Although some scientists and development advocates have promoted biotechnology as a means to combat malnutrition, there has been no indication that poor and hungry people would actually benefit from the technology. Golden rice adds beta-carotene to rice to help fight the vitamin A deficiency that causes blindness in quarter million children annually. Yet engineering crops with beta-carotene may not even reduce vitamin A deficiency because consumption alone does not ensure absorption. Diets of malnourished people often lack the fats and oils crucial to absorbing vitamin A.
The first set of clinical trials on humans to examine golden rice’s nutrition effects studied only five, healthy American volunteers hardly representative of the target population. Charles discusses the 2012 golden rice study as a benchmark of the potential for golden rice, yet even this looked at healthy Chinese children. There is still no evidence that this technology will actually help those that need Vitamin A most. A much better way to combat Vitamin A deficiency is with orange produce, like sweet potatoes, carrots or mangos, and dark leafy green vegetables, supplemented with fats and oils.
The biotechnology industry and trade groups have touted golden rice in the same manner as they did drought-tolerant corn (which doesn’t even help those most affected by severe drought). The fact remains that despite 20-years-worth of claims that GE crops would help feed the world, most of GE development has led only to dozens of herbicide-tolerant crops that have provided short-term gains for GE growers (now cancelled out by the spread of herbicide-resistant weeds) and huge profits for biotechnology companies.
And in the case of higher yielding drought-tolerant crops, conventionally bred varieties have shown comparative and even better results than engineered varieties. Yet, today’s plant breeding research is predominantly focused on developing new genetically engineered crops, despite the potential for similar discoveries through traditional breeding.
Development agencies, foundations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and biotech companies are investing in uncertain technological solutions to a problem that needs a more practical solution. Instead, Charles should have examined how providing low-income rural families with the capacity to grow crops that provide balanced nutrition is a more effective, practical approach than asking them to spend more money for seeds that may not have better yield or bear more nutritious food. But perhaps he was too mesmerized by the so-called beauty of the golden rice to see past its false promises.