Golden Rice: GM Silver Bullet that Misses the Target

Colin Todhunter

Promoters of genetic modification (GM) in agriculture have long argued that genetically engineered Golden Rice is a practical way to provide poor farmers in remote areas with a subsistence crop capable of adding much-needed vitamin A to local diets.

Vitamin A deficiency is a problem in many poor countries in the Global South and leaves millions at high risk for infection, diseases and other maladies, such as blindness.

Some scientists believe that Golden Rice, which has been developed with funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, could help save the lives of around 670,000 children who die each year from Vitamin A deficiency and another 350,000 who go blind.

Meanwhile, critics say there are serious issues with Golden Rice and that alternative approaches to tackling vitamin A deficiency should be implemented. Greenpeace and other environmental groups say the claims being made by the pro-Golden Rice lobby are misleading and are oversimplifying the actual problems in combating vitamin A deficiency.

Many critics regard Golden Rice as an over-hyped Trojan horse that biotechnology corporations and their allies hope will pave the way for the global approval of other more profitable GM crops. The Rockefeller Foundation might be regarded as a ‘philanthropic’ entity but its track record indicates it has been very much part of an agenda which facilitates commercial and geopolitical interests to the detriment of indigenous agriculture and local and national economies.

Smears and baseless attacks

As Britain’s Environment Secretary in 2013, Owen Paterson claimed that opponents of GM were “casting a dark shadow over attempts to feed the world”.

He called for the rapid roll-out of vitamin A-enhanced rice to help prevent the cause of up to a third of the world’s child deaths:

It’s just disgusting that little children are allowed to go blind and die because of a hang-up by a small number of people about this technology. I feel really strongly about it. I think what they do is absolutely wicked.”

Just recently, Robin McKie, science writer for The Observer, wrote a piece on Golden Rice that uncritically presented all the usual industry talking points.

On Twitter, The Observer’s Nick Cohen chimed in with his support by tweeting:

There is no greater example of ignorant Western privilege causing needless misery than the campaign against genetically modified golden rice.”

Yes, that Nick Cohen; the one who cheer-led for the illegal invasion of Iraq and who remains unrepentant.

Whether it comes from the likes of corporate lobbyist Patrick Moore, Owen Paterson, biotech spin-merchant Mark Lynas, well-remunerated journalists or from the lobbyist CS Prakash who engages more in spin that fact, the rhetoric takes the well-worn cynically devised PR line that anti-GM activists and environmentalists are little more than privileged, affluent people residing in rich countries and are denying the poor the supposed benefits of GM crops.

Golden Rice does not work and opponents are not to blame

Despite the smears and emotional blackmail employed by supporters of Golden Rice, in a 2016 article in the journal Agriculture& Human Values Glenn Stone and Dominic Glover found little evidence that anti-GM activists are to blame for Golden Rice’s unfulfilled promises. Golden rice was still years away from field introduction and may fall far short of lofty health benefits claimed by its supporters.

Professor Glenn Stone from Washington University in St. Louis stated that:

Golden Rice is still not ready for the market, but we find little support for the common claim that environmental activists are responsible for stalling its introduction. GMO opponents have not been the problem.”

Stone added that the rice simply has not been successful in test plots of the rice breeding institutes in the Philippines, where the leading research is being done. While activists did destroy one Golden Rice test plot in a 2013 protest, it is unlikely that this action had any significant impact on the approval of Golden Rice.

Stone said:

Destroying test plots is a dubious way to express opposition, but this was only one small plot out of many plots in multiple locations over many years. Moreover, they have been calling Golden Rice critics ‘murderers’ for over a decade.”

Believing that Golden Rice was originally a promising idea backed by good intentions, Stone argued:

But if we are actually interested in the welfare of poor children – instead of just fighting over GMOs – then we have to make unbiased assessments of possible solutions. The simple fact is that after 24 years of research and breeding, Golden Rice is still years away from being ready for release.”

Researchers continue to have problems developing beta carotene-enriched strains that yield as well as non-GM strains already being grown by farmers. Stone and Glover point out that it is still unknown if the beta carotene in Golden Rice can even be converted to vitamin A in the bodies of badly undernourished children.

There also has been little research on how well the beta carotene in Golden Rice will hold up when stored for long periods between harvest seasons or when cooked using traditional methods common in remote rural locations.

Claire Robinson, an editor at GMWatch, has argued that the rapid degradation of beta-carotene in the rice during storage and cooking means it’s not a solution to vitamin A deficiency in the developing world. There are also various other problems, including absorption in the gut, the low and varying levels of beta-carotene that may be delivered by Golden Rice in the first place and the rapid degradation of beta-carotene when stored.

