Golden promise: How ‘biofortification’ could soon be saving hundreds of thousands of lives

Despite the rapid progress made towards reducing poverty in many developing countries in recent years, high rates of malnutrition persist – and Vitamin A deficiency remains a persistent challenge. One cause for optimism is that new approaches to ‘biofortification’ are beginning to offer hope of improved strategies with the potential to save tens to hundreds of thousands of lives per year.

To recap, the problem, as described by the World Health Organisation:

“Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) is the leading cause of preventable blindness in children and increases the risk of disease and death from severe infections. In pregnant women VAD causes night blindness and may increase the risk of maternal mortality.

An estimated 250 million preschool children are vitamin A deficient and it is likely that in vitamin A deficient areas a substantial proportion of pregnant women [are] vitamin A deficient. An estimated 250,000 to 500,000 vitamin A-deficient children become blind every year, half of them dying within 12 months of losing their sight.”

These numbers are striking, and show beyond doubt that tackling this problem urgently is surely one of our greatest moral challenges. With a quarter to half a million children going blind each year from vitamin A deficiency, and half of them dying within 12 months, this implies an annnual death toll of 125,000 to 250,000 children – a staggering mortality rate for this little-known affliction.

So what strategies might work?

WHO promotes an ‘arsenal’ of nutritional weapons, including “a combination of breastfeeding and vitamin A supplementation, coupled with enduring solutions, such as promotion of vitamin A-rich diets and food fortification”. Vitamin A supplements in the form of capsules to young children are highly effective but time-limited – their effects last only 4-6 months, so WHO says “they are only initial steps towards ensuring better overall nutrition and not long-term solutions”.

Instead, “food fortification takes over where supplementation leaves off. Food fortification, for example sugar in Guatemala, maintains vitamin A status, especially for high-risk groups and needy families.” Fortification means artificially mixing in vitamin A with foods which people buy and consume, and as the WHO suggests, it can play a major role. One example of a current initiative is the effort – supported by Helen Keller International – to add vitamin A to cooking oil in West Africa.

A complementary approach is ‘biofortification’, where the missing nutrients are  bred into staple crops either through conventional selective breeding or – if no genes are availble in related plants – through genetic engineering. As HKI puts it:

“Biofortification differs from large-scale food fortification because it focuses on growing more nutritious plant food, as opposed to adding micronutrients to foods as they are commercially processed.”

Biofortification is particularly useful for reaching the rural poor who grow the food they consume, and are therefore largely outside the reach of food fortification programmes, which work best in urban areas where most food is purchased in markets. Unlike supplements, biofortified vitamin A-enriched food and crops will continue to protect children from deficiencies in a sustainable way at little extra cost as they are harvested each year.

Although it has been a long time in development, vitamin A-enriched ‘golden rice’ could soon be a breakthrough intervention in south and east Asia, where the largest-scale deficiency problem persists. It has now been scientifically established that golden rice “is an effective source of vitamin A” (to quote from the title of Tang et al, 2009, Am. J. Clin. Nutr) and thereby potentially an effective intervention to save lives in areas where white rice is the staple food. (Technically golden rice, like other vitamin A-fortified foods, contains enhanced levels of beta-carotene, the precursor to vitamin A.)

Even so, continued opposition threatens to derail this progress. Much of this focuses around the idea that other approaches to vitamin A deficiency are more ‘appropriate’ than one involving GMOs and should be tried first. This seems to me to run counter to the WHO’s ‘arsenal’ approach – why not try everything you can in response to a crisis which takes the lives of up to a quarter of a million young children per year? A common variant is the ‘let them eat broccoli’ argument (with apologies to Marie Antoinette) – that promoting a more balanced diet is more appropriate than fortification of staple foods.

No-one disputes that a balanced and nutritionally-adequate diet is the best long-term soluton to vitamin A deficiency and malnutrition in general. But achieving this requires the elimination of poverty (which is why rich countries do not have this problem), something which will take time and decades of economic growth in the developing world. In the meantime, millions of preventable deaths will occur, and many of those children that survive will have their life prospects permanently harmed.

A useful analogy might be providing water and sanitation – another issue which can only be solved permanently by povery elimination. As far as I know, no-one argues that charities are wrong to provide clean water in African villages because it this is merely a short-term ‘fix’ for a long-term problem. (And dirty water is the biggest killer of all.) The challenge is to save lives of vulnerable people right here, right now, in any way that works.

That biofortification of staple foods can help achieve this is already being demonstrated in the real world in east Africa, where the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has supported a global effort called HarvestPlus to distribute orange-fleshed sweet potato (OFSP – not unlike the sweet potatoes eaten in the US) to tens of thousands of households in rural Mozambique and Uganda as an initial proof of concept.

The background is that the traditional varieties of sweet potato (a key staple food) eaten in these two countries are white or yellow fleshed and deliver little or no vitamin A – the main reason, together with poverty and a lack of dietary diversity, why a quarter of pre-school age children are deficient in this vital nutrient. The new orange-fleshed sweet potato is also high-yielding and drought tolerant, and in Mozambique and Uganda was quickly snapped up by a large majority of rural households to whom it was offered for growing on a trial basis.

According to HarvestPlus:

“The project resulted in 61% of households adopting the vitamin A-rich OFSP to grow on their farms. They were also willing to substitute more than one-third of their traditional white and yellow sweet potato consumption with OFSP. This level of substitution was enough to push large numbers of children and women over the threshold, ensuring that their daily requirements for vitamin A were met.

Vitamin A intake increased by two-thirds for older children and nearly doubled for younger children and women by project end. For children 6–35 months, who are especially vulnerable, OFSP contributed more than 50% of their total vitamin A intake.”

The results of the scientific study to evaluate the impacts of the project have recently been published in the Journal of Nutrition (Hotz et al, 2012). A second trial rollout in Mozambique has been equally successful, with two-thirds of the 10,000 households targeted in Zambezia province adopting the new variety, with dramatic increases reported in childrens’ vitamin-A consumption as a result (Hotz et al, 2012, British Journal of Nutrition).

