice, this will somehow hamper efforts to improve farming infrastructure or address poverty. This is an absurd and evidence-free assertion. In fact, reducing VAD, blindness and death in children, this will improve the situation for poor farmers and other impoverished populations. This will reduce one more burden that conspires to keep them down.

Those opposed to golden rice also argue that it is too expensive, but this argument is now irrelevant. The cost of development was largely donated, and is already spent. Now we have golden rice, and the only question is – should we freely give it to farmers?

It is clear that opposition to golden rice, and GMOs more generally, is not based on any legitimate argument or evidence. It is an ideological position, and also a commercial one. Anti-GMO activism is largely pushed by the organic food lobby, which stands to benefit from demonizing what they have turned into a competing brand. They have positioned organic produce as the GMO-free alternative, then fear-monger about GMOs with misinformation.

The real fear of Greenpeace and other anti-GMO activists is that golden rice will succeed. If it works, destroying all their anti-GMO talking points and saving the lives of poor children, it will be a disaster for their propaganda.

They are also being threatened by a technological development, gene-edited crops. This involves altering existing genes in cultivars, without inserting new genes. In the US and many other parts of the world, gene-edited crops are not considered GMOs, and are therefore not subject to GMO regulations. Europe is the current exception, which does consider gene-edited crops GMOs. Some other nations are still undecided. This does reveal how ultimately arbitrary the GMO category is, but also we now have a powerful gene editing tool that can speed the development of crops with enhanced traits while avoiding the overly burdensome regulations and propaganda against GMOs.

Hopefully, progress will continue in the background, with benefits that the world cannot afford to ignore, rendering anti-GMO ideology irrelevant.

Posted by Steven Novella

Founder and currently Executive Editor of Science-Based Medicine Steven Novella, MD is an academic clinical neurologist at the Yale University School of Medicine. He is also the host and producer of the popular weekly science podcast, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, and the author of the NeuroLogicaBlog, a daily blog that covers news and issues in neuroscience, but also general science, scientific skepticism, philosophy of science, critical thinking, and the intersection of science with the media and society. Dr. Novella also has produced two courses with The Great Courses, and published a book on critical thinking - also called The Skeptics Guide to the Universe.