Ending Poverty with Genetically Engineered Golden Rice

 In Blog topics, Environment

Photo by Max Rovensky on Unsplash

By Alicia Birrell

Golden rice is now legally raised in Bangladesh! After a long, painful, political, and even violent battle, Bangladesh’s government announced in early February that they will allow golden rice to be grown in the country. This announcement marks the beginning of a large stride forward taken in Bangladesh to combat malnutrition.

Malnutrition is an underlying cause of many life-threatening diseases (diarrhea, malaria, pneumonia, and measles to name a few) and according to UNICEF causes nearly 3.1 million children to die every year. Due to a lack of vitamins and minerals, malnutrition causes children to be substantially underweight and significantly below the standard height for their age. One of those vital vitamins and minerals is Vitamin A.

Vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin that is stored in the liver. It helps to form and maintain healthy teeth, skeletal and soft tissue, mucus membranes, skin, and it also produces the pigments in the retina of the eye. It promotes good vision and is needed for reproduction and breastfeeding. Insufficient Vitamin A increases a child’s risk of contracting infectious diseases by weakening the immune system and can even cause blindness. (UNICEF, 2018b) Vitamin A deficiency affects about a third of children in low and middle-income countries and causes blindness in between 250,000 and 500,000 children every year, half of whom die within 12 months. (WHO) A study from the British medical journal The Lancet estimates that, in total, Vitamin A deficiency kills 668,000 children under the age of five each year.

Nearly two decades ago, researchers Peter Beyer and Ingo Potrykus genetically engineered rice to have higher levels of Vitamin A. They called it called golden rice. But, due to strong activist opposition, poor farmers in developing countries have been forbidden to grow it. According to a study by German researchers in 2014, the activist opposition caused  1.4 million ‘life years’ to be lost in India alone. (‘life years’ accounts not only for those who died, but also for the blindness and other health disabilities that Vitamin A deficiency causes)

The anti-biotech groups, such as Greenpeace, acted so fiercely in their efforts to stop the production in Bangladesh that they waged violent crop-burning campaigns in efforts to wipe out the strain. In one instance they burned the rice fields two weeks before the product would be harvested. The threat became so severe that the government began storing the strain in grenade-proof greenhouses.

The fury behind the genetically modified (GM) golden rice stems from unwarranted worries of potential hazards. There is no strong evidence of actual hazards, and since introduced into commercial production 23 years ago, GM crops have had an outstanding safety record.

GM products benefit farmers, the environment, and consumers. A 2018 study, published in Bangladesh Journal of Agriculture Research, looked at the impact of biotech eggplant compared to non-biotech eggplant. They found that pesticides were applied 11 times to biotech eggplant and 41 times to non-biotech eggplant. Biotech eggplant farmers saved 61% of the pesticides cost compared to non-biotech farmers, experienced no losses due to fruit and shoot borer, and received higher returns.

Activists fear that commercial cultivation would lead to the loss of Bangladesh’s rich biodiversity. “This could further push the public acceptance of genetically-modified crops and erode our food diversity and increase corporate control on our agriculture system.” says Kartini Samon, a researcher at GAIN, a Spain-based non-profit.

Since the conversation began in 2000, the passion to stop the acceptance of GMO in Bangladesh hasn’t wavered. This is due to the powerful voice of many anti-biotech organizations, some are local who are concerned about the impact on their traditional agriculture system, and others are large organizations who have strong incentives to deny the technology. This includes the Non-GMO Project, which was started by natural food retailers who just so happen to oppose the technology that threatens their profits.

The battle to get golden rice accepted in Bangladesh has been a long and tiring one. After two decades of political debates and aggressive protests, the government finally gained the momentum needed to allow the product to be grown in their country. We hope to see the death rate of impoverished children decline as they consume the vitamin-rich golden rice and are more able to combat the perils of malnutrition.