In the meantime, Glenn Stones says that, as the development of Golden Rice creeps along, the Philippines has managed to slash the incidence of Vitamin A deficiency by non-GM methods.

In whose interest?

The evidence presented here might lead us to question why supporters of Golden Rice continue to smear critics and engage in abuse and emotional blackmail when they are not to blame for the failure of Golden Rice to reach the commercial market. Whose interests are they really serving in pushing so hard for this technology?

In 2011, Marcia Ishii-Eiteman, a senior scientist with a background in insect ecology and pest management asked a similar question:

Who oversees this ambitious project, which its advocates claim will end the suffering of millions?”

She answered her question by stating:

An elite, so-called “Humanitarian Board” where Syngenta sits – along with the inventors of Golden Rice, Rockefeller Foundation, USAID and public relations and marketing experts, among a handful of others. Not a single farmer, indigenous person or even an ecologist, or sociologist to assess the huge political, social, and ecological implications of this massive experiment.

And the leader of IRRI’s Golden Rice project is none other than Gerald Barry, previously Director of Research at Monsanto.”

Sarojeni V. Rengam, executive director of Pesticide Action Network Asia and the Pacific, has called on the donors and scientists involved to wake up and do the right thing:

Golden Rice is really a ‘Trojan horse’; a public relations stunt pulled by the agri-business corporations to garner acceptance of GE crops and food. The whole idea of GE seeds is to make money… we want to send out a strong message to all those supporting the promotion of Golden Rice, especially donor organizations, that their money and efforts would be better spent on restoring natural and agricultural biodiversity rather than destroying it by promoting monoculture plantations and genetically engineered (GE) food crops.”

And she makes a valid point.

To tackle disease, malnutrition and poverty, you have to first understand the underlying causes – or indeed want to understand them. 

Walden Bello notes that the complex of policies that pushed the Philippines into an economic quagmire over the past 30 years is due to ‘structural adjustment’, involving prioritizing debt repayment, conservative macroeconomic management, huge cutbacks in government spending, trade and financial liberalization, privatization and deregulation, the restructuring of agriculture and export-oriented production.

And that restructuring of the agrarian economy is something touched on by Claire Robinson who notes that leafy green vegetables used to be grown in backyards as well as in rice (paddy) fields on the banks between the flooded ditches in which the rice grew. She argues that the ditches also contained fish, which ate pests.

People thus had access to rice, green leafy veg, and fish – a balanced diet that gave them a healthy mix of nutrients, including plenty of beta-carotene.

But indigenous crops and farming systems have been replaced by monocultures dependent on chemical inputs. Robinson says that green leafy veg were killed off with pesticides, artificial fertilizers were introduced and the fish could not live in the resulting chemically contaminated water.

Moreover, decreased access to land meant that many people no longer had backyards containing leafy green veg. People only had access to an impoverished diet of rice alone, laying the foundation for the supposed Golden Rice ‘solution’.

Whether it concerns The Philippines, EthiopiaSomalia or Africa as a whole, the effects of IMF/World Bank ‘structural adjustments’ have devastated agrarian economies and made them dependent on Western agribusiness, manipulated markets and unfair trade rules. And GM is now offered as the ‘solution’ for tackling poverty-related diseases. The very corporations which gained from restructuring agrarian economies now want to profit from the havoc caused.

Genuine solutions

In finishing, let us turn to what the Soil Association argued in 2013: the poor are suffering from broader malnourishment than just vitamin A deficiency; the best solution to vitamin A deficiency is to use supplementation and fortification as emergency sticking-plasters and then for implementing measures which tackle the broader issues of poverty and malnutrition.

Tackling the wider issues includes providing farmers with a range of seeds, tools and skills necessary for growing more diverse crops to target broader issues of malnutrition. Part of this entails breeding crops high in nutrients; for instance, the creation of sweet potatoes that grow in tropical conditions, cross-bred with vitamin A-rich orange sweet potatoes, which grow in the USA.

There are successful campaigns providing these potatoes, a staggering five times higher in vitamin A than Golden Rice, to farmers in Uganda and Mozambique.

The Soil Association says, despite the fanfare, Golden Rice has not yet actually helped a single person and if commercialised it will not be helping to reduce people’s reliance on a rice based diet. It believes that we could have gone further in curing blindness in developing countries years ago if only the money, research, and publicity that have gone into Golden Rice over the last 15 years had gone into proven ways of curing the Vitamin A deficiency that causes blindness.