HarvestPlus is also just beginning to deploy vitamin A cassava in Nigeria and vitamin A maize in Zambia, as test countries.  Iron beans have been released in Rwanda and iron pearl millet in India.  Zinc rice and wheat will follow soon in South Asia. (For more on all these initiatives see the HarvestPlus website.)

Because orange-fleshed sweet potato and the other crops developed by HarvestPlus are produced with conventional breeding, they have not been subject to anti-GM opposition or unfounded fears about food safety. Golden rice, because it uses a transgenic approach to biofortification, still faces opposition – despite the clear scientific consensus that GM is not a food safety issue, and, as the recent AAAS statement put it, “crop improvement by the modern molecular techniques of biotechnology is safe”.

I am hopeful however that opposition has now begun to ebb, and that the successes recently demonstrated in Africa will convince doubters to come round to the potential of biofortification. As the Philippine Rice Research Institute has reported, field trials of golden rice in the Philippines to date have been successful. Over the next couple of years,  the new locally-adapted varieties will be put through the national regulatory process, and if deemed safe, continue through actual community, consumer and grower trials toward full deployment to those who could benefit most. (See here for a detailed FAQ about golden rice and vitamin A deficiency.)

Public acceptability will be crucial in any roll-out of golden rice, given the intense public concerns focused over many years on the GMO issue. In the couple of years that are left before golden rice goes on offer to consumers and growers in the Philippines, I hope the good news from Africa will help give a much-needed boost to public understanding of the life-saving potential of biofortification in food crops.

62 comments

  1. V.RAVICHANDRAN says:

    Lakhs of children suffer from Vitamin A deficiency. in India They are in desperate need of Vitamin A provided thro’ Bio Fortification. Vitamin A provided thro’ the staple food viz Rice, through Bio Fortification would be more effective in eradicating the deficiency of Vitamin A than any other means.

  2. April Reeves says:

    Wow, this article reads as though Vitamin A is a wonder cure. The human body in malnutrition needs more than just A’s. If you can grow all these “wonder” foods, you can grow natural unaltered wonder foods supplied by seeds that you don’t have to pay for each year. But that would put you out of work now, wouldn’t it???

    • Mary says:

      So April—are you saying that if the seeds were available for free and for replanting you’d support this?

    • April Reeves says:

      And Non-GE. And if they went to actually feeding the poor (and was widely demonstrated), and not loaded into rail cars and shipped over the oceans to commodity traders world wide. But that’s the whole silly system: to make money in the middle as much as possible.

    • April Reeves says:

      And to add one more thing: that this rice assumes the responsibility of not contaminating other wild and Non-Engineered rices.

    • egad says:

      How the sweet-jumping-jesus are you going to get a non-GE rice that is fortified with vitamin A. You well-fed, self-righteous, hipster dufuses are the most frustrating lot ever.

    • April Reeves says:

      You don’t. At least not right away, but nature is interesting if you give her a chance. After all, ever seen a tomato that can grow in frost conditions? Come on over…! Why not grow other foods along with rice. What baffles me are people who think it’s okay to feed poor people nothing but rice! It’s not the answer to the problem! It’s the answer to corporate shareholders! So be all insulting but you know as well as I do that there’s a strong level of truth here…

    • Mary says:

      And the goalposts move. Of course.

      See, here’s the thing: you pretend it’s one issue. And then say if it’s GMO anyway the deal’s off.

      Stop pretending you are reasonable. You are withholding appropriate tools from people who could really benefit from this nutritional advance.

    • April Reeves says:

      Wow, you’re a very nasty woman. Karma is real Mary.

    • Clyde Davies says:

      There is a solution ready right now to deal with the VAD problem. It’s called ‘golden rice’, it works and it’s almost certainly safe. So why don’t we let the people who it’s designed to benefit make up their own minds about whether or not it’s good for them, instead of preaching from our well-heated back bedrooms?
      Or are they all ignorant savages simply being eyed up as prey by Big Ag?

    • April Reeves says:

      Wow Clyde, listen to your words: “almost certainly safe” – not good enough! It has to be completely safe, or are we going to devise another scheme to vaccinate or modify another “fix” for the illness caused by “almost certainly safe” foods… Where does everyone get off thinking poor people can just eat rice? Why do you succumb to Big Corp’s version of salvation? Really? Don’t any of you have your own thoughts that just maybe, this is not the answer….????

    • April Reeves says:

      Interesting: makes you question when a country like China, who’s not afraid to put toxic products into milk, would block GM rice: http://sustainablepulse.com/2013/03/07/china-blocks-biotech-advance-with-gm-rice-and-corn-delay/

    • Clyde Davies says:

      Well, if the Chinese Government is against it then it MUST be a bad thing, eh? I mean, they’ve ALWAYS had the best interests of the people at heart, haven’t they?
      I’ve read NOTHING in this thread to suggest that GR specifically might be dangerous in any way. Appealing to the authority of the Chinese Communist Part is really born out of desperation.

    • quokka says:

      I recommend you go to the golden rice projectweb site and read it – thoroughly.

      http://www.goldenrice.org/index.php

      “Golden rice” is a genetic trait introduced into existing varieties of rice. Under the terms of the free licencing agreement, it cannot be introduced into varieties that are encumbered by intellectual property rights. Farmers will continue (if they wish) to grow the varieties they currently do but the grain will be golden and fortified in Vit A.

      Farmers will be free to save their own seeds, though they may choose to buy them from a seed supplier if they wish.

      I believe they are also permitted to sell seed on a small scale if they wish.

    • April Reeves says:

      Question: how much rice does a starving child have to eat to get their Vitamin A quota each day? I’ve heard things like it was 20 pounds but no human can eat that much. I looked through the site but there’s no reference to this.
      And another question: should this GE rice eventually contaminate all rices, what about those of us that don’t need additional Vitamin A ? It’s a good question, because if you look at the corn, soy and canola in NA, you’ll see that conventional varieties are disappearing fast. Personally I like my wild and brown rice.
      I’m asking you because you appear to know something.

