Golden rice now, everything else is noise
    By Norm Benson | May 11th 2014 11:09 AM | 27 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    Please spare me the anti-biotech crowd’s Argumentum ad Monsantum (the “Appeal to Monsanto” argument) over Genetically Engineered (GE) foods.

    I’m speaking, of course, of the anti-GMO push back to my “Golden rice, golden opportunity” column.

    Golden Rice is a genetically engineered crop created by borrowing the carotene-making gene from corn and placing that gene into rice, which does not produce carotene (at least not in the parts of the rice plant that we eat). Our bodies convert carotene into vitamin A and then use that vitamin A in the development of bones and eyesight.

    Golden Rice will be given free of additional charges and free of restrictions to subsistence farmers, and can be replanted every year from saved harvests.
    Shorter lifespan?
    Still some people prefer to trust the ballroom-dancing teacher and Yogic flying instructor, Jeffrey Smith; Mike Adams, the self-proclaimed “Health Ranger”; Greenpeace; Vandana Shiva; the Organic Consumers Association; or Joseph Mercola over the word of the American Medical Association, the National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the World Health Organization or… well, you get the idea.

    I'm not surprised, findings published in JAMA Internal Medicine showed that 12% of Americans agreed with the statement: “The global dissemination of genetically modified foods by Monsanto, Inc. is part of a secret program, called Agenda 21, launched by the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations to shrink the world’s population.”

    A whopping 37% agreed “The Food and Drug Administration is deliberately preventing the public from getting natural cures for cancer and other diseases because of pressure from drug companies,” and 12% agreed that “Public water fluoridation is really just a secret way for chemical companies to dump dangerous byproducts of phosphate mines into the environment.”

    Agenda 21 not withstanding, everyone is living longer. In the U.S., where about 70 percent of the food in our supermarkets contains ingredients from genetically engineered crops, life expectancy has increased from 76 years in 1996 (when large-scale cultivation of GE crops took off) to nearly 80 years today, and global life expectancy has increased from 66.4 to 71.0 years in the same time period.

    As one wag wrote, “If we're less healthy, we sure are coping with it more effectively.” And compared with Europe, which has virtually banned GE crops, there is no discernible difference in cancer rates or lifespans.

    Meanwhile, there is a need for what Golden Rice can deliver: vitamin A. According to the World Health Organization an estimated 250,000 to 500,000 vitamin A-deficient children become blind every year, half of them dying within 12 months of losing their sight. “These are real deaths, real disability, real suffering, not the phantom fears… none of which have held up to objective scientific scrutiny,” risk-perception expert David Ropiek writes.

    Allowing Golden Rice to be eaten by populations prone to vitamin A Deficiency means that blindness could be prevented (it cannot be cured once it has happened). Less than a cup of cooked Golden Rice provides children 6 to 8-years-old with some 60% of their daily vitamin A needs, not 7 pounds as claimed in the letter to the editor.

    Greenpeace, et alia throw up various smokescreens which boil down to suggesting that it is preferable to raise the needy’s standard of living and provide them with alternative diets and/or supplements: the “Let them eat kale” defense. Those might work, but if the poor could afford a more varied and fulfilling diet, don’t you think they would do so? Fortunately, we are becoming hip to anti-biotech ploys. “[I]ncreasingly the scientific community and journalists are becoming aware of the rhetorical two-steps and destructive strategies employed by organizations that are hostile to GMOs, while pretending that they cling to science,” Dr. Mary Mangan wrote. She has a PhD in Cell, Molecular, and Developmental Biology.

    Researcher at University of Florida, Dr. Kevin Folta challenges those who wish to stop Golden Rice and other bio-fortification, “If there are so many viable alternatives, what are ya'll waiting for?…It is easy to stand against a technology with a full belly and 20/20 vision…Let's give it away as intended and…Let it help people if it can.”

    Agricultural economist, Alexander Stein who has written peer-reviewed papers on Golden Rice says that even under the pessimistic scenarios, “biofortification is extremely cost-effective.” Why? Golden Rice supplies vitamin A with every bowl. “[T]here is a fairly intuitive argument why biofortified crops, such as Golden Rice (or other crops that were developed using ‘conventional’ breeding), can be even more cost-effective than supplementation or fortification: Economies of scale. In the case of vitamin A supplementation all children in at-risk households need to receive two mega-doses of vitamin A per year, year after year.

