Genetically modified (GM) crops are the target of significant worldwide controversy, to the greatest extent in Europe but also in the US and elsewhere. Are the concerns over GM crops justified by the science? What is the proper balance between the precautionary principle and making potentially improved crops available to a hungry world?
GM “golden rice” – rice genetically modified to produce beta carotene, a form of Vitamin A, is set to be introduced in the Philippines, creating another round of debate on this issue.
Crops have been genetically modified to resist pests or herbicide, to thrive in adverse environmental conditions (cold, drought), and to enhance nutrition. At present GM crops are highly regulated, with proponents arguing that the regulation is too strict while GM opponents argue that they are too lax. Still others argue for a case-by-case assessment of each GM product, which seems to me to be the most sensible approach.
There are many concerns over GM crops – that they will have unintended consequences to health, the introduction of new proteins may pose an allergenic risk, that they pose a risk to the environment (mainly from genes getting out into the wild) and that they are a mechanism by which big corporations (i.e. Monsanto) control our food supply. The safety concerns do seem to vary greatly depending on the exact kind of GM we are assessing.
Golden rice does not pose many of the above concerns. The genetically added nutrient is vitamin A, not a novel protein or an allergenic risk. I also don’t see the risk of a gene for beta carotene getting out into the wild – at least it doesn’t pose the same risk as conferring herbicide resistance to a weed, creating a “super weed.”
Vitamin A deficiency remains a significant health problem in many parts of the world. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports:
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 is 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.
That is a significant health burden. Efforts are under way to reduce vitamin A deficiency through supplementation and diversification of food supply, but goals for reduction have not been met and deficiency remains a significant problem.
Golden rice is another potential solution. Rice is a staple food, which means it makes up a large part of the diet in certain regions. Staple crops had an interesting effect on human nutrition and populations. The growing of wheat, corn, and rice allowed for a tremendous increase in the number of calories that human farming could produce, and transformed human societies into agricultural societies. However, staple crops lack certain micronutrients, so the quality of human nutrition actually decreased after the initial development of agriculture. Staple crops need to be supplemented with a variety of food sources to maintain proper nutrition.
Enhancing staple crops with specific nutrients, like vitamin A, will create the best of both worlds – a significant source of nutrition that contains needed micronutrients.
Bruce Chassy is speaking this week at the AAAS meeting (American Academy for the Advancement of Science) arguing that the current regulation of GM crops is counterproductive (an opinion he also gives here). He argues that the last 20 years have demonstrated the overall safety of GM crops through multiple plantings and scientific studies. We still need to monitor GM crop safety, but the current level of regulation is harming the hungry and the poor, mostly in the third world.
This sentiment was echoed by an article in Slate magazine by Bjørn Lomborg, an economist who argues that delaying the introduction of golden rice has resulted in the death and blindness of millions of children. Lomborg is a controversial figure stemming from his earlier book, The Skeptical Environmentalist, in which he engaged in denial of many environmentalist issues. His books was widely criticized, including in an 11 page rebuttal in Scientific American. The full details of this controversy are beyond this post, my primary point is that Lomborg remains controversial, which haunts his current efforts, including his recent article on golden rice.
The statistics he quotes in the article that I have been able to check out appear to be valid. He essentially argues that golden rice would be the most cost effective intervention:
Supplementation programs costs $4,300 for every life they save in India, whereas fortification programs cost about $2,700 for each life saved. Both are great deals. But golden rice would cost just $100 for every life saved from vitamin A deficiency.
I think these are annual figures. Keep in mind this is the cost of providing supplements not just to each life saved but to the target population.
GM crops remain controversial. While the precautionary principle and concerns over unintended consequences are legitimate, they need to be balanced against the unintended consequences of excessive regulation. The most prudent approach seems to be to take a science-based case-by-case approach to each GM product, and to considers all potential costs and benefits.
Golden Rice, by all the evidence I can find, appears to be a safe and effective way to combat the global health problem of vitamin A deficiency. Resistance to golden rice appears to be based mostly in generic opposition to GM, rather than evidence that this particular product poses risks in excess of benefits.