    • john k says:

      Thanks, I shall.

    • Clyde Davies says:

      Answer: Golden Rice 2 requires about 100 – 150 g to meet RDA of Vitamin A. If it were to contaminate other rice crops then the effect would be harmless. We wouldn’t overdose on Vitamin A because GR carries a *precursor* to the vitamin, beta-carotene, and the body doesn’t assimilate any more than it needs.

      Information that’s about as unbiased as it’s likely to get: http://www.goldenrice.org/PDFs/GR_effective_vitA_source-Tang-AJCN2009.pdf

    • quokka says:

      Yes, I rather prefer brown rice, but most people don’t. You do realize that brown rice is just unmilled white rice don’t you?

      Once again I urge you to read the golden rice web site. They discuss the option of brown rice and the issues involved including the problem that brown rice does not store well because it goes rancid.

    • Elizabeth says:

      Though you’re not mentioning that the milling and polishing that converts brown rice into white rice destroys 67% of the vitamin B3, 80% of the vitamin B1, 90% of the vitamin B6, half of the manganese, half of the phosphorus, 60% of the iron, and all of the dietary fiber and essential fatty acids.

    • April Reeves says:

      Question: how much Golden Rice will one child have to eat to get their daily requirement? Apparently the tests are still unconfirmed. And why would anyone put out the money and effort to feed people with no way to pay it back? That rice will be loaded onto ships and exported because that’s where the money is. http://irri.org/index.php?option=com_k2&view=item&id=12483%3Aclarifying-recent-news-about-golden-rice&lang=en

    • Clyde Davies says:

      “Question: how much Golden Rice will one child have to eat to get their daily requirement?”

      About 100-150g
      “Apparently the tests are still unconfirmed.”

      There isn’t any reason to think that it won’t be effective, given the studies that have already been conducted

      ” And why would anyone put out the money and effort to feed people with no way to pay it back? That rice will be loaded onto ships and exported because that’s where the money is”

      This is getting silly now. Given the opprobrium around GM foods elsewhere, who the hell is going to import it? And why? Because it looks nice? It’s vastly more valuable to the people who grow it, unlike pineapples say.

      It’s estimated that it will cost about $100/year to treat a person for VAD using Golden Rice. It costs at least ten times that to treat them through supplementation programs. As Bjorn Lomborg recently pointed out “Supplementation programs costs $4,300 for every life they save in India, whereas fortification programs cost about $2,700 for each life saved. ” (http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/the-costs-of-opposing-gm-foods-by-bj-rn-lomborg#5bSjC8xrqXYSLPAk.99 )

    • April Reeves says:

      So you would be happy to see the entire planet “modified” and take your chances on this? You believe there’s no other way to solve this? It’s not silly! We have valid questions concerning these chemical companies who have decided there’s huge money in owning all our food! That includes you and your kids too! Doesn’t that make you want to ask questions too? Surely you have NO idea what safety studies have been done and the long term health issues over GM foods. Unless you’re sitting in that lab creating those results, you’re just as big a guinea pig as everyone else. I’m smarter to put my energy into rallying, educating and changing governments, as I have been doing successfully in the last decade. Our planet is getting further and further apart from sensibility to greed and consumption. Knowledge is way ahead of wisdom….

    • john k says:

      Mother Earth is IMO mortally wounded and the corporations keep us entertained with all kinds of shit.

    • Clyde Davies says:

      My reply to your comment “So you would be happy to see the entire planet “modified” and take your chances on this? You believe there’s no other way to solve this? It’s not silly! We have valid questions concerning these chemical companies who have decided there’s huge money in owning all our food! That includes you and your kids too! Doesn’t that make you want to ask questions too? Surely you have NO idea what safety studies have been done and the long term health issues over GM foods. Unless you’re sitting in that lab creating those results, you’re just as big a guinea pig as everyone else. I’m smarter to put my energy into rallying, educating and changing governments, as I have been doing successfully in the last decade. Our planet is getting further and further apart from sensibility to greed and consumption. Knowledge is way ahead of wisdom…. ”

      No, I don’t want to see the entire world “modified” as it happens, but this is just a ‘slippery slope’ fallacy masquerading as an argument. Firstly, if you don’t like huge companies monopolising this technology you should be *supporting* GR because it is independent fundamental research, in the public domain, that can undermine any stranglehold they might care to exert via this technology. I’m no fan of Monsanto: who on earth wants to see MORE herbicide being used, but ‘Roundup Ready’ is a very small part of this story.

      I’ll deal with a point you made in another comment, that you think that GM should be ‘totally safe. Do you drive? Every time I get in my car I take a risk of an accident, but most people who do drive are fully cognizant of this risk and yet still drive because they feel the benefits outweigh the risks. Hell, getting out of bed is probably more dangerous than GR, especially if you stand on an upturned plug as I did this morning. So, let’s look at the issue of risk in general.

      There have, as Mark points out, been over three million GM meals consumed worldwide over several decades, much of it in the US, the most litigious country on Earth. If there was an intrinsic risk simply by virtue of the foodstuff being GM, we’d have ended up in court by now, but we haven’t. Now, there is a simple statistical rule that allows us to estimate the risk. If you haven’t seen a side effect from say a drug over n doses, then the *maximum* risk is 3/n within a 95% certainty That is to say in the case of GM foodstuffs, a maximum risk of one in a TRILLION of adverse effects.

      Now, weigh up that risk against the certainty that 250,000 to 500,000 will suffer blindness from VAD and as far as I am concerned it’s a no-brainer: GR is safe and should be deployed as soon as possible. the risks of not going ahead vastly outweigh those of going ahead. Nobody have even posited a specific hypothetical risk that might arise from the particular characteristics of GR itself: I can’t think of one and I’d be surprised if you could come up with anything other than nebulous unsubstantiated fears.

