In the poorest corners of the world are places where rice is a subsistence crop and not supplemented with animal protein, fresh greens, fruits and vegtables or vitamin pills. The nutritional consequences for people, especially children, who subsist mostly on rice are dire. Lacking the means to purchase vitamin-rich fresh fruits, vegetables and meat, people suffer from not enough calories (malnourishment) and from vitamin and mineral deficiencies (termed "hidden hunger").
One of the more serious forms of deficiencies is Vitamin A deficiency (VAD). How can we lower Vitamin A deficiency in developing countries? VAD is the leading cause of preventable blindness in children. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that upwards of 250 million preschool children are deficient in Vitamin A, as well as likely their mothers. (Vitamin A requirements increase during pregnancy and breastfeeding.)
We've all been told that carrots were good for our eyes. Carrots contain beta-carotene, which gets turned into Vitamin A by the body. Carrots and other orange or yellow fruits and vegetables are all high in beta-carotene. Straight Vitamin A can be obtained from any animal product, especially things like calf liver and cod liver oil, but also oily fish, chicken, beef, dairy, and human breast milk. Non-meat eaters can get plenty of Vitamin A by eating apricots, sweet potatoes, mangos, pumpkin, winter squash or papayas. Most bright yellow/orange fruits and vegetables, even yellow corn, have vitamin A, as do dark leafy greens like kale and spinach. Please look here for a chart of foods high in Vitamin A or beta-carotene.
From vitamin A supplement drops administered bi-annually, through teaching people how to grow nutritious vegetables in home gardens and up to providing more nutitious breeds of rice for people to grow, many complementary strategies have been adopted to address the horrifying consequences of VAD. For the past thirty years, European and American scientists have been using their technological skills to create a rice that contains Vitamin A for the millions of people for whom rice is the main source of calories.
First, scientists created a form of rice which was yellowish or golden when harvested, so they named it Golden Rice. The golden color came from a daffodil gene. Next, the scientists traded in the daffodil gene for a gene from yellow corn (maize). The beta-carotene values soared. The current Golden Rice (GR2) has a content so high that a person with VAD would only need to eat 75 grams of rice for the total day's supply of Vitamin A.
This research was funded by WHO, the United Nations Childrens Emergency Fund (UNICEF), the Rockefeller Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and the Helen Keller Institute (HKI). Individual activists have also had an impact; Michael Pollan (author of The Omnivore's Dilemma) was initially vocal in his protests against Golden Rice and other genetically modified organisms. The retooled version of Golden Rice with the maize DNA, GR2, has quite a bit more beta-carotene than the original Golden Rice had, and only a moderate amount needs to be ingested. Currently, Golden Rice has so much beta-carotene that kids won't need to eat a lot to get enough Vitamin A.
No one is suggesting that Golden Rice will provide all of the Vitamin A people need, in Southeast Asia or elsewhere. IRRI believes it will be a wonderful complement to more traditional means of supplementation, which have been used for a long time. Of course it's more nutritious to eat a varied diet of fresh fruits and vegetables, and with animal products (like milk, eggs and cheese), and it's a lot more interesting. Nobody voluntarily eats rice for three meals a day! But for those who must subsist on rice, the effects of malnutrition and vitamin deficiencies are horrifying. In particular, rice lacks vitamins A, D, C, calcium, iron, zinc and protein. Vitamin A deficiency leads to blindness and death; milder illnesses such as measles become far more dangerous when the body is degraded by deficiencies.
Golden Rice was developed in conjunction with the International Rice Research Institute to attempt to compensate for part of the Vitamin A missing from rice-eaters' diets. Because there are already, for instance, white-fleshed sweet potatoes low in Vitamin A and orange-fleshed sweet potatoes high in Vitamin A, scientists believed it would be possible to add beta-carotene to white rice varieties. First they tested many, many strains of rice to see if any were naturally higher in beta-carotene. and found none that were.
Beta-carotene is present in rice foliage, but somehow the ability to produce Vitamin A gets switched off for the endosperm, the part we eat. The goal of identifying that gene was reached first. Since the edible portion of rice doesn't possess a gene for beta-caroteme. the precursor of Vitamin A, it was necessary to insert a gene from another plant. Researchers tried introducing a daffodil gene into the rice gene which gave it a mild yellow hue and some vitamin A content. Several years later, they replaced the daffodil gene with one from yellow corn, and then the beta-carotene content soared.
But ... why can't you just give the kids vitamin pills or drops?
Various organizations are doing this (HKI, for instance), but it is expensive and it is not sustainable without outside aid. Golden Rice, on the other hand, can be saved by farmers and replanted year-to-year. IRRI negotiated with the companies holding the patents so that Golden Rice will be offered in perpetuity to those farmers earning less than $10,000 a year.
But ... aren't Genetically Modified Organisms untested and unsafe?
That is the line that Greenpeace and the Anti-GMO political organizations keep repeating. GMOs have to prove themselves in clinical trials to be exremely safe before even being approved for testing on humans. GM food is probably tested more than any other kind, and certainly tested more than certified organic food. Golden Rice has been shown to raise people's Vitamin A levels effectively, but it is difficult to prove it is not harmful. We know we can't prove a negative. Golden Rice has never been shown to be a source of harm.
But ... what if big seed companies and pro-GMO activists are using the GR issue to get consumers used to the idea of Genetically Modified Organisms in our food supply? After all, how can you object, in good conscience, to saving the lives of adorable children in exotic lands? This is a slippery slope argument.As the oldest child and in the absence of my father, I convinced my brothers and sisters to insist that our mother stop dying her hair. We knew about the birth defects resulting from Thalidomide use and we were against technology in general. We knew that DDT had made birds' shells too thin and that Agent Orange was defoliating Viet Nam. I didn't understand any of those things, of course, and the only way I could feel that I could control the situation was to object to hair dye and to a (surely dangeraous) microwave oven. My poor mother. I suggest that some people's distaste for GMOs may be similar.
Even National Public Radio weighed in. There is, apparently, not much science-based evidence to distrust genetically modified crops, and in the case of Golden Rice, much good could come from the release of seeds to farmers in rice eating areas. Of course, people should learn whatever they can about food and nutrition. Growing your own food is a sure-fire way to ensure you have good, healthy food. Teaching rice-eaters about deficits in white rice, encouraging them to grow vegetables on the perimeters of their rice fields, providing seeds for Golden Rice and facilitating vitamin supplementation can all combine to help prevent VAD.
pictures courtesy IRRI.