However, instead of pursuing genuine solutions, we continue to get smears and pro-GM spin in an attempt to close down debate.


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Dominique Herman
Dominique Herman
Oct 30, 2019 4:44 PM

Thank you for this article, I was stunned that the Guardian decided to publish such propaganda!! Blaming NGOs for “millions of lives lost” just because some experimental rice was not yet allowed. How a rice going to solve structural problems of poverty, access to diversified food and pollution that these countries suffer from? I am still shocked…

Very glad I found your article, thanks!

Oct 29, 2019 11:16 PM

Not at all surprised to hear that the Rockefeller Foundation is involved. Agribusiness, the corporate takeover of Agriculture and the death of independent family farms, was developed by Rockefeller Foundation and Harvard Business School.
Probably an easier way to get vitamin A into a diet, other than a patented corporate GMO product. Financing will be available with the farmer’s assets as collateral. The rice farmer will end up as an employee, or as a independent contractor, with nothing to pass on to his family.
The extension of John D Rockefeller’s coal company towns into the 21st century. Barely a step above slavery.

Oct 29, 2019 10:59 PM

What do we need golden rice for?
We’re soon going to have Kraft rubber cheese, Hershey plastic chocolate, chlorine flavour chicken and lashings of glyphosate.
Yum, yum!
Can’t wait.

George Mc
George Mc
Oct 30, 2019 2:52 PM
Reply to  mark

My wife returned from a holiday in the states saying that they all looked like Roseanne Barr and John Goodman. And she brought home the reason why: a selection of American sweet bars that were pure sugar.

Oct 29, 2019 2:52 PM

As we continue our descent into the Looking Glass fantasisation of an already Disneyfied Hyperreal fantasy – where Tulsi Gabbard is Snow White; and all will return to hypernormality when she is elected Queen …we seem to have forgotten we are autocthonic creatures born of the land on which we stand. Our entire physical integrity is maintained mainly by free energy stored in foodstuffs; our wastes biodegrade back into the soil (or not as the case may be); the lithosphere, biosphere, hydrosphere, and atmosphere nexus of life interacts in an intimate balance that maintains all life in its own ‘Goldilocks Zone’. This is not Gaia – or only a very weak version of it. This is Gaia/Medea: in a perpetual balance of life and death; creation and destruction. Some call it Dao. It is not a person or a Supreme Being. It is a process: a very complex interactive process… Read more »

Rhisiart Gwilym
Rhisiart Gwilym
Oct 29, 2019 7:46 PM
Reply to  BigB

B, that baleful split that you describe here I’ve been calling for some time the PTP and the ADEP; the Pampered Twenty Percent and the Abused and Deprived Eighty Percent. That’s been going on for longer than my lifetime, and it’s worse now, the gap between the two groups having widened. Note that, in this reckoning, virtually EVERYONE in an economy like Britain’s is a member of the PTP. There will be a very few who slip through the gaps into genuine destitution, but even the large majority of Brits who are suffering stress, excessive pressure, mild hardship, and a general – perfectly justified – dissatisfaction with life under successive anti-democratic cabinets of neolibcon austerity hucksters are nevertheless still members of the PTP in the absolute basics of life here; the NHS for ALL, for example; malnutrition and the flood of vile junk ‘foods’ sure, but no – or virtually… Read more »

Oct 29, 2019 11:03 PM

20/80 is about right. Or 16% consuming 86% of resources: but that’s quite an old data-set now. There is quite a lot of ecological footprint data now. The average footprint for the UK is 5.45 gha (global hectares). To be set against a global biocapacity of 1.63 gha – which is not sustainable; it is the maximum capacity. That works out that the average lifestyle in the UK consumes 3.34 planets worth of resources to sustain. Which you can reduce by not having a car; not eating meat; not flying; not having children. After that; it gets a bit silly. Not heating your house and living off moss and rainwater. I’m not eating moss so Lord and Lady Ftang-Biscuit-Barrel can heat their Belvedere penthouse while they are in the Maldives. No one is. The thing with median averages is that they are averages. We need to reduce consumption drastically AND… Read more »

Nov 1, 2019 5:27 AM
Reply to  BigB

Starting with the National Grid this Winter, very probably.

That will collapse due to your XR friends in and out of government following pied piper Greta & co. Nothing to do with capitalism, Brexit, resources exhaustion or even Greed. Just irrationality due to vested fearmongering.