    The cost of one supplement may only be cents, but distribution and monitoring costs need to be added, too. And these costs need to be incurred over and over and over again.”

    In the four minutes it took you to read this, two, three or four children lost their sight due to Vitamin A Deficiency, and, in the same four minutes at least one child died. Everything else is noise.

    Golden Rice grain in jar GN7_0475-22Golden Rice in a jar with the Golden Rice plants in background. Photo credit: the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI).

    For more information visit or  


    [1] Dunning, Brian. Argumentum ad Monsantium. 2012.  Accessed 9 November 2012 
    [2] Goodman, Glenn. Biotech Bull. Lake County Record-Bee.  Accessed 31 March 2014
    [3] Benson, Norm. Golden rice, golden opportunity. Lake County Record-Bee.  Accessed 31 March 2014
    [4] A. J. Stein email to author
    [5] “[Jeffrey] Smith’s background is limited to being a swing dance instructor, running for local office as a candidate with the Maharishi-linked Natural Law Party built around the powers of transcendental meditation and running marketing for a GMO testing company led by the Maharishi’s “raja for food purity, safety and health invincibility” responsible for the promotion of the Maharishi brand of “Vedic Organic” agriculture. Smith’s work is financially sponsored by a range of organic, natural product and alternative health companies who are better able to sell higher-priced products by fueling consumer fear and mistrust of well-regulated, more affordable products that may be produced using biotechnology or other conventional agriculture tools.” Accessed 5 April 2014
    [6] Most ‘dangerous’ anti-science GMO critic? Meet Mike Adams–Conspiracy junkie runs alternative ‘health’ empire more influential than US government websites. Genetic Literacy Project
    [7] ‘So, if introduced on a large scale, golden rice can exacerbate malnutrition and ultimately undermine food security.’ This statement by (Greenpeace, 2012: 3) is in strong contradiction to the reported impacts of vitamin A deficiency and the nutritional impacts of vitamin A enriched diets. More than 125 million children under five years of age suffer from vitamin A deficiency (VAD). Dietary VAD causes 250,000–500,000 children to go blind each year.
    [8] Shiva tweeted after Mark Lynas’s Oxford speech that his saying that farmers should be free to use GMO crops was like giving rapists the freedom to rape.
    [9] Further down in its press release, the Organic Consumers Association asserts: Recent studies have linked GMOs to human health issues, including kidney and liver failure, allergies and cancer.
    Kloor, Keith. GMO Opponents Use Fear and Deception to Advance Their Cause – Collide-a-Scape |  accessed 30 March 2014
    [11] Bioengineered foods have been consumed for close to 20 years, and during that time, no overt consequences on human health have been reported and/or substantiated in the peer-reviewed literature.
    [12] All evidence evaluated to date indicates that unexpected and unintended compositional changes arise with all forms of genetic modification, including genetic engineering. Whether such compositional changes result in unintended health effects is dependent upon the nature of the substances altered and the biological consequences of the compounds. To date, no adverse health effects attributed to genetic engineering have been documented in the human population.
    [13] There are occasional claims that feeding GM foods to animals causes aberrations ranging from digestive disorders, to sterility, tumors and premature death. Although such claims are often sensationalized and receive a great deal of media attention, none have stood up to rigorous scientific scrutiny. Indeed, a recent review of a dozen well-designed long-term animal feeding studies comparing GM and non-GM potatoes, soy, rice, corn and triticale found that the GM and their non-GM counterparts are nutritionally equivalent.
    [14] Are foods from genetically engineered plants regulated by FDA? Yes. FDA regulates the safety of foods and food products from plant sources including food from genetically engineered plants. This includes animal feed, as under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, food is defined in relevant part as food for man and other animals.
    [15] GM foods currently available on the international market have passed risk assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health. In addition, no effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of such foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved.  accessed 2 April 2014
    [16] J. Eric Oliver, PhD1; Thomas Wood, MA1. Medical Conspiracy Theories and Health Behaviors in the United States. Research Letter. JAMA Internal Medicine. March 17, 2014  accessed 1 April 2014
    [17] Planes, Alex. Why Is Monsanto the Most Hated Company in the World? June, 2013.
    [18] Planes, Alex. Why Is Monsanto the Most Hated Company in the World? June, 2013.
    [19] Planes, Alex. Why Is Monsanto the Most Hated Company in the World? June, 2013.
    [20]  accessed 2 April 2014
    [22] accessed 2 April 2014
    [23]  Accessed 27 March 2014
    [24] Ropiek, David. Golden Rice Opponents Should Be Held Accountable for Health Problems Linked to Vitamin A Deficiency. Accessed 2 April 2014
    [25] A bowl of (100 to 150 g) cooked Golden Rice (50 g dry weight) can provide 60% of the Chinese Recommended Nutrient Intake of vitamin A for 6-8-year-old children.  Accessed 3 April 2014
    [26] Goodman, Glenn. Biotech Bull. Lake County Record-Bee.  Accessed 31 March 2014
    [28] From Lynas to Pollan, Agreement that Golden Rice Trials Should Proceed – accessed 3 April 2014
    [29] accessed 2 April 2014 