      Unless, of course, the issue of risk is really a smokescreen for another rather less laudable stance: that you think that denying biotech and ‘Big Ag’ some favourable press overwhelmingly trumps the improving health and lives of many young people. I’d like to think you were a little more humane than that.

      So, April, nobody claims that GR is a panacea for this problem, but the people for whom it is designed need all the options they can lay their hands on. Let’s let them weigh up the risks shall we? And if you want to carry on campaigning, agitating and generally opposing what seems – to me anyway – to be laudable humanitarian initiative, don’t do in my name. And certainly not theirs. And as to being smarter than me, well, I’ll let the people reading this exchange be the judge of that.

    • Clyde Davies says:

      “Why not grow other foods along with rice?” you ask. Well this is a good questio. Here is a good answer.
      GR converts 3.8 g of beta carotene into Vitamin A. This is approximately a 4:1 conversion ratio. The authors of the report I cite elsewhere comment
      “To combat vitamin A deficiency, consumption of locally
      available vegetables, fruit, and other plant foods, such as algae
      products, should be encouraged. Each of these plant foods can
      contribute to vitamin A nutrition, although the conversion of the
      provitamin A carotenoids within them may not be equivalent.
      Conversion factors for provitamin A carotenoids from various
      plants have been reported as 12 to 1 for fruit (14, 28), 13 to 1 for
      sweet potato (15), 15 to 1 for carrots (16), and 10 to 1 (15), 21
      to 1 (16), 26 to 1 (14), 27 to 1 (13), and 28 to 1 (28) for green
      leafy vegetables. Thus, comparatively speaking, Golden Rice
      has a very favorable conversion ratio.”
      People *do* grow other vegetables but they *still* suffer VAD because they simply can’t get enough of the precursor.

  3. Paul Buhler says:

    I hope that the European Union’s unscientific opposition to GM food will fade in light of the many well conducted studies that demonstrate the safety of GM foods. Such as ,Snell, C., B. Aude, et al. (2011). “Assessment of the health impact of GM plant diets in long-term and multigenerational animal feeding trials: A literature review.” Food and Chemical Toxicology.
    The summary is, “Results from all the 24 studies do not suggest any health hazards and, in general, there were no statistically significant differences within parameters observed. However, some small differences were observed, though these fell within the normal variation range of the considered parameter and thus had no biological or toxicological significance.”

    • Elizabeth says:

      However, many of the studies in this review did find that there were statistically significant differences in the GM-fed animals compared with non-GM-fed animals. But the authors of the Snell review concluded, without any further studies, that these differences were of “no biological or toxicological significance”.
      This is an assumption, not science. How could they possibly know that, without doing further research? At best, it is guesswork.

    • Elizabeth says:

      The review actually didn’t say that the differences were not statistically significant – they were.

      They actually said that the results were of “no biological or toxicological significance”.

      Saying that something is not “biologically significant” is not a scientifically defined term, so has no meaning.

      If there are statistically significant differences, which there were, they should be investigated by further studies.

    • Clyde Davies says:

      Can you come up with a good explanation as to why GR specifically should be harmful to human health – other than that it happens to have been genetically modified, which is no reason at all?

    • Elizabeth says:

      Recombinant DNA genetic modification produces mutations – unique to this form of breeding. The gene has to be forced into the DNA using a gene gun, or a virus or bacteria. It is an imprecise process, in that it cannot be accurately placed in a particular place within the DNA. See for example the report “The Mutational Consequences of Plant Transformation”, Latham JR, Wilson AK and Steinbrecher RA, J Biomed Biotechnol. 2006; 2006: 25376. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1559911/
      Position within the DNA affects the expression of the gene – so the effects will be different depending on where the gene ends up. Some positions will produce obviously deformed plants, and will be not used. Others might appear normal, but actually produce toxins or allergens, or have different nutritional composition. Some of these effects will be subtle, and might take years and years of human consumption to produce disease. Schubert estimates that this affects about 1-5% of the total genes in the host genome. So in a plant that has 50,000 genes, 500-2500 genes can be affected. Scientists report that in traditional breeding there are rules to inheritance – certain traits go together, but that we don’t yet know or understand the rules.
      Because of these differences geneticists tell us that it can’t be said that GM crops are substantially equivalent to conventionally grown crops. And there aren’t any mandatory safety testing requirements for unintended effects! The statements that over 2/3 trillion meals have been eaten without obvious harm is unverifiable, and based on the false idea that people would become ill as soon as they put a GM food in their mouths. At present, GM foods have been on the market for only 10- 15 years and are still only about 15% of the US diet. Some health conditions there have increased since the introduction of GM foods, and there are anecdotal reports of people and animals whose health has improved when they have cut out GM foods from their diet.

    • Elizabeth says:

      Also, many of the toxic effects observed by independent scientist,s in the few independent trials which have been performed, would take many years in humans (e.g. half a lifetime or more, as with lung cancer and smoking) before any symptoms of any diseases appear. If there are no lifetime clinical trials for toxic effects, and GM food remains unlabelled, it will be very difficult if not impossible, to make any connections between GM food and any health problems that develop, unless it is a disease that is unique or normally very rare.
      This is why there needs to be thorough toxicological testing of each new GM variety, (including golden rice, which hasn’t et been tested for environmental or food safety) which should include long term toxicology testing on animals, and only after that, trials with human volunteers who have consented to eat the food being tested, before release into the environment and for general livestock and human consumption. Otherwise, in the long term GM foods may well do more harm than good.

    • Clyde Davies says:

      “Recombinant DNA genetic modification produces mutations – unique to this form of breeding. The gene has to be forced into the DNA using a gene gun, or a virus or bacteria. It is an imprecise process, in that it cannot be accurately placed in a particular place within the DNA.”

      So bludgeoning the hell out of the genome with radiation or chemicals – as used in ‘conventional’ plant breeding, doesn’t introduce mutations and is more precise? I don’t think so.

