On this page we usually tout the newest examples of biotechnology innovation: jet fuels made from algae; gene edited bananas that resist disease; soil microbes that reduce the need for chemical inputs like fertilizer; and bio-based products that are more environmentally friendly. The list of next generation innovation goes on and on with inspirational stories of biotech’s promise to improve our planet, our society and our economy.
Sadly, after two decades, there remain technologies in the pipeline that have the proven potential to combat malnutrition, end human suffering and save lives. Golden Rice is one such innovation that remains on the shelf simply due to political roadblocks and human squabbling.
The Wall Street Journal ponders the ongoing debate over Golden Rice:
Why has it taken more than two decades to develop “golden rice,” the genetically modified crop that promises to save millions of lives? The many delays have been costly. Every year an estimated one million people, mostly children, die, and another half a million more lose their eyesight, from vitamin-A deficiency. Golden rice – with its yellow grains rich in beta carotene, which the human body turns into vitamin A – could virtually eliminate this problem in countries where rice is the staple food.
Since scientists developed the first golden-rice prototype in 1999, the road to commercialization has been bumpy to say the least. So much so that science writer Ed Regis wrote a book, “Golden Rice: The Imperiled Birth of a GMO Superfood” describing why Golden Rice is the world's most controversial, maligned, and misunderstood GMO.
According to a letter supporting precision agriculture (GMOs) signed by 150 Nobel Laureates and 13,270 scientists and citizens, the campaign against GMOs – especially Golden Rice – is essentially a "crime against humanity."
Greenpeace has spearheaded the opposition to Golden Rice, which has the potential to reduce or eliminate much of the death and disease caused by a vitamin A deficiency (VAD), which has the greatest impact on the poorest people in Africa and Southeast Asia.
The World Health Organization estimates that 250 million people, suffer from VAD, including 40 percent of the children under five in the developing world. Based on UNICEF statistics, a total of one to two million preventable deaths occur annually as a result of VAD, because it compromises the immune system, putting babies and children at great risk. VAD itself is the leading cause of childhood blindness globally affecting 250,000 - 500,000 children each year. Half die within 12 months of losing their eyesight.
Thankfully, twenty years since its inception, Bangladesh is expected to announce it will be the first developing country where farmers can plant golden rice and sell it for human consumption.
Regis explains in another article this week in The Washington Post:
Golden rice has faced a years-long battle to overcome misguided hostility from critics of genetically modified foods and from overcautious bureaucrats. Its introduction in Bangladesh could be a monumental breakthrough for its acceptance worldwide.
Coincidentally, the Golden Rice humanitarian project was recognized just this month by Project Management Institute (PMI) as one of the Most Influential Projects of the past 50 years. It has the distinction of being the only plant-based biotech project in the list of honorees.
And for readers and critics who might raise objections of “corporate agriculture,” Golden Rice is a not-for-profit project, which means that individuals and organizations involved in its development have no financial stakes in the crop. The technology was donated by its inventors, Professors Ingo Potrykus and Peter Beyer in 2000 to aid resource-poor countries and address the global concern of Vitamin A deficiency.
Prof. Ingo Potrykus stated, "Hopefully in my lifetime, you, and I, will start to see Golden Rice saving the sight and lives of some of the 3.5 billion people, half the world's population, who consume rice, and often little else, every day."
Hopefully, new biotechnology innovations such as those mentioned at the top of this article won’t have to wait twenty years before becoming commercially available. Our food, our health and our planet are depending on it.
Hugo Restall, The Wall Street Journal Editorial page editor concludes:
Golden rice is the world’s first genetically modified crop intended to benefit the consumer rather than the farmer. The biggest obstacle to putting such environmentally friendly, affordable and nutritious food on the world’s table is no longer scientific but political. As golden rice becomes available, the next step should be to educate legislators and the public about its benefits and the reasons that millions of children had to die waiting for it.