One of the world’s great humanitarian crises has a simple cause and, some researchers argue, a simple solution. But that’s where the story gets complicated.
Around the world, 250 million children are vitamin A-deficient, including about a third of the world’s preschool-age population. This simple deficiency kills or blinds millions of women and children each year.
In places like the United States, where vegetables like carrots are neither expensive nor scarce, it’s difficult to grasp just how pervasive, dire, and deadly a simple vitamin deficiency can be.
Children whose diets are chronically low or lacking in vitamin A are at high risk for xerophthalmia, the most common cause of preventable childhood blindness, and insufficient vitamin A can make children more likely to catch an infection and more likely to die from one when they do.
In 1992, a team of researchers from Johns Hopkins calculated that increasing consumption of vitamin A, without any other interventions or nutritional improvements, could prevent 1.3 to 2.5 million deaths among infants and preschoolers every year. That’s more than the number of children killed each year by measles, whooping cough, and tetanus combined.
Programs that aim for widespread distribution of vitamin supplements certainly exist, though they are expensive, complicated, and difficult to sustain. Such programs also sometimes fail to reach the most vulnerable populations in remote rural regions.
But if a food that people are already eating could be transformed into a nutritional powerhouse, it could help save the eyesight and the lives of millions of children and mothers around the world. Each time farmers harvested the crop, they would have a simple food with the impact of a life-saving medication.
In fact, such a miracle crop already exists. It’s called “Golden Rice.”
So why has it been met with so much opposition?
What Is Golden Rice?
From the beginning, Golden Rice was conceived as a project that could significantly improve global health, even though it seemed terribly futuristic when it was first proposed.
“Identified in the infancy of genetic engineering as having the potential for the biggest impact for the world’s poor, beta-carotene-producing rice was initially funded by the Rockefeller Foundation and the European Union,” writes Amy Harmon of The New York Times. Beta-carotene, the pigment that makes carrots and squash orange, turns into vitamin A in the human body.
“In a decade of work culminating in 1999,” Harmon writes, “two academic scientists, Ingo Potrykus and Peter Beyer, finally switched on the production of beta carotene by adding daffodil and bacteria DNA to the rice’s genome.”
Scientists later swapped out the daffodil DNA for corn DNA, vastly increasing the amount of beta-carotene in the special rice, whose resulting yellowish colour resembled the flesh of a ripe mango.
“From the outset, it seemed totally crazy,” Potrykus said, in an interview with New Scientist, explaining what a longshot the technology was when they first tried it. “It was a surprise that it worked.”
Neth Daño, an agricultural policy researcher and advocate in the Philippines, told NPR that some see Golden Rice as a public relations campaign for genetically modified foods and biotechnology, rather than the most pragmatic solution.
Still, The Gates Foundation and other major donors see Golden Rice as an important potential tool in fighting Vitamin A deficiency, and so — in spite of protests and plenty of red tape — the project has moved forward.
Even after scientists created the proof-of-concept Golden Rice, much tweaking and additional research was needed. The beta-carotene-rich rice needed to be traditionally bred to work with favoured local rice varieties, a process that is time-consuming and complicated.
And Golden Rice backers needed to prove that in spite of what was, for many, unfamiliar technology, the resulting product would be as reliable as supplements for curbing deficiencies.
Finally, in a 2009 study, scientists showed that Golden Rice was an effective source of vitamin A, and in a follow-up study, they found that it was as good as pure beta-carotene and better than spinach at providing vitamin A to children.
Professional tasters have even said that the high-tech rice tastes just like the original.
Today, five field trials are wrapping up in the Philippines, primarily testing whether the crop will behave in a way that makes it appealing to local farmers. Researchers will also do additional safety and efficacy testing before Golden Rice goes up for approval, which could happen as soon as 2016.
Rice is a staple food for half of the world’s population, and in countries like Vietnam and Bangladesh, it provides two thirds of all calories consumed. Worldwide, about a fifth of humanity’s calories come from rice.
In many countries where rice is an important staple, vitamin A deficiency and its associated hazards are endemic.
Plain white rice is a relatively robust source of energy, but has few nutrients.The seeds of white rice contain no vitamin A, but just one bowl of golden rice would fulfil60% of a child’s daily vitamin Aneeds.
“And if they don’t get any beta-carotene or vitamin A during that period, they can be harmed for the rest of their lives.”
While supplemental nutrition programs are both helpful and necessary, they are not enough, and funding irregularities and logistical challenges can make them an inconsistent source of vitamin A.
Golden Rice, once it is widely released, will be much more cost-effective, as agricultural economist Alexander Stein has shown. Despite common misconceptions, no one stands to get rich when poor farmers start growing Golden Rice.
Instead, it will represent a fundamentally different approach, an embodiment of the old “teach a man to fish” adage.
“It can be planted by the farmers using seeds from their own harvest and that would provide sustained supply of betacarotene,” Antonio A. Alfonso, Ph.D., the Golden Rice project leader at the Philippine Rice Research Institute told Business Insider.
“The bottom line is that [Vitamin A deficiency] affects millions of children and women, making them prone to blindness and susceptible to common infections. Golden Rice, if given the chance, could help.”
Patrick Moore, Ph.D., an early member of Greenpeace and an outspoken, sometimes controversial, advocate of Golden Rice, is even more emphatic.
“At a certain point, you need to be willing to make a leap of faith,” he said, in a phone interview. “The risk of not moving forward with this is the continuation of 2 million children dying every year.”
“If Golden Rice were a medicine that could cure a disease like malaria,” he added, “it would have been approved ages ago.”