      “Because of these differences geneticists tell us that it can’t be said that GM crops are substantially equivalent to conventionally grown crops. And there aren’t any mandatory safety testing requirements for unintended effects! ”

      Oh yes there are. they get tested for allergenicity and toxicity. In fact they are probaly tested better than conventional crops. As the AAAS statement of GMO’s (Google it…I don’t have the reference here) states “In order to receive regulatory approval in the United States, each new GM crop must be subjected to rigorous analysis and testing. It must be shown to be the same as the parent crop from which it was derived and if a new protein trait has been added, the protein must be shown to be neither toxic nor allergenic. As a result and contrary to popular misconceptions, GM crops are the most extensively tested crops ever added to our food supply.”

      “Some health conditions there have increased since the introduction of GM foods, and there are anecdotal reports of people and animals whose health has improved when they have cut out GM foods from their diet.”

      Do you have any idea what has entered the food supply over the past few decades? I don’t but I expect it’s a hell of a lot more than GMOs. Pine kernels of instance keep on cropping up all over the place in various foodstuffs. And there are a lot more ingredients we are eating now that we weren’t eating beforehand, all conventionally grown. And as for ‘anecdote’, this kind of basis for decision making resulted in many children being denied essential MMR vaccinations in the UK and falling ill as a result. I’ll go for peer-reviewed studies that have stood the test of time, preferably in the form of meta-analyses.

      “This is why there needs to be thorough toxicological testing of each new GM variety, (including golden rice, which hasn’t yet been tested for environmental or food safety) which should include long term toxicology testing on animals, and only after that, trials with human volunteers who have consented to eat the food being tested, before release into the environment and for general livestock and human consumption.”

      I would imagine that GR has been tested for both toxicity and allergenicity and come up blank. We could carry on testing for decades to come but we would have to weigh it up against the *certainty* – not a risk – that hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people are being denied a life-saving foodstuff, with all the misery and death that this would entail. Now, unless you can come up with a specific, substantiated reason why the particular process used in producing GR should make it many more dangerous than say a new variety of conventionally grown rice – and this means developing a specifc argument of cause and effect, not just talking interms of vague hyotheticals- I think we should give this crop to people who can benefit from it. In fact I’ll make you a bet that this crop ends up saving many more lives than it could possibly harm. How much of a flutter do you fancy : £100? £1000?

    • Elizabeth says:

      You may imagine golden rice has been tested and proved safe – but where are the peer reviewed trials? The life time animal toxicology stiudies? Can you point me to them, please. And where are the peer reviews of these studies if they exist?

      Radiation mutation breeding is not normal conventional breeding, and also ought to be subject to stricter testing. In fact, radiation-induced mutagenesis is not in itself conventional breeding. A genetic engineer comments that like genetic engineering, radiation-induced mutagenesis is risky and mutagenic. It is not widely used in plant breeding because of its high failure rate. Some researchers have called for crops bred through mutation breeding to be subjected to the same kind of safety assessments as GM crops.

    • Elizabeth says:

      I don’t have time at present to answer all your remarks, as I have a life to lead, but some of them seem rather strange. eg “pine kernels keep cropping up” in food. They would do. They are a nut! Used in pesto.

    • Clyde Davies says:

      Tell me, how do you think new traits arise in crops were it not for mutation? Do you think that the Magic Crop fairy appears one night and sprinkles her fairy dust over a cornfield?

      The comment about pine kernels by the way was illustrative. I know they are in pesto but they also appear now in other foodstuffs where they weren’t beforehand. And thirty years ago most people outside Italy had never eaten a pine kernel.

      I have a life to lead too. I’m no gung-ho GM advocate. I prefer a case by case approach, but this particular case is a no-brainer is as far as I am concerned. And here’s a published safety assessment of GR while we’re at it: http://www.allergenonline.org/Golden%20Rice%202%20Bioinformatics%20FARRP%202006.pdf

    • Elizabeth says:

      Hi, I’ve had time to look at the study you quote, and it’s a preliminary study for allergy only. Following that, there should be chronic toxicity studies on animals before there are any feeding trials on humans.
      This is what a highly experienced genetic engineer who works with genetic mutation and gene expression says in the excellent report GMO Myths and Truths:- “It is unrealistic for GM proponents to claim that they can detect all hazards based on differences in the crop’s appearance, vigour, or yield. Some mutations …. give rise to changes that are not visible because they occur at a subtle biochemical level or only under certain circumstances. So only a small proportion of potentially harmful mutations will be eliminated by the breeder’s superficial
      inspection. Their scrutiny cannot ensure that the plant is safe to eat.
      Some agronomic and environmental risks will be missed, as well. For instance, during the GM transformation process, a mutation may destroy a gene that makes the plant resistant to a certain pathogen or an environmental stress like extreme heat or drought. But that mutation will be revealed only if the plant is intentionally exposed to that pathogen or stress in a systematic”. It’s part of a report GMO Myths and Truths, by 2 genetic engineers, which I would recommend to anyone who wants to look at all evidence, rather than just taking at face value what GM proponents say. Then they can make up their own minds.

    • Clyde Davies says:

      But going on the twenty-odd years of experience of people growing and consuming GM crops, don’t you honestly think we’d have seen an adverse effect if it were prone to occur purely by virtue of the process used in producing the cultivar? As I point out elsewhere, the statistical ‘rule of three’ allows us to estimate the *maximum* risk as 3/n for n events where we haven’t seen a side effect. So, three trillion GM meals eaten = 1/1,000,000,000,000 chance .

      People are *dying* from VAD. One in five children in affected areas has VAD. Given a 1 in five risk of serious illness or death versus 1 one in a trillion maximum risk of ‘chronic GM poisoning’, I know which I’d take.

    • Elizabeth says:

      If allergy studies for this crop were being undertaken in 2006, then GM company producing golden rice has had ample time to conduct toxicology studies, but it seems it has chosen not to, or else for some reason has chosen not to announce the results of any trials it has undertaken. Which seems criminally negligent. They stand to make karge profits if the crop is commercialised, and yet they choose not to spend the money needed to ensure it is safe. If they had done these studies we could by now be in a position to know whether it is safe long term or not.