    Here in Malawi, Africa we face high levels of nutritional deficiencies including Vitamin A and iron. We also have a nutritional 'stunting' rate which affects 47% of the nation's children under the age of 5. These problems, however, have nothing to do with the anti-GMO movement, but rather with an incessant push towards the monocropped production of maize (corn). Despite the potential for year-round and seasonal production of nutritious food crops, many local farmers have been encouraged to sacrifice diversity in favor of a once-a-year harvest of maize. Despite several consecutive years of surplus maize harvests, our malnutrition rates have remained steady. There are literally hundreds of local foods that farmers and families could be utilizing to eliminate nutritional deficiencies, but instead we find the nation's fields sitting in a state of 'food deserts' for 11 months out of the year. Now, as the limited nutritional nature of monocropped agriculture is taking its toll, we find people turning to genetic engineering to try to adapt the world's plants and animals to very unhealthy and chemical-based systems of production. There is no need, whatsoever, to genetically engineer a nutrient like Vitamin A into a plant in which it does not naturally occur. Just grow and eat nutritious foods! As we move further and further away from natural solutions, we find nations, like Malawi, setting up expensive--often donor funded--programs to fortify unhealthy foods like cooking oil and sugar with Vitamin A. This is not a sustainable or a healthy approach to good nutrition. Solutions exist, but we need to stop promoting the idea that all the world's nutrition should come from a limited handful of artificially engineered crops.

    Norm Benson
    Are you a farmer, yourself?
    Norm Questioning green dogma since 1972.
    superficial, really wrong view point, w/out understanding. Why Nature has given rice abundantly to feed billions, but has not added vitamin A to it over millions of years? And now you come and say you know it better than all of Nature in millions of years? You think Nature is a stupid nothing, only consisting of molecules and vitamines that somehow, for no deeper reason also has genetic codes that one can juggle around as one likes breaking all natural order and boundaries? Genetics is anyway a thing of the past, overcome in science by epigenetics and there one can find already more explanations why genetic modification will not help life but shorten and kill life. Times of superficial, nice-sounding but mis-leading and knowingly wrong statements of companies that prefer power and money of their CEOs and shareholders over life and health of all the other people and species are limited and over. Eating enetic engineered crops is already known from experiments to shorten lifespan and to decrease the number of progeny in those that eat / feed on them. that's the truth, not your mis-leading sentence of children loosing eyesight because not having golden rice. Your article sounds nice, but is nonsense and not true.

    Nature does not create an evolutionary roadmap and find beneficial traits and plop them down on it. That is exactly why we shouldn't rely on nature. Nature will allow cosmic rays to randomly break chromosomes and reattach them and also create new genes that are harmful. Science keeps nature from wiping us out.
    I keep reading these articles, and am wondering what the point is. It certainly isn't the people in the U.S. that need "golden rice", so why are we preaching to the choir?

    It seems to me that if the point is to get it in the hands of the people that need it, then perhaps these articles should be aimed towards those audiences and to those governments that are blocking the way. Why someone's opinion in the U.S. should matter doesn't make sense.

    Yes I am a farmer, we have the wonderful ability to feed people but they cannot afford our food! People are starving while we can't sell our products for. Living wage?
    I have become so pessimistic about this, the more people that survive the more people we can't feed. The more babies are born from poor countries the more we have to donate food to feed them. This is a viscous circle, the children are offen mannutiitioned causing deterioted brain function and the cycle gets worse. This has to at some point reach critical mass?

    Norm Benson

    I have a difficult time understanding why more options for farmers and more nutrition in food makes for fewer choices.

