Sorry Greenpeace, Golden Rice is a Win for Nutrition and Health

02.18.14
via Wikimediavia Wikimedia
Health + Tech /18 Feb 2014
02.18.14

Sorry Greenpeace, Golden Rice is a Win for Nutrition and Health

I recently looked into the patents for golden rice because of a recent attack on a scientist who conducted a study in China. Those patents are assigned to Syngenta AG. The latest strain, produced in 2005 by Syngenta, has 23 times more beta-carotene than the first. So while the patent is being licensed for free in humanitarian instances, it will not necessarily always be free of a license cost. The crosses produced will still be within reach of license payments. Free to use is not necessarily to use as freely as you wish. These companies can play pretty unpleasant hardball, however I do not know of an instance of Syngenta doing so. Aside from that, there are people claiming golden rice is a scourge. However, at this point, Dr. Shiva should revise his article, or write a preamble that states that this is wrong and is no longer justifiable.

Greenpeace’s stand on golden rice is rather cynical and their article in support of their position offers bad science. It raises alarms about allergic reactions by writing “there are studies that prove that GE crops certainly have the potential to cause allergic reactions.” In fact, people cannot be allergic to beta-carotene. If they were, they couldn’t eat most fruits or vegetables. I have not heard of any instance of such an allergy, and I’m aware of such things due to work with vaccines. It is possible to get so much beta-carotene that one’s skin turns yellow-orange, but it is harmless, a cosmetic condition.

The Greenpeace article does close with a possibly valid point about the PR usefulness of golden rice to an industry that has not always behaved. The author may be correct on that front. But patents run out after 20 years, so the world should gain.

That is the whole reason for the patent system in the first place, to protect inventions early so as to benefit society as a whole by disclosure.

There is a problem with technology like this if it isn’t patented, because it takes significant money to roll it out to the public. Generally, if something isn’t patented, it’s impossible to raise capital. It wasn’t always this way. Fifty years ago there was robust government support for everything from agricultural machinery to crop breeding. This is no longer the case as various interest groups have worked to undermine this support.

That said, Greenpeace has been involved in some very unpleasant stuff in their own right – scientific fraud, false-flag destruction of crops, publication of articles that are full of falsehoods with anecdotes presented as evidence, and the citation of fraudulent sciences. Greenpeace has been alleged to have been involved in the attacking of individuals for testing golden rice in China.

Greenpeace’s activities in China have undercut the potential benefits of golden rice. In 2012 they convinced some naïve Chinese officials (who tend towards xenophobia) that golden rice GMO is dangerous or valueless, which it is not. Putting all this together, it is apparent that Greenpeace has turned into the kind of organization that it often claims its opponents are. In fact, Greenpeace’s activism against golden rice has caused tensions within the NGO. Greenpeace’s hysteria over golden rice caused its co-founder, who split from the organization, to label the campaign a “crime against humanity.” Jon Entine of Forbes explains: “In late summer, the Asian arm of Greenpeace issued an alarming press release headlined: ‘24 children used as guinea pigs in genetically engineered ‘Golden Rice’ trial.’”

“The Chinese press, which rivals Rupert Murdoch for sensationalism, jumped on the story, embellishing even the gross exaggerations of the original story. Reporters played the anti-American card, claiming that researchers at Tufts University in Boston, with the approval of the US Department of Agriculture, had conspired with Chinese scientists to carry out a secretive and unauthorized experiment to feed ‘potentially dangerous’ genetically modified rice to as many as 80 rural children, ages 6-8, in Hunan,” Entine writes.

So, what’s the science on Golden Rice?

Vitamin A requirement per day is 750 micrograms. But not all pro-vitamin A is absorbed, so you need more than that in the precursor form of beta-carotene. (Beta-carotene is pro-vitamin A.) Pro-vitamin A requires fat to absorb properly, and those in severe poverty are often eating low-fat. So excess intake is required if you are poor and don’t get much fat. You also need iron to split beta-carotene into vitamin A.

The current high producing strain of golden rice has 31 micrograms of pro-vitamin A per gram of rice. Rice consumption in Asia averages 103 kg/year. That is an average of 282 gram per day. If it was all golden rice, that would be 8742 micrograms per day. For those in poverty, rice consumption is 1/3rd of the average, about 31 grams of rice per day, which would give them 2914 micrograms of pro-vitamin A per day.

