Environmentalists Make Wrong Case Against Enriched
March 27, 2000
by Dennis T. Avery
March 7, 2000
CHURCHVILLE, Va.--For years, the opponents of agricultural biotechnology have loudly and publicly complained that biotechnology in food production is a ploy by big biotech food companies to monopolize our food supply, bankrupt farmers and inflict greater risks on the environment.
But "golden rice," which could prevent severe malnutrition in 2 billion Third World citizens, has apparently driven biotech food's opponents into unreasoned hysteria.
Natural rice doesn't contain vitamin A. This means some 400 million people in poor, rice-eating cultures don't get enough of the vitamin in their diets. Of these, about 8 million children go blind every year and 2 million kids die because of vitamin A deficiency.
Golden rice is genetically modified, so that a daily serving of rice provides about 10 percent of human daily vitamin A requirements. As a bonus, "golden rice" will also cure the chronic iron deficiency that afflicts more than 1 billion poor women eating mostly rice.
Their diets are low in iron and a compound called phytate in rice ties up whatever iron they do eat. Nearly 2 billion anemic women and their babies are thus at constant risk of birth complications. "Golden rice" adds iron and disarms the phytate.
But the opponents of genetic engineering don't like hearing about this wondrous breakthrough. Margaret Mellon of the Union of Concerned Scientists says the world doesn't need "golden rice," because it already has the scientific know-how to rid the developing world of Vitamin A deficiency and chronic anemia.
"There are 10 simple steps we could take right now to feed a billion hungry people," she says, "from building roads to distributing iron tablets, to encouraging people to grow gourds in their back yards."
Building roads can be simple enough. But it would cost trillions of dollars to build good roads and supermarkets in flood-prone places like Bangladesh and mountainous countries like Nepal.
Handing out vitamin pills and iron tablets is simple and cheap, if you can get to the remote villages and the people understand the importance of taking them every day. Remember the furor about putting fluoride in the water to prevent tooth decay?
Charlie Kronick, who runs the Greenpeace anti-biotech campaign in Britain, says, "The timing of this is so clear. People are talking about the potential benefits of the second generation of genetically modified crops when almost no questions raised by the first have been answered. You don't have to be paranoid to think the tactics are deliberate."
Let me get this straight. Gordon Conway, president of the billion- dollar Rockefeller Foundation and a lifelong crusader against Third World hunger, funded the "golden rice" research.
Does Kronick think Conway funded a near-miraculous breakthrough against little kids dying from malnutrition just to increase the value of Monsanto stock?
The wildest comment comes from India's Vandana Shiva, a tireless crusader against the high-yield crops produced by the Green Revolution. Never mind the high yields have saved most of India's people and tigers from starving in the past 30 years.
"There are many alternatives to pills for Vitamin A," says Shiva. "Vitamin A is provided by liver, egg yolk, chicken, meat and milk butter. Beta-carotene, the vitamin A precursor, is provided by dark green leafy vegetables, spinach, carrots, pumpkins and mangoes."
These statements make Shiva the modern equivalent of Marie Antoinette. When told the French peasants were rioting because they had no bread she was supposed to have said, "Then let them eat cake!"
Vandana Shiva Antoinette says, "Let them eat chicken!" Obviously, if the citizens of rural Bangladesh could afford lots of eggs, chicken, milk and fresh greens, their kids wouldn't be dying or going blind from malnutrition.
Then Shiva warns golden rice will poison people with too much Vitamin A! Until now, an excess of Vitamin A was a worry only for stranded Arctic explorers surviving on polar bear livers. For those interested, polar bear livers have extraordinary amounts of Vitamin A.
Golden rice, however, is even less risky than taking Vitamin A pills from a bottle.
The rice contains beta-carotene, which our bodies turn into Vitamin A. Nutritionists say it would be really difficult to overdose on beta- carotene. Consumers would have to eat perhaps 20 times their normal rice ration daily for months, and those eating too much would get ample warning of an overdose. Their skins would start to turn orange well before any danger point was reached.
The opposition to golden rice reveals the anti-biotech food activists in their true colors. They aren't really worried about biotech food dangers, because golden rice doesn't contain anything we don't already eat for good health.
They can't be worried about food monopolies because the new rice will be given away free. It won't disadvantage local farmers, because they'll be growing it because the International Rice Research Institute will give the germ plasm to their national governments.
The environment won't be damaged because no new genes will be introduced, and it won't take any extra land to grow the additional nutrients.
But they're still against it. Why?
Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.