    For 10,000 to 12,000 years we humans have been modifying the "bounty" of nature to better feed and clothe ourselves. Corn and wheat bear little resemblance to the grasses they started from. A banana of the past is much smaller than the one grown today. By definition most of our agricultural crops are ‘genetically modified.’
    Norm Questioning green dogma since 1972.
    Great article! In our petition in support of Golden Rice and against destruction of its field trials, we received nearly 7000 endorsements from global scientists. See

    Norm Benson
    Thank you for the comment Dr. Prakash, and for the link.
    Norm Questioning green dogma since 1972.
    Josh Bloom
    Simply great. Although you will never convince fools like the one who made the third comment, maybe they will eventually die off from pellagra and leave you alone
    Josh Bloom
    I'm not against GMO's wholesale, but I do tend to be suspicious of them. I feel not enough testing is done to ensure that GMO crops won't harm the environment and that they won't have long term unintended effects on humans. There is a tendency to arrogance on the part of scientists. We don't really understand all the nutritional needs of humans. Just look at the problems that have surfaced with parental feedings due to lack of understanding of nutritional needs of humans.

    So I would support GMOs if they were rolled out after long term clinical testing similar to what is done with drugs. Study and compare the yellow rice with other varieties and ensure that no nutrients, minerals etc. are lost and that the vitamin A is absorbable and usable in human diets. We have evolved eating what nature provides. Natural combinations of chemicals may need to coexist in a food for them to effectively be absorbed and used by our body.

    Even though people are living longer, there is a huge increase in diet related diseases such as diabetes. It is not often not clear until decades have passed what effects new combinations and ratios of chemicals in our foods have on our health. For example vitamin E is required in amounts proportional to our PUFA intakes, yet many oils containing PUFAs have been refined in a way that removes vitamin e and makes the oil therefore more likely to be oxidized. Thiamine is removed and then replaced in bread products but often accompanied by sulfite preservatives which destroy thiamine. These are examples of engineering that were based on science but failed to take into account systematic effects.

    I think GMO's are necessary in order for our world to feed it's growing population. Fresh fruits and vegetables may be better but have a short shelf life and are not practical for most of the world. However wholesale arrogance and promotion of GMO's without regulation and oversight is a recipe for disaster.

    I think you have valid concerns - and I think GMOs have met them. Before food can be sold it has to show 'substantial equivalence' - that it can't harm you any more than any other food (and a lot less than some - unlike a peanut, no one can be allergic to a GMO). There's no mammal study that has found effects and in the real world, over 15 years, there are no instances of harm. Organic food can't say that - tens of thousands of people per year get sick or die from E. coli, Salmonella, etc.
    Bioengineered rice is probably what's been making me increasingly sick for the past year! I'm gluten-intolerant. Rice is supposed to be what I can eat. If bioengineered rice that were supposed to be "more nutritious" for gluten-tolerant people were labelled, I could just ignore it, but since it's being *sneaked* into supermarkets mixed with natural rice that I can eat, the whole idea that anybody's being allowed to tinker with rice is literally making my stomach churn.

    I think GMO rice would be as safe as any other rice but you are not buying GMO rice anyway. Sorry if you are getting ill, it may be the ricin, strychnine, pyrethrin, rotenone or the phosphorous content of organic food.
    "There's no mammal study that has found effects and in the real world, over 15 years, there are no instances of harm"

    1 GMO <> All GMOs. Each needs to be looked at before being dumped wholesale into our food supply. Natural foods supply us with vitamins and minerals in certain ratios and quantities. Make sure you don't alter those ratios in ways that cause problems. If your golden rice provides vitamin A but with a reduced fat content, then that vitamin A may be less usable for our body. It's going to take a lot longer than 15 years to figure out if harm is being done because the effects can be very small and cumulative and depend on a persons genetics.

    People are paranoid about this stuff because history has shown that even using the best science available at the time doesn't prevent long term damage being done via our diets. Stupid textbooks imply we know a whole lot more than we really do.

    Organic produce tends to have more of certain chemicals that the plant produces as natural insecticides and weed killers. It also tends to have more flavenoids and taste better. Food that smells and tastes better is more satisfying and can help with weight loss.

    Unfortunately, you have created an artificial standard that literally no product, not food or anything else, can ever match. It is a special super-regulation, created just for GMOs, because it can never, ever be satisfied. That's not a rational stance to take.