      It’s also very early to be talking about all this. I understand there haven’t been any field trials yet of this crop, so we don’t even know if it will perform well in the environment (see my last message.)

      We seem to be going round in circles, and could probably argue about this for days and not agree, especially as you seem to be raising points I have already replied to, eg the often repeated “2 (or was it 3) trillion meals eaten argument, which assumes immediate adverse effects from eating GM foods. It certainly does not guarantee safety, if toxic effects are slow to develop. Cancer can take up to 40 years to develop. If smoking were newly introduced now, 2 or 3 trillion cigarettes smoked wouldn’t guarantee that lung cancer and other illnesses would not occur after more years. 1 in 5 deaths is caused prematurely because of smoking. So that would be a one in 5 risk after 2 or 3 trillion cigarettes, not 1 in 2 or 3 trillion. The tobacco industry was finally found to have geared its research to not find problems, thus delaying awareness of the connection between smoking and disease. Independent scientists have found signs of chronic toxicity in experimental animals fed gm foods, which could lead to disease long term, and have called for further research to be done.

      I am not wishing people to die of VAD. There already exist simple solutions, and I am very happy to do my bit towards donating to charities providing vitamin A supplements and teaching people how to grow mixed crops to meet their vitamin A needs (and other nutritional deficiencies) until such time as the results of good independent toxicology studies are published, and the question is answered about whether golden rice poses health risks. And than, if it were to be found to be safe, it would be fine to go ahead.

    • Clyde Davies says:

      ‘Solutions’ solve problems. The simple unarguable fact is that VAD is rampant, and these ‘solutions’ that you allude to have made a minuscule dent in what is a serious health problem.
      I’m afraid that all this talk about public health concerns from GM opponents rings totally hollow. My father died from cancer brought on by smoking, and if GM’s opponents were really motivated by a concern for the health of their fellow man (or woman) then they would have been tearing up tobacco plantations instead – a crop where the risks are fully established, quantifiable and worryingly significant.
      If a meta-analysis of many GM foodstuffs’ effects on health (and as far as I can gather, there have been several of these) showed cause for concern then I would be the first person to ask for a moratorium. No such meta-analysis exists. You can cherrypick all the negative studies you like, but until you pull on your Tyvek overalls and set about a field of Nicotiana tabacum, then I’m afraid I shall treat your motivations witht the greatest of suspicion.

    • Elizabeth says:

      You don’t introduce a new drug without testing, just because it seems a promising cure for a disease. It has to go through the proper testing process. The same should apply to any new genetically modified food.

      I understand that no data has been made available on its bioavailability or on how quickly the vitamin A content stops being available,

      We are asked to accept the release of a crop that may be ineffective, may be toxic, and which will almost certainly interbreed with wild rice, making it difficult to eradicate if and when it is found to be harmful. So until it is properly tasted, and found to be both safe and effective there are other growing means of increasing coverage with vitamin A

      The Child Info website http://www.childinfo.org/vitamina.html gives good information on progress that has already been made on tackling vitamin A deficiency, with a 3 prong attack, firstly using supplementation every 4 to 6 months, from age 6 months to 5 years, giving vitamin A to breastfeeding mothers, as is also recommended here.

      This can be backed up by fortifying foods with vitamin A – this is regarded as having great hope for long-term control of vitamin A deficiency> Commonly fortified are sugar, oil, milk, margarine, infant foods and various types of flour – just as wheat flour is fortified here with calcium and B vitamins.
      The 3rd angle is increasing dietary sources of vitamin A in addition to the other methods – eg eggs

      UNICEF reports that “Overall, significant progress has taken place: The proportion of children receiving vitamin A supplementation between 2000 (41 per cent) and 2008 (88 per cent) more than doubled in the least developing countries. In Africa, full coverage increased fivefold in the same time period.” So progress is being made without golden rice, and will no doubt continue to be made.

      If golden rice proves to be safe and effective, it can then be added to the armoury.

      I understand that many of the studies quoted in metaanalyses are just feeding and nutritional studies, not toxicology studies. Industry funded studies have been found to be much more likely to produce a result that says there is no problem than independent studies. I’m afraid that I remain to be convinced of the unbiased nature of much of the research that has taken place, and so I would still want to see good independent toxicity studies.

      I recommend “The World According to Monsanto” for the history of hiding and spinning the truth about the safety of products, including the gm bovine growth hormone by big chemical companies that have now gone into producing GM. The book uses their own documents to show how they knew about the toxicity of their products long before the public was alerted.

      The effects of tobacco are known now, but weren’t for many years. The risks were known, but hidden, by the companies that produced it for many years, at a time when the public did not know. It is now a personal choice for people to start smoking. With GM foods, we are unlikely to be able to make that choice unless there is good labelling.

      My concern with GM issues started from concern for the future health of my own children and their descendants, and by extension, of whole communities.

      I am now dropping out of this discussion, as I have no more time to devote to it.

    • Clyde Davies says:

      “I understand that no data has been made available on its bioavailability or on how quickly the vitamin A content stops being available”
      Since you’re no longer reading this (or at least, contributing to it), I’m posting this for those who might actually read this statement and give credence to it.
      Your understanding is wrong. The study http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/89/6/1776.full.pdf gives an exhaustive comparison of GR with other beta-carotene containg food stuffs. GR digestion converts 3.8 g of beta carotene to 1g of vitamin A. Compare this wih conversion ratios of 12 to 1 for fruit, 13 to 1 for
      sweet potato, 15 to 1 for carrots and 10 to 1 to 28 to 1 for green
      leafy vegetables.
      As for your other comment that ‘progress can be made without Golden Rice’, then I suppose you would prefer a non ‘tech solution’. Well, a good analogy is the eradication of disease. We could, if we wanted to eradicate polio, ensure that no human being in the world came into contact with fecal matter. We could insist on new houses with proper sanitation, ripping up open sewers and replacing drains, and insisting on deep cleaning everybody’s house wherever they were.

