A WILD GOOSE CHASE?
"Seeking a technological food fix for world hunger may be not only the biggest scientific controversy of 1999, but also the most commercially malevolent wild goose chase of the new century" - Dr Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet
Feeding the world through increased yields or improved nutrition is an argument that is being used increasingly by the biotechnology industry and research institutions to justify the continued push of GM technology. One particularly strong claim is that a new GM variety of rice will lead to the elimination of vitamin A deficiency (VAD).
Vitamin A is important for sight, immunity to disease, growth and normal development. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that 230 million children are at risk of VAD. VAD is a major cause of blindness, especially among children, and it also exacerbates the effects of measles and diarrhoeal and respiratory illnesses. Over one million VAD-related deaths occur each year. VAD is particularly concentrated in SE Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, as well as refugees’ settlements and among displaced populations.
GM ‘golden rice’ is a yellow-tinted rice genetically engineered to contain beta-carotene, a vitamin-A precursor. It has been developed in Switzerland by Professor Ingo Potrykus of the Swiss Federation Institute of Technology with the support of the Rockefeller Foundation and FAIR, the European Commission's agricultural research programme. Professor Potrykus intends to make the rice freely available to 'national and international agricultural research centres'. He and many other scientists sincerely believe that GM technology is a major weapon against hunger.
However, Greenpeace opposes golden rice because:
ß it has all the risks of any GM crop: biochemical instability, gene flow, health risks, environmental impact;
ß GM crops pose irreversible threats to the environment and ultimately agricultural biodiversity, the basis for food security;
ß golden rice would increase dependence on agrochemical inputs, which worsen the overall problem of malnutrition;
ß golden rice is not necessary to solve the problem of vitamin A deficiency, and may well prove a distraction.
Environmental Risks from GM crops
GMOs are a form of living pollution; their environmental impacts are unpredictable, uncontrollable, and irreversible. GM golden rice has all the environmental risks of any GM crop such as biochemical instability, impact on soil microbes and wildlife, and gene transfer or "genetic pollution".
* Instability: genetic engineering is not an exact science. There are literally millions of genes n a living organism and they do not just work on a "one gene, one trait" basis. Genes are complex, working together to perform certain functions. As the same time, they are affected by and affect their immediate environment. Because they are alive, GMOs can mutate, multiply, breed and go on breeding with other living organisms for generations. They are potentially more dangerous than chemical pollutants.
* Horizontal gene flow: GM crops may have major impacts on the genetic content of the soil. Through a process that is poorly understood, bacteria and fungi are capable of capturing and using genetic material from their surroundings (for example, from decaying plant matter or micro-organisms). This is known as horizontal gene transfer. There are no procedures for recalling genetic material back from the soil once it is introduced and no techniques for predicting likely impacts. As Professor Steve Jones, a geneticist at the University of London, puts it: "Exposing genes to nature is to expose them to evolution and evolution has no designer. It is impossible to know what it is going to do next."
* Impact on soil microbes and wildlife: soil is often casually regarded as an inert growing medium but in fact consists of a vast array of microscopic bacteria and fungi operating within a complex system of nutrients, minerals, plant material, water and air pockets. This living component is central to nutrient cycling and the health and fertility of the soil, protecting plants from disease and helping them to obtain nutrients. Very little is known about soil ecology scientists can identify only a fraction of soil organisms - and we know even less about their life cycles and biology. GM crops, pose at least four specific threats to soil health: changes in agrochemical usage on GM crops, with knock-on implications for soil microbes, genetic contamination of the soil and associated micro- organisms as a result of horizontal gene transfer, changes to the soil ecosystem through the changed characteristics of GM crops and soil contamination through GM seeds remaining in the ground.
Other reasons to reject golden rice
1. Developing a new variety of rice would not tackle the key cause of vitamin A deficiency. The real causes of hunger and malnutrition are poverty, poor food distribution, lack of land and resources to grow food, and a failure of political will.
Seventy-eight percent of all malnourished children in the developing world live in countries with food surpluses. They are malnourished because their families lack either the money to buy food or the land to grow it. Vitamin A rice would not address this issue.
2. Even for those poor people who have land, vitamin A rice might not be any benefit. Experience with "green revolution" crop varieties suggests that their introduction often results in the use of expensive external inputs fertilisers and chemical pesticides without which the crops fail. In addition it is sometimes not possible for farmers to save the seed from one year to the next, making it necessary to buy new seeds. This may or may not be the case with vitamin A rice. If it is, the result is widespread indebtedness and many poor farmers forced off their land.
3. New crop varieties can also exacerbate malnutrition by changing agricultural practices in damaging ways. According to a spokesman from the Ministry of Agriculture in Hanoi, 'The Green Revolution in Vietnam has led to monocultures of preferred and constantly used varieties, which in turn has led to pests and diseases. In addition, the increased use of chemicals has unbalanced the natural ecology and has led to an infertile soil.''
Intensive monocultural rice production has eliminated other foods from the system, so that people eat a less balanced diet.. And because of the heavy chemical inputs they require, the new varieties also kill off the diverse plant and animal life around rice paddies. The result is that even in countries where the average food intake had increased, incapacitating diseases associated with mineral and vitamin deficiencies are still commonplace or, in some cases, actually increasing. According to a UN report on nutrition, some of these deficiencies can be directly linked to the increased consumption of Green Revolution crops.'
