Hard to Swallow

Genetically modified ‘golden rice’ may be the killer app of biotech: a technology that shuts liberals up.


Riddle: How do you make a liberal implode? Pit one of his closely held beliefs against another. That’s precisely what the biotech industry is up to right now, merrily watching as critics of genetic modification quietly liquefy around them over the issue of “golden rice,” a new organism purported to prevent blindness in poor children in developing countries.

Michael Pollan, in The New York Times Magazine (free registration required) on Mar. 4, writes: “[The] aim of the biotechnology industry’s audacious new advertising campaign is to impale people like me — well-off first-worlders dubious about genetically-modified foods — on the horns of a moral dilemma.”

The subject of that advertising campaign is “golden rice,” a variety of the grain engineered to contain beta carotene, a source of vitamin A. Many malnourished children in third world countries such as India go blind as a result of vitamin A deficiencies. Syngenta, the agribusiness company that owns many of the patents on the rice, has claimed that a single month of marketing delay would cause 50,000 children to go blind.

So which side of this argument is a self-respecting lefty supposed to take? If you’re anti-GMO, are you then in favor of poor children going blind? That’s the not-so-subtle message from biotech boosters. According to libertarian Reason magazine, “A lifesaving grain is being held hostage by anti-science activists.” Similarly, the right-wing Center for Global Food Issues recently issued a press release charging that “radical environmentalists see a life-saving technology, and try to destroy it with propaganda.”

Of course, it is hardly that simple. Even the Rockefeller Foundation, which along with the Swiss government funded the development of golden rice technology, says claims about the potential of golden rice have “gone too far.”

The problems with golden rice run deep. According to Pollan, a child would have to eat 15 pounds of the stuff a day to get a day’s minimum dietary requirement of vitamin A. And even then, the child’s body may not be able to absorb the nutrient, because in order to convert the beta carotene to vitamin A, the body needs sufficient fat and protein in the diet — not something malnourished children who eat only rice are likely to have.

Critics argue that agribusiness has created the malnourishment and poverty in places like India where golden rice is being pushed hard, and that the industry is now looking to profit from selling the world a solution. For example, the extensive monoculture of cash crops such as white rice has pushed other crops — including leafy vegetables which contain plenty of naturally occurring vitamin A — out of vast swaths of farmland in developing countries. If the world embraces the dubious silver bullet of golden rice, critics fear that efforts to reintroduce crops to vary the diets of poor people and help them develop subsistence farming methods will be “knee-capped.” After all, multinational agribusiness can’t make money if Third World communities are only growing the foods they need to feed themselves. Agribusiness needs these communities to be dependent on industry, and genetically modified cash crops are a way to keep them that way.

While Monsanto and AstraZeneca have offered to give free licenses for golden rice technology to farmers in the developing world, farmers still have to buy the “inputs,” such as special pesticides and fertilizers engineered specifically for the licensed crop, which could worsen a cycle of poverty and debt that GMOs have already created in India, where the suicide rate among farmers who have been roped into growing GMO crops has skyrocketed.

Further, there is legitimate concern that even if the rice were effective and free, the targeted populations would resist it. Golden rice has a yellow tint, because it is engineered with a daffodil gene to produce beta carotene. The tinted rice may carry the stigma of poverty.

So why, with so much evidence of the downside of golden rice, is the left caving? Even Greenpeace said recently that golden rice presents a moral dilemma for the group, and has vowed not to disrupt field trials of golden rice, because, unlike crops engineered for higher yields and fatter profits, golden rice is a technology “that serves a good purpose.”

If the effect the biotech industry is going for is confusion, division, and paralyzing guilt among the anti-GMO troops, then golden rice has been the most effective weapon in its arsenal to date. What do you think?

Bits and Pieces

MARYLAND FARMER SUES OVER GMO CORN
Richard Smith, a Baltimore County corn farmer, has filed suit against Aventis Cropscience USA Holding Inc., the makers of StarLink corn, a genetically modified strain unapproved for human consumption that has found its way into the US food supply. Smith says the biotech company mishandled the technology, and hurt farmers like himself by damaging the public’s trust.

IS IT HOT IN HERE?
Dubya nixed his campaign promise to rein in carbon dioxide emissions, despite his cabinet’s warnings about the real threat of global warming. Bush need only travel a few miles from the White House to see how real global warming is. A wildlife preserve in Maryland is suffering the effects of climate change, according to researchers. Rising ocean levels are drowning a fragile marsh area in the 17,000 acre preserve.

“If we don’t do anything about global greenhouse emissions, up to a third of this county where we’re standing now will eventually become open water,” says J. Court Stevenson of the University of Maryland’s Horn Point Laboratory. “We need to get organized now. Our policies are so lame.”

THIS STORY STINKS
A huge hog farm in Mississippi has its neighbors holding their noses and crying foul, according to the latest Sierra magazine. Factory livestock farms, known as concentrated animal feeding operations or CAFOs, are a smelly business, and have been known to foul not just the air but entire aquifers in the South. While people living near CAFOs justifiably complain about their property values going down and their health and quality of life suffering, consider this: “[The period] from the moment a piglet is born until the 250-plus-pound hog is sent off to slaughter spans all of six months. For the entire time, the animal is confined in an 8-by-2.5-foot metal pen….”

Follow That Story

COKE PULLS BACK FROM HARD-SELL TO SCHOOLS
In January, MotherJones.com reported that even though soft drinks are even worse for children’s health than previously thought, soda makers were continuing to make exclusive deals with public schools to provide soda machines chock full of the sugary beverages. Well, Coca-Cola may have finally seen the error of its ways. In response to reports of skyrocketing obesity in American children (and bad publicity, we might guess), Coke is now discouraging bottlers from entering into such deals.