      Or we could simply VACCINATE them.

  4. Rianne says:

    biofortification sounds so nice and positive and helpful… before looking at a ‘tech fix’ for a symptom though you have to consider the causes… how come so many people are in this situation? Yes, it requires painful looks at our greed, broken int’l system (one that works for the rich, but not the poor), contribution to desertification etc….

    • egad says:

      So while people are wrapped up in their introspection, wrestling with those hard truths, others will continue to grow I’ll or die.

  5. john k says:

    Biofortification…. is this the latest word to make GMO’s more salable?? While not an expert on the GMO Industry, one has to wonder why this industry release all data to the public, (and why does not government bodies worldwide push for such information) to become public. All the name slinging is derrogitory and only when the data is made public can people like me make a valid decision. Until then, biofortification is an attempt to “white wash” GMO’s. And BTW, I am not a well fed, self righteous hipster.

  6. Chris Smaje says:

    Two observations, Mark.

    (1) You state that access to a balanced diet requires the elimination of poverty, but you don’t substantiate it. Suppose an alternative investment strategy in community gardening programmes rather than golden rice – not theoretically difficult if the target populations are primarily rural, though perhaps politically difficult, and potentially easily self-replicating with many other incidental benefits, and with none of the uncertainties over the long-term performance of self-saved golden rice strains. How would such a programme compare with golden rice in terms of $ costs per DALYs saved? I haven’t been able to locate any analysis of this, which seems strange.

    (2) Your analogy with clean water is surely flawed, inasmuch as clean water is intrinsic to health whereas golden rice isn’t.

    • Clyde Davies says:

      Interesting comment, and way classier and more thoughtful than most of the other sceptical ones I’ve seen on this topic.
      So, I’ll butt in with my two-pennorth:
      (1) Are biofortification and community gardening mutually exclusive? Or is the latter being promoted as a strategy of ‘penultimate resort’, after the ‘last resort’ of, say Golden Rice? If so, would the community gardening programme be being promoted simply to assuage the unease of Western activists?
      (2) I don’t think that the analogy with clean water is flawed. Golden Rice might not be essential to health but Vitamin A is, and GR is simply a potentially very efficient delivery mechanism that requires zero or little adjustment from the people who use it. Think of it as a borehole well instead.

    • Scott says:

      ” a potentially very efficient delivery mechanism that requires zero or little adjustment from the people who use it”

      The problem is that changes do need to be made. Vit A is the tip of the iceberg. So finding a “solution” that doesn’t fix the root problem is pretty meaningless.

      However, strange as this may sound. I am in favor of golden rice raised organically in every other respect. Obviously no GMO could be “certified organic.” However, in my opinion the organic movement should have remained neutral on the GMO issue anyway. I think each GMO should be evaluated individually. A GMO like roundup ready soy that causes huge environmental damages obviously should be banned from organic. But golden rice….that GMO I can live with in organic agriculture as long as the other organic principles are followed as well.

      Just my opinion. I realize many in organic don’t agree. But I base my opinion on the fact that the primary organic benefits are to health by more nutritious food, and the ecology by healthier soil biology. Since golden rice is actually an effort to improve the nutrition in a crop, it basically still fits with organic principles if raised with organic methods that don’t destroy the environment.

    • Clyde Davies says:

      Couldn’t agree more. The underlying rationale of the organic movement should be about sustainability, but unfortunately it’s become about *purity*.

      I agree that GR is a band-aid for a deeper problem. But these people need all the options they can get.

    • Clyde Davies says:

      PS: don’t agree with the ‘more nutritious food’ argument: the evidence seems to suggest that there is little if any difference between organic food and the rest.
      But improved biodiversity has got to be a good thing.

    • Scott says:

      You may not agree with the more nutritious aspects of organic, yet they do exist. I will say however, you do need to know what you are doing to see that benefit. As for your studies…most of them are pseudo science.

      I’ll never forget the time I was debating the issue with a guy who claimed no difference and he sent me a link to a study on nutrition of organic eggs. Sure enough the study said the increase in nutrition in the organic eggs was so small as to be statistically insignificant. So I went past the abstract and started looking closely at the study itself. The hens were fed exactly the same diet a commercial soy wheat corn etc blend, just one blend was certified organic, besides that the organic hens were allowed access outside to a small pen 5 minutes a day. That’s right 5 minutes. They actually did that study with a straight face too! hahahahaha The miracle was that the organic hens showed any increase in the nutrition of their eggs at all! Even if it was very small! They must have had to peck fast to scratch up a worm! LOL

      Now why do I call studies like that pseudo-science? Because the researchers purposely set up the experiment in order to obtain a preordained result. It has been known in science for years and years that diet has everything to do with nutrition in eggs. They had to know it too. Scientists even routinely use eggs to do experiments because of this characteristic of chicken eggs in other fields of research!

      Crops too. Here is an example. If I grow two crops side by side in the exact same soil and use organic fertilizers on one and chemical fertilizers on the other. First year not much difference. Many studies show this. BUT year by year, if the organic farmer knows what he is doing, the soil in the organic plot will gradually improve in fertility. Rhizobia and Frankia bacteria increase, mycorrhizal fungi form symbiotic relationships with plants roots. These and many more bacteria and fungi can efficiently remove or “sequester” from soils other important minerals that plants require such as iron, zinc, magnesium, copper and manganese in addition to NPK. While bacteria and fungi are busy “gathering” these minerals for themselves, the process also makes them available to nearby plants. And that’s just one of many effects.

      Meanwhile the conventional farmer on the exact same soil is killing his biodiversity with salts for fertilizers, and pesticides. Depending on his methods, he may also be destroying topsoil inadvertently due to erosion, compounding the damage.

      So year 1 not much difference, but in 3 to 5 years you will start seeing significant differences in the nutrition of the crops due to ever increasing differences in the quality and fertility of the soil. 10-20+ or more years later the results are profoundly different.