However, the older strains of golden rice have 1.3 micrograms pro-vitamin A per gram of rice. For someone in poverty averaging 31 grams of rice per day, that would be 126 micrograms of pro-vitamin A. That is not enough. But we aren’t talking about that older strain anymore, so it doesn’t matter. And, even if we were, it wouldn’t hurt them unless they stopped eating the vegetables and other foods that are available. That isn’t likely.

Golden rice compared to white rice. via Wikimedia

Golden rice compared to white rice. via Wikimedia

The World Bank has worked on this problem for many years, and prior to golden rice, it has largely been addressed by use of various leafy plants which have high levels of pro-vitamin A. The plants are cheap but not as high in pro-vitamin A as golden rice is. The low cost of such plants is used as an argument against golden rice by Greenpeace. But it can be quite misleading to just look at apparent normal cost of these plants, because, for the poor, those crops may be more valuable for income than as food. Even in the United States, the worst access to good produce is in the farming regions that grow vegetables.

Additionally, foods on this list may not grow very well in underdeveloped countries, few trucks go long distances to bring produce to poor, and environmental conditions, (desert, tropical heat) may cause so much loss that produce, meat or dairy products become prohibitively expensive due to spoilage. Rice, on the other hand, keeps well with low tech transport.

Content of pro-vitamin A in microgram/100 grams. (1 microgram is a millionth of a gram.)

Now let’s remember that even where vitamin A deficiency is endemic, poverty-stricken people don’t have a vitamin A intake of zero. In most cases, they need about 200 – 300 micrograms more per day than they get. That’s about 10 grams of golden rice per day, which is just 1/3rd of the consumption of those who are most poverty-stricken. That would be very inexpensive.

If people ate too much golden rice could they be poisoned? No. Vitamin A is toxic at very high levels. But beta carotene is not toxic. This is because beta-carotene is two vitamin A molecules put together, end to end, and the body will only split them when it needs it. At worst, a cosmetic condition of a yellow-orange coloration will occur. It is happens sometimes in people who drink too much carrot juice. It resolves on its own if beta-carotene intake drops.

Conclusion?

Golden rice is a win for nutrition, hands down. That brings us to the question of cost, which if the license is free, is all about productivity. Rice farmers cultivate what sells, and they cultivate what produces the most rice per acre. That can vary all over the place from under one ton per acre to over 3 tons per acre. Productivity depends on conditions and cultivar, matching the two together. There are lots of rice varieties. Sometimes, when a plant expends energy making something it doesn’t need to, that impacts growth somehow, but production of beta-carotene is unlikely to affect growth much.

You get to beta-carotene in 4 steps, see A, upper right quadrant. I haven’t worked out the delta-G (measure of energy required), but it looks quite manageable for a plant to produce 7-10 micrograms per grain. (One grain of rice is 0.2-0.3 grams)

Yes, it’s hard to say exactly what relative productivity is since I can’t find hard data. But it’s reasonable to assume at most 5% loss of yield, and probably no loss at all. Since any strain of rice can be crossed and back-crossed in 6 generations to incorporate the gene, that means that the optimum cultivar for any area of the world can get the gene. So I don’t think there’s reason to be concerned about it.

So golden rice will be a help to the world’s poor

With Greenpeace activists screaming to poor farmers that golden rice will kill their children, it’s going to be a long, tough slog for golden rice. However, I think this is going to backfire on Greenpeace and other NGO’s. Organizations like Greenpeace that misrepresent the facts while claiming righteousness are not exactly earning accolades. Greenpeace has put itself in that position with this campaign against golden rice. Greenpeace abused the IRB process in order to stop ongoing harm (blindness, disfigurement, death from disease) from being treated. Greenpeace’s Western born activists are terribly disconnected from the deadly harm that vitamin A deficiency does to the poor. It is not just obvious symptoms of extreme deficiency. Childhood diseases take far more lives when vitamin A is low.

Greenpeace turned the IRB process on its head in the service of ignorance. That is the very definition of nefarious, to turn the process created to protect life, into a method if keeping children sick and dying. It is, in the words of Patrick Moore, cofounder of Greenpeace, “a crime against humanity.” That is a pity, because what Greenpeace did for whales and cute baby seals is good. But now, Greenpeace acts like it is run by disinformation agents for those they have opposed. There is a need for environmental activism. But the activism has to be honest and informed. When it makes mistakes, it needs to back off and change course.

The author does not and has never worked for any company involved with GMO crops nor does he have a financial interest in any company that is involved in GMO crops.

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