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Don’t Eat the Yellow Rice: the Danger of Deploying Vitamin A Golden Rice

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What better way to discredit your critics than to rope in 107 naive Nobel Prize winners (all without relevant expertise) to criticize your opposition?

But such tactics are not new. Long ago, the GMO industry spent well over $50 million to promote “Golden Rice” as the solution to vitamin A deficiency in low income countries. They did so well before the technology was completely worked out, let alone tested. Let alone consumer acceptability tested. Let alone subjecting it to standard phase 2 and 3 trials to see if it could ever solve problems in the real world.

So why has this apparently straightforward scientific project not reached completion after so many decades?

Because the purpose of Golden Rice was never to solve vitamin A problems. It never could and never will. It’s purpose from the beginning was to be a tool for use in shaming GMO critics and now to convince Nobel Laureates to sign on to something they didn’t understand.

I worked with a conventional fortified rice technology (Ultra Rice) for years for the NGO PATH in several countries. It became clear to us that rice-consuming populations were extremely picky about their rice and unwilling to accept even the tiniest changes in its appearance, smell or taste.

They are now to be convinced to eat rice that’s bright yellow in color? That will never happen on any large scale. If it does, it will be because a huge investment was made to overcome consumer resistance. Money that COULD have been spent to convince people simply to eat the low-cost plant foods easily available in all countries that can prevent vitamin A deficiency.

Consumer resistance has special importance among the really poor people for whom Golden Rice actually might otherwise prove useful. That’s because when rice is poorly stored it can be infected with a yellow mould causing the deadly “yellow rice disease” (beriberi) if consumed. Only a decade ago this was thought to have killed dozens of male sugar workers in the Maranhao region of Brazil (Rosa et al., 2010). Is that really a type of consumer resistance we want to debunk?

The Rosa paper does not prove that the epidemic and accompanying deaths in Brazil were due to the mould, just that the mould was present in rice in the area of the outbreak. However, Brazilian authorities we talked with in 2007 believed that the mould was almost certainly involved and probably the main cause. But one does see beriberi in the East (this is the first large-scale outbreak in the West) among hard working men who drink a lot of alcohol and eat mainly white rice.

Penicillium citreonigrum Dierckx is the name of the mould that turns rice yellowish. Another can turn it brownish. Infected rice does not really look like Golden Rice. My point is rather that people in places where rice often gets wet during storage generally know that yellow rice is dangerous.  Telling them that yellow rice is safe—a message Golden Rice will have to trumpet–sounds like a typical self-serving message that has the additional disadvantage of putting people in danger. Teaching them WHICH appearance safe vs unsafe rice has is again getting into pretty great detail and expense.

In Bangladesh I was involved with a communication NGO, the Worldview International Foundation, that worked with 10 million people to convince them to grow and consume high-carotene foods. We conducted a large-scale evaluation to see if it worked. It did. It cost only $0.15 per capita—though this was over two decades ago. But it also had many side benefits, such as the other nutrients contained in fresh vegetables (Greiner and Mitra, 1995).

The signatures of 107 Nobel Laureates do not prove that Golden Rice is safe or effective—but they do prove that, no matter how good scientists are in their own narrow fields, they are often no smarter than any of the rest of us about many other things. Sometimes their egos even get the best of them and they go out on a limb and say things without properly researching them first, especially when other smart people have already come out and done so. The people who designed Golden Rice clearly were also unaware of “yellow rice disease”, with much less excuse. (Or they were and had no scruples.)

And if you have read this far, pat yourself on the back! You now know more than 107 Nobel Laureates about something concerning which they signed a letter; sadly putting their scientific reputations on the line.

References

Encyclopedia of Food Mycotoxins  (2001) by Martin Weidenbörner.

Greiner T. and Mitra S.N. (1995) Evaluation of the impact of a food-based approach to solving Vitamin A deficiency in Bangladesh. Food and Nutrition Bulletin 16 (3) 193-205.

Rosa et al., (2010) Production of citreoviridin by Penicillium citreonigrum strains associated with rice consumption and beriberi cases in the Maranhão State, Brazil. Food Additives & Contaminants: Part A. 27 (2).

This article originally ran on Independent Science News.

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Ted Greiner, PhD is former Professor of Nutrition, Hanyang University, Korea.

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