    • Clyde Davies says:

      What about the meta-analyses such as this one – http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/92/1/203.full – which aggregate results acorss a wide range of studies and find no significant effect? Hardly pseudoscientific.

      I have no ‘downer’ on the idea of organic farming. I do however have a problem with the people who treat its claims as givens, and who slag off other approaches to food and nutrition. I’m not saying you’re one of those, but I’ve yet to see any conclusive evidence about the consumer benefits of organic food. The environmental benefits are however a different matter altogether.

  7. Coilin MacLochlainn says:

    Mark, almost every article you have posted in the last three-four years has emphasised the merits of techno-fixes and tried to obviate the need for sustainable solutions. Your latest offering continues the trend, trying to play up the merits of some magic pill. Mark, where are the long-term sensible solutions? You were on Hard Talk, defending your switch to support for nuclear, but that is so old. I was a nuclear convert ten to twenty years ago, why didn’t you see it then? When will you start to support a conversion to sustainable solutions? It would appear that, since Copenhagen, something has happened to you. I’m not sure what, but certainly I see that you are buying into a techno-fix solution for everything, and that of course will end in tears, because we are reaching the end of what technology can do, given that we are surpassing the planetary limits of sustainability. So, are you just doing techno in order to try and fit yourself in to the business-as-usual model, or have you been bought off by the big corporations? You may not think so, but it certainly seems from your blog and your Hard Talk interview that you are no longer in the green zone but have deserted the fold. Even though I agree with you completely on nuclear and GMOs, things that were obvious to me for years despite some green organisations vociferous protests.

    Best wishes

    Coilin MacLochlainn

    • Clyde Davies says:

      In what way is GR not a ‘sustainable solution’? To me it seems eminently more sustainable and cheaper than the alternatives on offer.

  8. Mlema says:

    supplementation has been effective and relatively cheap. It’s main drawback is in poor support for good distribution (the same problems that arise in getting good agricultural practices in place where they’re desperately needed)

    It’s tough to make a cost-comparison when the time and expense required in the development of GR, an as-yet unproven solution, isn’t taken into account. Advocates blame the delay on strict regulation, but a cultivar that supplied the estimated needed “dose” in a typical daily serving wasn’t in place until 2005 (years after Monsanto was hyping “golden rice”)

    what if we had improved distribution of vit A while we took the many millions of dollars spent on GR development and PR promotion, and put that money into developing a varied and sustainable agriculture in these areas of the world? how much further would we be towards saving these lives and eyes as opposed to a still “wait and see” hope.

    Farmers won’t have to pay tech fees until they’ve earned $10K off their fields. that’s not likely to happen in the poorest areas. but what about contamination of wealthier farmers’ fields? will these farmers be forced to pay tech fees even though they never intentionally planted the GR? In the US, Monsanto sues farmers who buy roundup to treat fields where they’ve found RR transgenic crops growing.

    From what I’ve been able to learn, the only human tests done were in children who didn’t suffer comparable malnutrition compared to the targeted populations. Do the diets of the targeted populations include enough fat to utilize the beta-carotene in GR?

  9. Clyde Davies says:

    ‘supplementation has been effective and relatively cheap’

    No, it hasn’t. As I pointed out elsewhere, “‘It’s estimated that it will cost about $100/year to treat a person for VAD using Golden Rice. It costs at least ten times that to treat them through supplementation programs. As Bjorn Lomborg recently pointed out “Supplementation programs costs $4,300 for every life they save in India, whereas fortification programs cost about $2,700 for each life saved. ‘

    ‘It’s tough to make a cost-comparison when the time and expense required in the development of GR, an as-yet unproven solution, isn’t taken into account. Advocates blame the delay on strict regulation, but a cultivar that supplied the estimated needed “dose” in a typical daily serving wasn’t in place until 2005 (years after Monsanto was hyping “golden rice”)’

    I really don’t know where to start with comments like this one. Firstly, if it’s an unproven solution then don’t you think people should give it a chance to prove itself? As for the comment about there not being a sufficiently productive cultivar in place until 2005, then what bearing does that have on the fact that there is such a cultivar in place right now? Crops of all kinds take time to develop but your argument appears to be along the lines of ‘if it isn';t perfect, we might as well give up now and go home’.

    ‘what if we had improved distribution of vit A while we took the many millions of dollars spent on GR development and PR promotion, and put that money into developing a varied and sustainable agriculture in these areas of the world? how much further would we be towards saving these lives and eyes as opposed to a still “wait and see” hope.’

    What if Greenpeace spent some of its $100M/year turnover on actually helping the people whose interests it is claiming to protect?

  10. Mlema says:

    “What if Greenpeace spent some of its $100M/year turnover on actually helping the people whose interests it is claiming to protect?”

    OK, I’m willing to entertain that.
    But how does that answer my question? I don’t think Bjorn Lomborg is a good source for credible stats on GR. Where did he get those?

    GM rice is a naive solution to the multifaceted problem of hunger. It may help, it may not. But in the meantime, proven stop-gap and also long-term resolution is unexamined and GR is used as the poster child to loosen regulation on GM crops the world over.

  11. Mlema says:

    “..just two annual doses of high-potency supplements, costing less than US $0.04 per child, can prevent and correct the deficiency.”

    http://www.unicef.org/publications/files/Vitamin_A_Supplementation.pdf

  12. Clyde Davies says:

    Well, as I have said in the past many times, why don’t we let the people who stand to benefit make their minds up? They may be poor but they’re not stupid.

  13. Clyde Davies says:

    One more comment: the fact that VAD is still rife and doesn’t seem to be imrpoving suggests that soemthing is wriong with current approaches. GR is far from bein a ‘naive’ solution. It allows people to grow their own cure to a longstanding and serious problem.

    I think we should butt out and stop exporting our own preoccupations over GM technology to these people. After all, GR may have become the ‘poster child’ but until it came along few people in the West cared about or had even heard of VAD. But then they started to care because it involved scary GM technology. How hypocritical.