Food wars: A senseless fight

Golden Rice can tackle the blindness inflicted on 500,000 of the world’s poorest children each year, yet activists oppose it. image: cosmosmagazine
Combatants on both sides of the food wars are fighting for the same ends.

By Elizabeth FinkelCOSMOS

The sickly toddler is about two years old. Holding the hand of her thin, ragged mother, her eyes are horrible to behold, just a bluish membrane where eyes should be. She is, of course, blind and will probably not live beyond her third year. Like 500,000 other children born in poor countries, her blindness is a result of vitamin A deficiency, a problem that could have been fixed by a diet adequate in vegetables such as carrots or tomatoes. These contain beta-carotene, which her body could convert into vitamin A. But in the rural east of India, while rice is affordable, year-round vegetables are not.

Twenty-two years ago, Ingo Potrykis at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and Peter Beyer at the University of Freiburg, set out to solve the problem by creating a rice plant that could produce its own beta-carotene. They did it by transferring genes from maize into rice to create so-called Golden Rice; golden because it produces the same pigments that yellow vegetables do. The scientists spent close to a decade tackling the difficult techniques required to transfer the genes and another to meet the stringent safety requirements for genetically modified organisms (GMO). Finally Golden Rice was trialled in the Philippines last August. You might think the trial would have been met with celebration. Instead a mob of anti-GMO activists, bussed in from the city but claiming to represent farmers, tore into the crop. Globally their actions were championed by Greenpeace and plenty of others.

How could anyone in good conscience seek to thwart technology that has even a remote chance of tackling the problem of vitamin A blindness?

Many readers will have no trouble providing an answer. The anti-GMO clichés go something like this: GM crops are unsafe to eat; they are bad for the environment; they are a tool of agribusiness corporations; and they exploit poor farmers who must buy seed as opposed to their traditional practice of saving seed.

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