    You're also moving the goalposts, which shows that you don't care about science or health. You wrote "I'm not against GMO's wholesale" to try and seem sincere, when it is evident you are absolutely against science wholesale.
    Josh Bloom
    So, if I get his logic, one should be concerned about variable amounts of vitamin A because of fat content (which is nonsense). So it is then better for these kids to get *no* vitamin A than to possibly get too little. And you're trying to reason with this guy 
    I need some Maalox
    Josh Bloom
    Norm Benson
    Try the Maalox mixed with Jack Daniels. Or...forget the Maalox.

    Thanks for the comments, Josh (and Hank). Your words are most appreciated.
    Norm Questioning green dogma since 1972.
    "So, if I get his logic, one should be concerned about variable amounts of vitamin A because of fat content (which is nonsense). So it is then better for these kids to get *no* vitamin A than to possibly get too little. And you're trying to reason with this guy"

    No, I'm arguing that we need a better understanding of nutrition before we go wholesale altering food supply.
    I was illustrating the kinds of questions that should be asked before changing the food supply. Fat is required for absorption of vitamin A, that's why they call it a fat-soluble vitamin. Where and how did these populations traditionally get their vitamin A? I don't think it's an issue because rice doesn't have that much fat to start with, I was using it as an illustration of how altering the proportion of things MIGHT cause a problem. I'm sure your genetic biology guys get heavy training in nutrition and ask all the right questions. Your argument might impress me more if you told me there's a team of nutritionist working to make sure they don't screw up.

    These issues aren't really that big of a deal in the western world where we have a lot more sources for vitamins and foods. But take a look at what happened when they started processing rice by removing the hulls. Prisoners of war died from malnutrition due to loss of thiamin.

    Practically I can see that they can't test these things like drugs and that we can't feed the world realistically on organic. That doesn't mean there's not a place for organic foods or that they lack any benefit.

    You guys have a very closed mind.

    Josh Bloom
    Unfortunately, every day that is spent getting "a better understanding of nutrition" a bunch of kids will die. And *I'm* being close minded?
    Josh Bloom
    It's a pity the authors of articles like this don't check the facts of the history of golden rice. IRRI, the not for profit organisation which is overseeing the development of golden rice in the Philippines, reported within the last month that trials last year to test how golden rice performed in field conditions, found that "While the target level of beta-carotene in the grain was attained, average yield was unfortunately lower than that from comparable local (conventionally grown) varieties already preferred by farmers."
    It has taken years of work in the lab to produce a version of the grain which contained meaningful amounts of betacarotene in a grain of the type eaten by the peoples in the relevant areas. That is what has taken almost all the time the grain has been in development, and now it's got to go back to the lab again - to try to create a strain of GR which has an adequate yield.

    So it shouldn't be used until it is perfected? You have now overturned all of solar power, wind power, automobiles, electricity and all agriculture of the last 12,000 years.

    Let me guess; you live in a rich Western nation, right? Your contempt and dismissal of something that can obviously help poor people right now is only done by the Agricultural 1 Percenters lucky enough to be born where kids are not going blind and dying.
    I was just quotingwhat IRRI, the pro-Golden Rice organisation involved in overseeing research has said about the product.
    IRRI has also said last month that "An important goal of the trials was to test whether the agronomic performance of the new rice variety would be acceptable to farmers. The initial results indicate that more research is needed, with greater focus on increasing yield. Based on these results, a decision has been reached to move forward from work solely focused on GR2-R to also include other versions of Golden Rice, such as GR2-E and others."

    It's hard to imagine that poor Philippino farmers would be too enthusiastic about buying golden rice seeds that have a lower yield than the rice crops they are currently growing.

    They don't have to buy it. Golden Rice is public domain, you can pay to have lots of it made and give it to them.

    Anti-science critics fail to do anything positive to help people - it is all about undermining anything that helps people in order to raise money. You can change that by being part of a positive solution
    To want to see accurate information disseminated is not to be anti-science. Again from IRRI's website " Golden Rice is expected to cost farmers about the same as other rice."
    It's only the patent which is being waived, for farmers earning less than $10,000 from farming. Farmers who cross that earning threshold would then be expected to pay a patent fee as well as for the seeds.
    Perhaps it will be given away, if it's found to be effective, by organisations like the Gates Foundation, who have very deep pockets. But they are working with IRRI, so presumably are in agreement with the return to the lab to improve the rice further.
    You'd need to discuss your ideas with IRRI, as they are the pro-GR organisation actually overseeing the progress of golden rice.