Nov 1, 2019 4:55 AM
Reply to  BigB

“And no one wants to change their lives by the requisite amount it would really require. So we starve the world until productivity collapses. Then we starve ourselves too. What an absolutely genius script for a Disneyfication snuff movie? I do not suppose enough will actually want to change the script by changing themselves?”

You do not suppose incorrectly. Including the 99% #MeToos of the current Xtinctionist Rebellioners when they get over their rebellingness.

Philip Roddis
Philip Roddis
Oct 29, 2019 2:34 PM

Admirably cogent. Thank you Colin Todhunter.

Rhisiart Gwilym
Rhisiart Gwilym
Oct 29, 2019 9:43 AM

Colin and his selection of supporting voices are without doubt on the right track; but not quite radically far enough along it. Add to all their sound, actual-facts-in-the-real-world reasoning the further observation that this is also a geopolitical power struggle. One that involves we, the commons, striking back against the perennial push to concentrate de-facto political power in the hands of a small minority of global crooks, together with the grotesque over-wealth and ‘high’ (but ersatz) status which always accompany that power; an inherently, virulently ANTI-democratic, anti-honesty impulse, clearly. Quite obviously, the whole GMO racket is seen currently by the world’s gic class (gangsters-in-charge; always with us, alas!) as one still-promising path towards feeding their endless psychopathic WealthPowerStatus addiction (and to hell with the mere feeding of poor people). It’s always acutely necessary, when countering the pro-GMO propaganda, to remember that it’s entirely about WPS, and has – literally –… Read more »

Rhisiart Gwilym
Rhisiart Gwilym
Oct 29, 2019 10:11 AM

PS: Should have included Iran as one of the socialist way-finders. Ramin Mazaheri, who posts frequent multi-part essays on the Saker blog (recommended), whilst also being a chief PressTV correspondent in France, is emphatic that his home country is run along socialism-with-islamic-characteristics lines, ever since the revolution which ousted Pahlavi. I don’t know enough about that to be able to argue with Ramin, but – as a convinced socialist himself – he makes a persuasive case. (How well are the GMO gangsters doing in Iran…?)

Rhisiart Gwilym
Rhisiart Gwilym
Oct 29, 2019 8:04 PM

PPS: Add NKorea to the list, too. Virtually no market characteristics there. But one of the many versions of socialism-in-practice. Astonishingly successful too, after dragging themselves up by their own bootstraps from the catastrophic quasi-genocide that the US (plus its usual coterie of arse-kissers) inflicted during the Korean War (and the constant bullying and starving of essential trade that they’ve suffered ever since). They’ve even got themselves a credible nuclear weapons system, with delivery vehicles that can reach the US, which has brought the US to start talking seriously about making some sort of peace with them.

As Dmitry O points out: de facto, places like China and NKorea have proven that their versions of socialism are world-beaters when it comes to actual results. Especially when compared with the rotten-ripe gic-oppressed West.

Nov 1, 2019 7:20 AM

“Colin [Todhunter] and his selection of supporting voices are without doubt on the right track; but not quite radically far enough along it.” You start where you can start in the way you can start and where and when you can start is where the time and place and circumstance enables you to start. Starting without regard to time, place and circumstance is no time, place or way to start, only time and place from which to go nowhere until time, place and circumstance enable it. If you do not like where Mr Todhunter is moving along your right track, the persons to take it up with are yourself, your contemporaries and your Mummy and Daddy and their Mummy and Daddy and the time to take it with them was back then. Now is too late. Mr Todhunter is now where they and you have–past tense–enabled him to be now.… Read more »

Nov 1, 2019 7:24 AM
Reply to  Robbobbobin

Fot “…the time to take it with them…” read “…the time to take it up with them…”

George Mc
George Mc
Oct 29, 2019 8:33 AM

Well it seems that some misery is more needless than others. Bombing native populations into the stone age is perfectly acceptable – after all, it provides “marketing opportunities” for new technological “aid” revolutions. Only after such bombing do we then have “needless” misery i.e. misery which can be used to generate lovely profits. Cue the corporate fellators like Cohen to provide the requisite moral outrage. “Aid” must be defined as “profitable aid” i.e. profitable to the ones giving the aid – which ultimately means screwing the ones receiving.

Incidentally, I note that the Owen Paterson piece has a number of adverts running below amongst which I read “25 Safe Countries Where $150 K Dollars is Enough To Retire”. No GM rice needed there.