4. Golden rice is not yet ready. In 1999 Professor Potrykus announced that the rice would be in the hands of farmers within two to four years. However, golden rice does not exist outside the laboratory. It will take years and a great deal of money to develop and test the final products, for the availability of the beta-carotene and its performance in the field in a wide variety of environments. There is no guarantee that the plant will perform as predicted, or even hoped, because of the nature of genetic engineering, in this case compounded by the complex genetic engineering involved.
Golden rice would also need to be rigorously tested for any health side effects. Because a high proportion of people's diets are made up of rice, small changes in its nutrient or toxicant composition could have a very significant impact on people - with serious health consequences. The genetic modification may give rise to unexpected novel allergens, pathogens, or toxins. Before it were made available for human consumption it would need to be tested as rigorously as any new drug.
Independent testing of golden rice has not yet begun. For example, according to the WHO it ‘has not received specific documentation relating to the genetic modification of Vitamin A rice, nor information relating to the safety testing of this product… It should be noted that the following items need to be considered in a broader evaluation: … health side-effects, if any, are unknown: health tests have to be conducted; the bioavailability of carotenoids included in the GM rice is unknown (digestibility in particular)’.
Any attempt to rush it onto the market would mean it had not been properly tested for its impact on human health.
It will be many years, therefore, before golden rice is actually available. This raises the danger that its development will be a distraction, providing an excuse for inaction and diverting resources away from existing solutions.
Solutions to VAD
Simple, effective, and inexpensive ways of ending VAD already exist. The WHO had an aim to eliminate this problem entirely by the year 2000 through improved health education and hygiene practices. It has failed not because solutions are not available, but because of inadequate resources and a lack of political will.
Nevertheless, progress is being made. WHO, together with UNICEF and other groups, has a comprehensive initiative in place in 70 countries round the world. The World Bank considers investment in these programmes among the most cost-effective interventions to improve health.
In SE Asia, where VAD is most concentrated, supplementation - administering high dose capsules twice yearly - is the favoured short term option. According to UNICEF, it costs less then 50 cents a year to provide effective treatment as an integrated part of a health monitoring system. Programmes in the Philippines, Vietnam, and Indonesia have virtually eliminated clinical signs of VAD.
Longer term solutions to Vitamin A deficiency
While supplementation shows faster results than social and dietary improvements, it is only a management strategy and does not ultimately remove the problem:
There are many sources of vitamin A and its precursors. The notion of making one 'complete' food is fundamentally misguided both from a health and an environmental viewpoint. . Vitamin A is found in foods such as eggs, dairy products, meat, or fish. It can also be produced in the body from its precursor, beta-carotene, which is found in plant foods such as green leafy vegetables and fruit and products such as palm oil.
A diverse diet also makes for a diverse agricultural land - less prone to health and pest epidemics and ensuring long-term food security. The lasting solution to VAD, therefore, is to reverse dependence on single sources of food and promote balanced diets.
However, intensive rice cultivation eliminates other food crops from the system. Heavy use of pesticides and herbicides means that fish, snails, waterfowl, and green leafy vegetables which are important parts of the diet can no longer be integrated into the farming system. A move to less intensive farming will enable return to mixed systems with fish and other plants growing alongside rice, so tackling VAD and other nutritional deficiencies.
Sustainable Farming and World Hunger
Less intensive farming need not mean lower yields. A paper prepared by Jules Pretty and Rachel Hine for the UN 'Natural Resources Forum' looks at 16 initiatives across eight Asian countries. It covers nearly three million households and five million hectares of land. They find 'substantially improved total food production … resulting in greatly improved household food security… sustainable agriculture can deliver large increases in food production in Asia'. Not only are yields increased, but households also benefit from diet diversity such as fish from rice paddies and vegetables grown on the dykes.
Under the National Integrated Pest Management for Rice Programme in Bangladesh, some 150,000 farmers have adopted more sustainable rice production on 54,000 ha. The programmes also emphasise fish cultivation in paddy fields, and vegetable cultivation on rice field dykes. Rice yields have improved by 5-7%, and costs of production have fallen owing to reduced pesticide use - some 80% of participants no longer use pesticides. Vietnam also has a national programme to promote sustainable agriculture. The programme has seen rice yields increase by about 3% and pesticide use fall by about 80%.
Within the general move to sustainable agriculture, it will be necessary to promote specific measures to combat VAD. The FAO, in conjunction with 15 NGOs, has been promoting home-based food production in Bangladesh specifically aimed at tackling VAD. Over three million people (600,000 households) are part of the project. The result has been general health improvements, and the more variety of fruits and vegetables eaten, the better the uptake of beta-carotene. Only small plots of land are needed to meet vitamin A needs. Families without land are helped to grow vines such as pumpkins, beans, and bottle-gourds up the sides of their houses.
The richest source of beta-carotene known is palm oil. Palm grows in SE Asia and West Africa. Naturally red in colour, commercial palm oil is clarified for cosmetic reasons and this removes the beta-carotene. According to UNICEF, encouraging use of this oil either in its unprocessed red form or (as is done in Malaysia and Indonesia) in a clarified form with the beta-carotene reinserted would be effective as part of a wider plan to improve and diversify people's diets.
The way forward
Golden rice is an expensive distraction from the real agenda, which is to end Vitamin A deficiency as quickly as possible using existing solutions. Even if the research succeeds, the product will carry with it unpredictable and unacceptable risks to the environment and human health.
Development of vitamin A rice should be abandoned, and the resources re-deployed into:
* programmes to tackle VAD through supplementation;
* programmes to promote sustainable agriculture, such as those outlined above.