Rhys Jaggar
Rhys Jaggar
Oct 29, 2019 6:49 AM

The whole argument about GM is distorted by not focussing solely on the key issue: A very small number of TNCs wish to control the entire global seeds industry by forcing sterile variants on the whole world, enabling them to starve the world to death at any time through withholding their key requirements for life (food seeds). The TNCs make these strains sterile for one reason: you have to keep going back to buy them forever if they have wiped out open pollinated competitors. They have you by the proverbial short n curlies. TNCs are not charities, they focus solely on profits. That is in their articles of association. They do NOT operate for global good, however much spin they put on it. Nowhere in their Articles of Association is it stated that curing malnutrition is the overarching goal. If they have to choose between making money and curing malnutrition,… Read more »

Oct 29, 2019 8:52 AM
Reply to  Rhys Jaggar

I have no knowledge of this subject but I did read a very frightening book called “The wind-up girl” that envisages a world where sterile GM rice seeds were the only viable crop, an engineered blight had destroyed natural rice leaving people at the mercy of the seed market if they wanted to live….Logic informs me this is the path we will follow.

Oct 29, 2019 3:38 PM
Reply to  Rhys Jaggar

This gives the lie to the claim that “all the scientists” are Global Warming enthusiasts.
“The scientists”, or a significant proportion of them, are up for sale.
They are paid shills giving spurious legitimacy to whatever line globalist corporate interests want to peddle.
Pay them enough and they will bring out papers proving that smoking 200 fags a day and drinking 5 bottles of whisky a day is good for you.

Oct 29, 2019 11:46 PM
Reply to  mark

Such as the scientists, employed by Monsanto, who performed product safety testing on Roundup by testing the main ingredients separately, rather than as delivered in the final product.
As you mentioned, scientists developed the highly addictive tobacco based cigarette by adding dangerous chemicals to the mix.
Scientists developed Agent Orange.
Scientists are human. Capable of good and evil. Not gods, not superhuman.
If they are funded if they provide a result, the desired result will be provided.

In the movie, Damien: Omen II (1978), one of Thorne Industries business lines was agro-chemicals. At one point, the CEO talks about being able to engineer famines (Famine is one of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse) globally. Revealing, though wrapped in supernatural fiction and the Antichrist, a key global corporate project that is all too clear today.

Brian Steere
Brian Steere
Oct 30, 2019 11:20 AM
Reply to  Rhys Jaggar

Yes – it is all about ‘control’. Anything else is subordinate to serving that purpose. The mindset of control, or the setting of thought under the intent to control, is a way of ‘seeing’ only in terms of structures of control that represent closed systems operated by an outside controlling intelligence. For that is the fundamental belief in active identification with ‘fear, division, attack and denial’. The seeking of power as unquestioned reactive defence, orders to change the distribution of power in the system to regain or attain the idea of ‘controlling intelligence’. As the final and uncontested judgement over self – as life on Earth. This use of mind frames its experience, and environment so as to force outcomes that represent power and protection to private agenda set over and against others – and making alliance in common enemy, threat or fear so as to use others or set… Read more »

Oct 29, 2019 6:25 AM

How to get lots of attention and thus funding: create an irrational fear. Terror was one, climate is another and GMOs might take off too.

All this distracts from rational fears like MAD, Islamism, monopolies, 1984.

Oct 29, 2019 11:54 PM
Reply to  Antonym

Greta should be more concerned with Modern Monetary Theory and infinite debt robbing her future than carbon dioxide.
The world economy will implode, as it has before, and the financiers will profit as before, before climate change will extinguish humanity.
Greta is probably safe from economic downturns as she has the family background that suggests the phoenix, the old bird that creates its own funeral pyre, to arise anew as a new phoenix though still with the accumulated wealth/ashes of the old phoenix. Greta comes from a long line of actors, all playing a role.

Oct 29, 2019 5:10 AM

For a feel good and paid career with big social status start a NGO against something.
Suggestions in the GMO field:
*viruses inject their DNA into other organisms: AntiVir!
*bacteria use Horizontal gene transfer and thus become GMOs themselves: AntiBact!
*AIDS transfers genes vertically from mother to baby: AntiAIDS!
*the Gemini virus transfers genes to tobacco plants: AntiGemini!

Always funding possible from rich but gullible persons.

Oct 29, 2019 5:21 AM
Reply to  Antonym

Best trick of the anti something NGO brigades: delay big projects so long that they will pay you off to stop. Court procedures are favorite as they can go on forever.
Genuine concerns get trampled by that kind of strategies.

This was tried in India’s Kudankulam nuclear power project by some (foreign Christian paid) NGOs but failed as that project was between two nations, India and Russia, not MNCs.
Luckily India is now enjoying more ‘imported fossil fuel’- free nuclear electricity.